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Cowboy Music

By: Roughstock Staff

Last Updated: January 21, 2009 12:01 AM

The songs of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers put the Western in Country and Western Music. Much of this music was written for and brought to the American public through the cowboy films of the 30's and 40's and was widely popular.

Known as the "King of the Cowboys," and a major western movie star between 1938 and 1953, Roy Rogers started out as Leonard Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1911. Influenced by his father, who played mandolin and guitar, Rogers began playing at local functions during the 1920s.

After stints with such groups as the Rocky Mountaineers and the Hollywood Hillbillies, he formed his own band, the International Cowboys. Later -- with the aid of Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan -- he formed the Sons of the Pioneers. Though this outfit established a considerable reputation, Rogers set his sights higher and began playing bit parts in films, first under the name of Dick Weston, and then assuming his guise as Roy Rogers, eventually wining a starring role in "Under Western Skies," a 1938 production.

With his horse Trigger and frequent female partner, Dale Evans (whom he married in 1947), and occasional help from such people as the Sons of the Pioneers and Spade Cooley, Rogers became Gene Autry's only real rival, starring in over 100 movies and heading his own TV show in the mid-1950s. Rogers was a recording artist (click here to listen to "Ride Ranger Ride") with RCA-Victor for many years (click here to listen to "Don't Fence Me In"). He later recorded for Capitol, Word and 20th Century. Even in 1980, then signed to MCA, Rogers was still charting. He and the Sons of the Pioneers teamed up once more for "Ride Concrete Cowboy, Ride," a song stemming from the movie "Smokey and the Bandit II."

Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988, three years later he was back in the country charts with "Hold On Partner," a duet with Clint Black from Rogers' "Tribute" album. This classic album had the 80 year-old cowboy duetting with such current stars as Lorrie Morgan, Kathy Mattea, Ricky Van Shelton, Randy Travis, Restless Heart, and the Kentucky HeadHunters. The part-owner of a chain of restaurants, a theme park, and his own website (www.royrogers.com), Rogers was estimated to be worth over 100 million dollars at the time of his death.

Orvon Gene Autry, the most successful of all singing cowboys to break into movies was born in Tioga, Texas, September 29, 1907. Taught to play guitar by his mother Elnora, Gene joined the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show while still in high school, but after graduation in 1925 became a railroad telegrapher with the Frisco Railway in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Encouraged by Will Rogers following a chance meeting, Autry took a job on Radio KVOO, Tulsa, in 1930, billing himself as "Oklahoma's Singing Cowboy," and singing much in the style of Jimmie Rodgers.

In 1929, he began recording with labels such as Victor, Okeh, Columbia, Grey Gull and Gennett (often under a pseudonym). Shortly thereafter, Autry began broadcasting regularly on the WLS Barn Dance program for Chicago, his popularity gaining further momentum with the 1931 release of "Silver Haired Daddy of Mine," (penned by Autry and frequent partner Jimmy Long, a former boss of Autry's on the Frisco line), a recording that eventually sold over five million copies.

Next came a move to Hollywood where following a performance in a Ken Maynard western "In Old Santa Fe," he was asked to star in a serial "The Phantom Empire." Thereafter, Autry appeared in innumerable B movies, usually with his horse, Champion. His list of his records during the '30s and '40s -- he was easily the most popular singer of the time -- is awesome, including "Yellow Rose of Texas" (1933), "The Last Roundup" (1934), "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (1935), "Mexicali Rose" (1936), "Back In The Saddle Again" (1939) (listen here), "South Of The Border" (1940), "You Are My Sunshine" (1941), "It Makes No Difference Now" (1941), "Be Honest With Me" (1941), "Tweedle-O-Twill" (1942), and "At Mail Call Today" (1945).

Elected in 1969 to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Autry has also had three other million-selling discs in "Here Comes Santa Claus" (1947), "Peter Cottontail" (1949), and nine million-seller "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" (1948). Writer of scores of hit songs, Gene Autry has also starred at a series of annual rodeos held in Madison Square Garden, is the majority owner of the California Angels baseball team, and even had an Oklahoma town named after him.

The Sons of the Pioneers were the foremost vocal and instrumental group in western music, and the definitive group specializing in cowboy songs, setting the standard for every group that has come since. They were also one of the longest surviving country music vocal groups in existence, going into their seventh decade. More important than their longevity, however, the greatest achievement of the Sons of the Pioneers lay with the sheer quality of their work. Their superb harmonies and brilliant arrangements delighted three generations of listeners, and inspired numerous performers.

The group's roots lay in the depths of the Great Depression, a time when the American spirit, and the spirits of millions of Americans, had nearly been broken by physical, economic, and emotional privation. Cincinnati-born Leonard Franklin Slye (b. Nov. 5, 1911--see separate entry under Roy Rogers) had headed out to California in the spring of 1931 from his native Ohio, working jobs ranging from driving a gravel truck to picking fruit for the DelMonte company in California's Central Valley. By sheer chance, he entered an amateur singing contest on a Los Angeles radio show called Midnight Frolics, and a few days later got an invitation to join a group called the Rocky Mountaineers.

Frye played guitar, sang and yodeled with the group, and before long they wanted an additional singer so they could extend their range. The man who answered the ad was Bob Nolan (born Robert Clarence Nobles, Apr. 1, 1908, New Brunswick, Canada), from Tucson, Arizona. Nolan had lived the life of an itinerant singer for a few years before settling down in Los Angeles, where he'd worked as a lifeguard as well as trying to make a living singing. Nolan joined the Rocky Mountaineers, and he and Slye developed a harmonious relationship that worked for several months, until he exited in frustration over the group's lack of success. Nolan was, in turn, replaced by Tim Spencer (born Vernon Spencer, July 13, 1908, Webb City, Missouri), who'd been earning his keep working in a Safeway Stores warehouse.

Slye, Spencer, and another singer named Slumber Nichols quit the Rocky Mountaineers in the spring of 1932 to form a trio of their own, which never quite came off. Instead, Slye and Spencer spent a year moving in and out of the line-ups of short-lived groups like the International Cowboys and the O-Bar-O Cowboys. The latter group broke up following a disastrous tour, and Spencer left music for a time. Slye decided to push on with an attempt at a career, joining yet another group, Jack LeFevre and His Texas Outlaws, who were fixtures on a local Los Angeles radio station.

In early 1933, things began looking up. He convinced Spencer to give up the security of a steady job once more, and also recruited Bob Nolan, who was working as a caddy at a golf course in Bel Air. Weeks of rehearsals followed as they honed their singing hour after hour, while Slye continued to work with his radio singing group and Spencer and Nolan wrote songs.

The group was called the Pioneer Trio, and made its debut on KFWB radio, following an audition that included the Nolan song "Way Out There." Their mix of singing and yodeling, coupled with their good spirits, won them a job. Within a few weeks, they were developing a large following of their own on Lefevre's show, with their harmony singing eliciting lots of mail, and soon they were featured on the station's morning and evening line-ups.

The group in its earliest form consisted of Slye, Nolan, and Spencer on vocals, with Nolan playing string bass and Slye on rhythm guitar. A fourth member was needed to firm up their sound, and he arrived in the form of fiddle-player Hugh Farr (b.Plano, Texas, Dec. 6, 1906), early in 1934, who also added a bass voice to the group, and occasionally served as lead singer.

The group's name was altered by accident on the eve of their going national. On one broadcast the station's announcer introduced them as "The Sons of the Pioneers." Asked why he'd done this, the announcer gave the excuse that they were too young to have been pioneers, but that they could be sons of pioneers. The name seemed to stick, it fit well, and as they were no longer a trio, it made sense.

The Sons of the Pioneers' fame quickly spread well beyond the confines of Los Angeles, as a result of an informal syndication project undertaken by their station, which recorded the group in 15- and 30-minute segments for rebroadcast all over the country. It wasn't long before a recording contract with the newly founded Decca label (now part of MCA) was signed, and on August 8, 1934 (the same day that Bing Crosby made his debut for the label), the Sons of the Pioneers made their first commercial recording. The group would cut 32 songs with Decca over the next two years.

One of the songs cut at the first session was a Bob Nolan original called "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," which he'd originally written on a rainy day in 1932 as "Tumbling Leaves." The group had introduced it on the radio as "Tumbling Leaves," but later changed it to "tumbleweeds" as more in keeping with their western image. It became their theme song, and was quickly picked up by singers and bands all over the country. In 1935, the song was also licensed for use as the title of a Gene Autry western, the first -- but not the last time -- that the paths of Autry and the Pioneers would cross.

In 1935, a fifth member, Hugh Farr's brother Karl (b. Rochelle, Texas, Apr. 25, 1909), who had played with Hugh on the radio during the 1930's, was added to the group on lead guitar, bringing the Pioneers' instrumental capabilities up to a par with their singing. Early that same year, they began appearing in movies for the first time, initially in short films and also providing the music for an Oswald The Rabbit cartoon, before making their first appearance in a full-length movie, The Old Homestead. Later that same year, they appeared in The Gallant Defender. They followed this with Song of the Saddle (1936), starring singer-turned-cowboy star Dick Foran, then with The Mysterious Avenger (1936), and in the Bing Crosby vehicle Rhythm of the Range. That same year, they appeared in a Gene Autry movie, The Big Show.

Tim Spencer left the group in September of 1936 and was replaced by Lloyd Perryman (b. Ruth, Arkansas, Jan. 29, 1917), who was a fan of the Pioneers as well as a veteran of several singing groups, and who had already served as a "fill-in" Pioneer on occasion. Perryman was later to become a key member of the group, doing most of their vocal arrangements, serving as their on stage spokesman, and handling the group's business affairs as well, and would remain with them longer than anyone, 41 years. Their broadcasts, concerts, and film appearances continued, with work in the Foran-starring California Mail at Warner Bros., and in Autry's The Old Corral at Republic. Finally, in late 1937, the group was signed by Columbia to work in Charles Starrett's western films on a steady basis, beginning with The Old Wyoming Trail.

It was the movies that led to the next major change in the Pioneers' line-up. Leonard Slye had previously played bit acting parts in a handful of B-westerns, including an appearance in a small role in a Gene Autry film, under the name Dick Weston. But in 1938, Autry and the studio found themselves in a contractual dispute that they were unable to resolve, and the cowboy star failed to report for his next movie. Autry was placed on suspension while the studio began looking for a replacement that they could put into the picture.

Slye auditioned and won the part, and in the process was given a new name for his first starring film: Roy Rogers. "Under Western Stars," as the film was eventually titled, was a hit, and Leonard Slye/Roy Rogers had a whole new career. In order to do the movie, however, he was forced to leave the Sons of the Pioneers, who were under exclusive contract with Columbia Pictures. To replace Slye, the group chose a friend of his, a singer and comic named Pat Brady, who played bass and handled much of the comedy within the group, although vocally he was weaker than the others, which forced the Pioneers to expand their line-up once more in 1938, with Tim Spencer returning to fill out the harmony parts. The group continued to make movies with Charles Starrett, appearing in 28 movies with him between 1937 and 1941.

The Sons of the Pioneers' recording career kept pace with their movie and radio work. They left Decca Records in 1936 to sign with the American Record Company (later part of Columbia Records), and appeared on that label's Okeh and Vocalion imprints on 32 songs in two sessions in late 1937(Click to listen to "Melody of the Plains" here). Although he'd officially left the group to pursue his film career, Roy Rogers returned to sing with the Sons of the Pioneers on those sessions. The 1938-1942 version of the group, consisting of Nolan, Spencer, Perryman, the Farrs and Brady, became the "classic" Pioneers line-up, the version of the group most familiar to audiences, largely because of their screen appearances.

In 1941, the group's contract with Columbia was up and, after years of Rogers' entreaties, Republic Pictures signed the Pioneers to appear in his movies, beginning with Red River Valley (1941), in which they were billed as "Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers." The same year that they signed their contract with Republic, the group also signed with Decca Records.

The American entry into World War II brough about the next change in their line-up. Perryman and Brady were both called up for the draft. Perryman was replaced by Ken Carson while he was fighting with the American forces in Burma, while Brady became a soldier in Patton's Third Army, and was replaced by musician and comic (George) Shug Fisher.

In 1944, the Sons of the Pioneers moved to RCA-Victor, signed up by the head of company's country music division, Steve Sholes (who was also later responsible for bringing Elvis Presley to the label). They would be associated with RCA longer than to any other label, 24 years broken by a brief one-year stint elsewhere.

The change in labels resulted in the first major alteration in the Pioneers' sound since their founding. Previously, they'd been a self-contained outfit, providing virtually all of the sounds, vocal and instrumental, needed on their records. RCA, however, saw fit to provide the group's music with additional back-up in the form of fuller instrumentation, including small-scale orchestration. At first, it worked reasonably well, as the Pioneers re-recorded several of their standards (including "Cool Water" [listen] and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds") with new arrangements that proved popular, and many fans regard their mid-1940's versions of their classic songs as the best of the many renditions that they recorded. They also recorded more gospel material, as well as many pop-oriented and novelty songs. The Pioneers also provided back up for other performers throughout their time at RCA, including Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Vaughn Monroe.

Amid all of this varied activity, which yielded hundreds of songs, they recorded a number of new western classics during their stay on the label, most notably Stan Jones's "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" in 1949. Originally, Bob Nolan had passed on doing the song, but after it became a hit for Vaughn Monroe, the Pioneers covered it themselves. The group had ceased appearing on screen in movies with the end of Rogers' B-westerns at Republic in 1948, but two years later a new career opened up for them in movies courtesy of John Ford, who used their singing in three of his most acclaimed westerns, Wagon Master (1950)--in which they had four songs, including "Wagons West"--Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956).

Perryman was back in the line-up in 1946, although his interim replacement, Ken Carson (who later became a well known singer in his own right on The Garry Moore Show), continued to record with the group for another year. During this era, the group made some magnificent recordings; Spencer contributed more than his share of important songs, Fisher contributed as a songwriter, and Perryman took the lead vocals on some numbers. Pat Brady also returned to the line-up later in 1946, and the group continued working in Roy Rogers' western movies through 1948.

These were golden years for the Sons of the Pioneers. Their hits on the Country singles chart included "Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima" (1945), "No One to Cry To" (1946), "Baby Doll," "Cool Water," (Listen Here) and "Tear Drops In My Heart" (all top five in 1947), "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (1948), "My Best To You" and "Room Full Of Roses" (both 1949). It wasn't to last, however, as time and changing public tastes were to take their toll on the group.

Spencer, who had written many of the group's more important originals, finally left the group in 1949, after several years of worsening problems with his voice. He was replaced by Ken Curtis (b. Lamar, Colorado, July 2, 1916), a former singer with Tommy Dorsey and sometime actor, who later became immortalized on television as Festus, Marshal Matt Dillon's grizzled backwoods deputy, on Gunsmoke. As a parting gesture, Spencer gave the group one of his best songs, "Room Full of Roses," which became Curtis's first lead vocal with the group. Soon after, Roy Rogers began shooting his television series and recruited Brady as his comic relief sidekick. He was replaced by his wartime fill-in, Fisher.

But it was the retirement of Bob Nolan in 1949 that caused the biggest change in the group's line-up. Essentially, his exit came about purely for personal reasons. He was a very private individual to begin with, and 16 years with the Pioneers, although rewarding musically and financially, had begun to wear on him. He wanted more time to himself, and more time to write songs. But the gap he left was huge--apart from having written many of the Pioneers' best known songs, Nolan had been the lead singer on many of their hits. He did continue to provide them with songs after his retirement, and even rejoined them in the studio.

Lloyd Perryman stepped into the breech opened by Nolan's exit. He had been taking a leadership role in the group over the previous few years and now took over leadership, recruiting a new sixth member, Tommy Doss (b. Weiser, Idaho, Sept. 26,1920). Doss was an excellent singer, and his voice meshed beautifully with Perryman and Curtis, but within a year of his joining--through no fault of his--the group's record sales began to decline. There was an overall drop of interest in cowboy songs and western music, which resulted in RCA's attempts to push the Pioneers into the pop vocal market. These efforts failed, and simultaneously lost them part of their country audience.

Ironically, in 1952, the same year that the Pioneers got their first LP releases, the 10-inch discs Cowboy Hymns and Spirituals (made up of recordings from 1947), and Cowboy Classics (made up of material from 1945 and 1946), the group also left RCA, in the wake of their declining sales figures. They didn't record at all in 1953, but at the end of the year the group signed once again to Coral Records. Simultaneously with the move, Curtis and Fisher both exited the line-up, to go into television and film work. They co-starred on one television series, and Curtis would later serve as co-producer on a pair of low-budget horror films at the end of the 1950's, one of which, The Giant Gila Monster (1958), would feature Fisher.

They were replaced by Dale Warren (b. Summerville, Kentucky, June 1, 1925), a veteran of Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, and Deuce Spriggens (born George R. Braunsdorf), a former member of Spade Cooley's band. The group's one-year stay at Coral proved no more successful than the last few years at RCA, however.

By 1955 they were back with RCA, where they stayed for another 14 years. In a major change of strategy, RCA now wanted the old Bob Nolan/Tim Spencer sound. Nolan agreed to return to record with the group in the studio, but Spencer was no longer in good enough health or voice to be part of the group, and so Ken Curtis was also asked to return as part of the studio version of the Pioneers. Pat Brady also came back as bassist in the studio. The Sons of the Pioneers, in effect,became two groups--Nolan, Perryman, and Curtis were the studio vocal trio, backed by Brady and Hugh and Karl Farr, recreating the group's classic sound on record, while Perryman, Doss, Warren, the Farrs, and Spriggens (who left soon after this arrangement began) played the concerts. It wasn't until 1958 that the touring version of the Pioneers began making their records as well.

By that time, more changes had overtaken the line-up. Nolan retired as a singer once and for all, and Hugh Farr, who felt that his fiddle playing wasn't appreciated by the other members, quit as well in 1958. Karl Farr continued as a member, but on September 20, 1961, in the middle of a concert performance, he became agitated over a guitar string that had broken, and suddenly collapsed and died of heart failure. The same month, Roy Lanham (b. Corbin, Kentucky, Jan. 16, 1923), one of the busiest session guitarists on the West Coast, joined the group as Karl Farr's successor. Pat Brady was also back in the line-up by then, having rejoined to replace Shug Fisher, who retired in 1959. Brady remained with the group until 1967.

The next major change in the line-up came in 1963, when Tommy Doss retired from touring with the group, although he recorded with them until 1967. In 1968, Luther Nallie joined the group as lead singer, and remained with the Pioneers until 1974. They were still very much a going concern, not only on the concert stage but in the recording studio--over a 12 year period from 1957 until 1969, RCA released 21 albums by the group.

Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer were both elected the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1971. A 1972 gathering at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles brought together most of the surviving members of the Sons of the Pioneers except for Ken Curtis, including a reunion of the original Pioneer Trio of Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan, and Tim Spencer. And in 1976, the Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

This was a last hurrah for the original and early group members. Tim Spencer died on April 26, 1976, and Lloyd Perryman, who had been with the group since 1936, died on May 31, 1977. Hugh Farr, who had retired from the group in 1958, passed away on April 17, 1980, and Bob Nolan died almost exactly two months later, on June 16, 1980.

After Perryman passed away, the leadership of the Sons of the Pioneers was taken over by Dale Warren, who had joined in 1952. He carried the group into the 1990's. They continued to perform in concert, and recorded as well, with a line-up that featured Rusty Richards (vocals), Doye O'Dell (guitar, vocals), Billy Armstrong (fiddle), Billy Liebert (accordion), and Rome Johnson (vocals). These Pioneers, along with younger country music groups such as the Riders in the Sky, were a constant reminder of the legacy of this much-loved western group.

Roughstock's History of Country Music
Introduction Bill Monroe and Bluegrass ('40-'60) Outlaw Country (1970s)
     
The Beginnings ('20-'40) Cowboy Music (1940-1960) Urban Country (1980s)
     
Western Swing ('30-'50) Honky Tonk Music (1950s) Garth And New Country (1990s)
     
Acuff & The Grand Ole Opry (1940s) The Nashville Sound (1960s)  

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