Singing cowboys are no longer part of the popular culture, not even in country-Western music. No one pretends that Garth Brooks or Tricia Yearwood was ever a cowboy or cowgirl, and if either one had a sidekick it would likely be a lawyer or accountant.
But 50 years ago, singing cowboys--who carefully cultivated the image of being true cowboys, even if they had never done a day’s work on the range--were superstars. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans amassed a fortune close to $100 million during their careers, and Gene Autry parlayed his earnings into an economic empire that encompassed radio stations in four states, a television station, vast real estate holdings, the California Angels baseball team and a foundation that built and operates a Los Angeles museum that carries his name.
The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park will be the site this weekend for “A Tribute to the Singing Cowboys,” including concerts, seminars and classic singing-cowboy films. There will be panel discussions on traditional cowboy music and contemporary country-Western music, workshops for musicians who want to get involved in the recording industry and a cowboy gospel program, plus workshops in guitar picking and yodeling.
The main concert Saturday night will feature current popular performers Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam and Clint Black, plus appearances by such veterans as Autry, Rogers and Evans.
“Cowboys, even singing cowboys, became mythic American heroes,” said Archie Green, a Bay-Area folklorist who will participate in seminars during the weekend tribute. “It was an example of the vernacular and the popular culture coming together, at least for a while. That can be a very powerful and profitable, even glamorous combination.”
The singing cowboy, as Green suggests, had roots in the vernacular. Cowboys in the 19th Century sang around the campfire and in the bunkhouse to amuse themselves, similar to the way lumberjacks and other workers did. Cowboy songbooks started to appear in the 1880s.
“Cowboy music started to get a wide audience at about the turn of the century when bands and cowboy singers traveled with the Wild West shows,” said John Langellier, director of research at the Autry museum. Langellier will host several film programs during the weekend.
“The Wild West shows and the music played in them were not necessarily authentic,” he said. “But if they were not the real West, they at least became the popular image of the West.”
Many of the first movies were Westerns, but because they were silent, they were no boost to Western music. But not long after sound came in, cowboy star Ken Maynard (who really had been a cowboy) started to include musicians in his films to enhance campfire scenes.
The first singing cowboy of the movies was a highly improbable choice, a character named Singin’ Sandy Saunders, played by none other than John Wayne.
“He was pretty bad at it,” said Langellier, a judgment borne out by a clip he had of the 1933 film “Riders of Destiny.” It showed the Duke singing a tune and looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable as he prepared to gun down a bad guy.
It was in the 1934 Maynard film “In Old Santa Fe” that the singing cowboy we think of today was born. Gene Autry, who was then an up-and-coming Western singer with his own radio show on WLS in Chicago, was brought out to sing just a couple of songs in the movie.
He followed it with a 13-chapter science-fiction/Western serial called “Phantom Empire,” then starred in the 1935 feature “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
“In that film, he set up his character,” said Langellier, “and for the rest of his film career he was essentially the same thing.”
He was the man with the white hat, who used his own name, rode a horse named Champion and sang a song (often in a radio station setting) after capturing the villains.
“It is a very mysterious process how an image becomes mythic,” said folklorist Green. “Why singing cowboys? Why not lumberjacks or even iron workers who work on high buildings. They probably sang too.
“Part of it is probably tied into our notions of populism and democracy, and chivalry, men on horseback. But we never really exactly know why something becomes part of the mass culture.”
Autry made 93 films, and from 1937-'42 was one of the top 10 moneymaking stars in Hollywood. After World War II, he went into television, where he also enjoyed great success.
There were many other singing cowboys, of course, including Tex Ritter, whose songs were more rooted in authentic Western music than most. (Actor John Ritter is his son). There were also Rex Allen, Johnny Bond and Monte Hale.
But only one ever approached Autry’s success. As a young singer and member of the Sons of the Pioneers vocal group, Roy Rogers also appeared in “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” back in 1935. After that, he quickly stepped into starring roles and developed his own image.
He was known as the King of the Cowboys, and Dale Evans, whom he married in 1947, was the Queen of the West. Every kid knew his horse was named Trigger and his dog was named Bullet.
The Rogers-Evans films eventually capitalized on the movie craze for big musical production numbers. Audiences became used to Rogers singing to lush orchestrations and surrounded by choreography that owed more to Busby Berkeley than it did to the barn dance.
Rogers took over as chief Western moneymaker in 1942 and like Autry also had a successful career in television.
“They were stars of movies, radio, recordings and eventually television,” Langellier said. “And the merchandising was phenomenal. Roy and Dale supposedly had their names on about 15,000 products during their careers.
“The audience was saturated on every level and at every age group. People talk about the merchandising of Ninja Turtles now, but with the singing cowboys it was more broad-based.”
As popular as the genre was, the singing cowboy phenomenon was relatively short-lived. “The last singing cowboy movies were made in about 1953,” Langellier said. “Westerns had begun to change by then and had gotten more psychological. “The singing cowboy lasted a bit longer on television, but was replaced by more hard-edged programs like ‘Maverick’ or ‘Have Gun Will Travel.’ ”
According to Green, we are not likely to see the genre, or anything like it, revived for a long time.
“The pop culture still produces heroes,” he said. “Now we have Madonna or Michael Jackson. But the difference is that they do not come out of work, like the singing cowboy and other former heroes did. Even the knights came out of work. But that is not likely to be true anymore.
“At a time when we are exporting jobs and the President goes to Japan with the heads of three failing companies, work is denigrated. Even skill is denigrated and does not count for much.
“So how can you expect working people to be heroes in the pop culture?”
“Music of the West: A Tribute to the Singing Cowboys” will be held Friday through Sunday at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, 4700 Zoo Drive, Griffith Park. The only tickets remaining are festival passes to all events for $95. Day passes and concert tickets are sold out. Call (213) 667-2000.