For anyone who grew up when TV and movie heroes tended to be cowboys rather than secret agents or Ninja Turtles, Rhino Records’ “Songs of the West” is a treasure chest of musical memories.
Accompanied by a lavishly illustrated 60-page booklet, the four-disc box set, produced by James Austin, is a celebration of songs in the heroic cowboy tradition--from records by screen idols Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to themes from such popular shows as “Gunsmoke” and “The Rifleman.”
It’s a warm and affectionate tribute to a somewhat forgotten era in American pop culture--music popularized through hit singles and/or familiar themes from various movies, TV shows or radio programs.
“For too long now, all sorts of historians have been . . . bemoaning the fact that those great movies starring Roy, Gene, Gabby, Smiley, and all of the other singing cowboys . . . weren’t realistic depictions of the Old West,” Randy Poe, the set’s executive producer, declares in one of the booklet’s essays.
“Well, . . . they weren’t supposed to be. They were morality plays about good and evil: the white hats versus the black hats duking it out somewhere more romantic than whatever town the movie was playing in. Like all good fiction, though, there was enough realism . . . to make what we were watching seem realistic.
“The songs the heroes sang all seemed believable and realistic, too. However, for the most part--about 98% or so--they were actually written by songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley variety, many of whom had never been west of the Hudson River.”
Part of the fun of the box set is reading the history of the individual songs.
Only those with a strong sense of pop history, for instance, would know that “Don’t Fence Me In"--a salute to the wide open spaces that was sung by Roy Rogers in a 1945 movie of the same name--was written by Cole Porter, one of the most sophisticated of all pop songwriters.
Rather than present the music in chronological order, the 73 songs are divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into themes.
Vol. 1, titled “Cowboy Classics,” includes several tracks from the ‘30s and ‘40s that live up to its title, including Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again” and the Sons of the Pioneers’ landmark “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” But Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron” and, especially, Walter Brennan’s “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” were minor novelties.
Vol. 2, “Silver Screen Cowboys,” includes some songs that were major pop hits, including Gene Autry’s “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” which was a million seller in 1935, and Bob Wills’ “New San Antonio Rose,” a million seller in 1940.
Vol. 3 is devoted to the music of Autry and Rogers, while Volume 4 reprises movie and television themes, from Tex Ritter’s “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)” to Johnny Cash’s “The Rebel--Johnny Yuma.”