'Cattle Call': Cowboy Music Rides Tall : VARIOUS ARTISTS "Cattle Call: Early Cowboy Music and Its Roots" Rounder (*** 1/2)

There was a time when country music was widely known as country-western, a reflection of strains that ranged from the music of cowboy movie stars, including Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, to songs that simply celebrated the cowboy lifestyle.

Because Rhino Records saluted this western tradition in an excellent, four-disc set in 1992, you'd think that there would be no need for a further examination. But the first two entries in Rounder's four-volume "Singing in the Saddle" serve as a satisfying supplement to Rhino's "Songs of the West" package.

Where the Rhino set leaned toward famous names from the '40s, '50s and '60s (supplementing the Autry and Rogers tunes with western tales by the likes of Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins), the Rounder series focuses on the evolution of the genre, with selections dating back to the '20s.

"Cattle Call," which is Volume 1, offers a revealing look at the way the cowboy-western tradition drew upon so many influences--from the folk undercurrents of Carl T. Sprague's 1925 recording of "When the Work's All Done This Fall" to the pop coloring of the Sons of the Pioneers' 1950 version of "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen." In addition, "Cattle Call" offers Jimmie Rodgers' exquisite, blues-tinged "When the Cactus Is in Bloom."

The disc also includes a selection by Ken Maynard, who was the movies' first singing cowboy. His voice is so grating on "Lone Star Trail," however, that it's easy to see why Autry and Rogers, who were far more pleasing singers, became the popular favorites in the genre.

Volume 2, "Don't Fence Me In: Western Music's Early Golden Era," is also highly recommended. Of special interest, a pair a melancholy tales that reflect on the hardships of the lifestyle: Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys' recording of "Dusty Skies" and the Pioneers' "Tumbleweed Trail." The latter is a haunting, downbeat alternative to the anthemic "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds."

The main weakness with both volumes is length. They only run around 40 minutes each.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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