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Origin / Beginnings / Grand Ole Opry / Singing Cowboy

The Singing Cowboy

In the early 20th century, the popularity of the dime novels in America inspired heroes of many kinds. The cowboy was one of these heroes, representing everything noble and patriotic. With the advent of the moving picture, the cowboy was a natural choice for many of the first movies. When the technology of sound was added to the movies, it added the opportunity to add song as well as speech. The real-life cowboy did sing, though he usually only knew a few songs and sang to soothe the cattle or the pass the time as he rested in the evening. While most picture the singing cowboy strumming on a guitar, it was more realistic that if there was an instrument, it would be something more portable and less delicate like a harmonica, a fiddle, or a jew's harp. Carl T. Sprague is considered the original singing cowboy, recording the first authentic cowboy song, "When the Work's All Done This Fall". It sold 900,000 copies and began a trend in cowboy songs that has never fully faded away.

Click here to listen to and to order the country music of Carl T Sprague

To bank on the cowboy craze, the movies began to make films about the heroic figures. They were called "Westerns" which is where the anomalous "Country/Western" phrase comes from. Country music fit in perfectly with the stories being films and studios looked for musicians to perform in the films along with their stars. Soon someone thought Westerns would gain even more popularity if the star performed the music himself. The famous actor John Wayne was one of the first singing cowboys, though against his will. He hated to sing and didn't have a great voice, but he was a movie star, so Hollywood kept giving him singing cowboy roles. Finally, Wayne had enough and flat out refused to sing in any more movies and Republic Studios (for whom he worked) was forced to find a new singing cowboy. The studio found Gene Autry.
Gene Autry (1907-), who was encouraged by a chance meeting with Will Rogers who complimented his singing, debuted in the movie In Old Santa Fe with Ken Maynard. Autry wasn't the star and he only sang for ten minutes, but it launched his career as King of the B-Movies in the '30s and early '40s. Nearly as famous was his horse Champion, though it was rumored that Autry wasn't really crazy about horses. Dressing in his starched country-style suits and 10-gallon hat, Autry helped change the image of country music. It wasn't just hillbilly music, it was a respectable celebration of the landscape and life in rural America. After several successful years in the movies, Autry thought he deserved better pay and tried to get Republic to up his salary by threatening to quit. The head of Republic instead decided to find a replacement rather than give in to Autry that replacement was Roy Rogers. Autry went on to become a successful businessman both in broadcasting and real estate as well as owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Click here to listen to and to order the country music of Gene Autry
Roy Rogers (1912-1998) was born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio and went to California to seek his fame in entertainment. He joined the Sons of the Pioneers and the popular group was cast as themselves in several films. By chance one day he heard that Republic was auditioning for a new singing cowboy and on his second try got the job. After a short time of using the pseudonym "Dick Weston," he settled on "Roy Rogers." He went on to appear in over 100 movies, many accompanied by his horse Trigger, his best girl (and later wife) Dale Evans and his sidekick Gabby Hayes.

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Other singing cowboys included Tex Ritter (1905-1974), Rex Allen (1924-), and Eddie Dean. Some of the songs they used were updated versions of authentic range songs, but many were original new songs. Several exquisite songs were written by Bob Nolan (1908-1980), a former member of the Sons of the Pioneers, including "Cool Water," "A Cowboy Has to Sing," (both can be found on the Sons of San Joaquin's album A Cowboy Has to Sing) and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." There are several compilation albums of cowboy songs from this era available on CD and/or cassette including: Click here to listen to and to order the country music of Tex Ritter.


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Listed below are some of the cowboy movies that helped the singing cowboy become so popular:

Gene Autry Movies:
Boots & Saddles (1937)
The Man from Music Mountain (1938)
The Old Corral (1936)

Rootin' Tootin' Rhythm (1937)
Yodelin' Kid From Pine Ridge (1937)

Most anything with Roy Rogers including:
The Far Frontier (1949)
Roll on Texas Moon (1946)


Origin / Beginnings / Grand Ole Opry / Singing Cowboy


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