Western Music Expert Doug Green Revisits The Era Of The Singing Cowboy | Connecticut Public Radio
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Western Music Expert Doug Green Revisits The Era Of The Singing Cowboy

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 12:12 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the new Ken Burns PBS series on the history of country music, my guest, Doug Green, talks about the era of the singing cowboy as epitomized by the most popular one, Gene Autry. Cowboy lore, folk ballads, jazz, Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood are all ingredients of the music of the singing cowboys who were movie staples in the '30s and '40s and then on TV in the '50s.

A lot of the music has been forgotten, but Green wrote about its history in his book, "Singing In The Saddle." And he performs the music with his Western band, Riders In The Sky, which is celebrating its 42nd anniversary. They've won two Grammys and, in the movie "Toy Story 2," performed the song "Woody's Roundup," the theme for the toy cowboy's TV puppet show. Green also plays Western music on the show he co-hosts, "Classic Cowboy Corral," on the Sirius XM channel Willie's Roadhouse. He's brought some great recordings for us to hear. I love this music, and I hope you will too.

Doug Green, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for playing me so much good (laughter) cowboy music on your show Saturday nights on satellite radio. So let's start with a song.

DOUG GREEN: OK.

GROSS: And since Gene Autry was the first popular singing cowboy in the movies, and since I love his singing, let's start there. And we'll start with a song that I always thought was a really corny song, but I love it so much now. I love this recording so much. It's Gene Autry's "Back In The Saddle Again." So what's this - what's the importance of this song historically, and why do you love it?

GREEN: Well, I love it because - partly because a friend of mine wrote it, Ray Whitley, who was one of the singing cowboys that followed Gene into the movies. And...

GROSS: Wow. You know the guy who wrote "Back In The Saddle Again?"

GREEN: Yes.

GROSS: Whoa.

GREEN: It was a great story. Do you know the story?

GROSS: No.

GREEN: They called him up early one morning and said they need another song for the movie he was doing, which was a George O'Brien movie. He was the sidekick, kind of. And he jumped up and said to his wife, well, honey, I'm back in the saddle again. She said, well, there you've got your title. He wrote it on the way to the studio. (Laughter) That's kind of a great idea.

GROSS: Yeah. So tell me why you love this song, besides knowing the songwriter.

GREEN: Well, it - you know, it's very evocative of the West. A lot of Western music was very escapist and came to flower and fruition in the Depression era. And I think songs like "Back In The Saddle" just reminded people of being free, and free of mortgage, and debt, and depression and unemployment - just out there and out there in the West answering to nobody but your own conscience and roaming the West. That's why I love "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" because it's, lonely but free, I'll be found drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds. And "Back In The Saddle" has much the same message.

GROSS: But talk about it musically too.

GREEN: Well, it's got a nice yodel (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, and Gene Autry's voice is so great. And there's such a kind of, like - the band has such a kind of lilting swing to it in this.

GREEN: Gene Autry's records from the '30s are a little more stiff. But by the time he started getting a really nice little band in the '40s, those records are just lovely. He had a voice that was just friendly, you know? He just was - you felt comfortable listening to him. He was a marvelous communicator in song.

GROSS: So here's Gene Autry, "Back In The Saddle Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN")

GENE AUTRY: (Singing) I'm back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend. Where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly jimsonweed, I'm back in the saddle again. Ridin' the range once more, totin' my old .44, where you sleep out every night and the only law is right, back in the saddle again. Whoopee-tie-aye-oh (ph)...

GROSS: That's Gene Autry's recording "Back In The Saddle Again" from which film, Doug?

GREEN: Well, he recorded it several times. That was his Columbia recording of 1946. But he had recorded it earlier in the '30s, and he made a film of that title as well.

GROSS: OK. So Doug Green is an expert on cowboy songs and also sings them with his band, Riders In The Sky. So where do singing cowboys fit in in the history of American music?

GREEN: Well, it's interesting. The West has always been a fascination of Americans. And Western - and it has always been associated - singing has always been associated with cowboys, for whatever reason. When sound came to films - there had been cowboy songs recorded on record as early as 1925 - but when sound came to the movies in 1929, the - actually, the first sound Western had singing in it. It was "In Old Arizona," and Warner Baxter sang in it. And it was so that - and it won an Oscar.

And so it was the first sound Western was the singing cowboy Western (laughter), and people associated the songs with cowboys and with the West and the romance of the West, the wide-open spaces. And people like Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer with the Sons of the Pioneers began writing songs that were not about the day-to-day life of the cowboy, and roundups and branding, and instead were about the wide-open spaces, and the beauty of nature, and the outdoors, and the free life and fresh air of the cowboy.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned Sons of the Pioneers. Roy Rogers was, for a while, with the Sons of the Pioneers, and then he replaced Gene Autry in the movies. He had been in some Gene Autry movies, I think as the bad guy in some of them in fact, right?

GREEN: Yes, he was.

GROSS: So since Roy Rogers was also a very famous singing cowboy, and since he sang with Sons of the Pioneers, let's kind of combine them...

GREEN: OK.

GROSS: ...And have a Roy Rogers song with Sons of the Pioneers - you know, Roy Rogers is singing lead on this. And this is "Blue Shadows On The Trail." Do you want to say anything about this song or this recording before we hear it?

GREEN: Well, it was featured in a Walt Disney picture called "Melody Time," and it - that had three episodes. And this one was set in the West. He sang "Pecos Bill," and then he and the Pioneers gathered around the campfire while animated critters frolicked in the background and sang this beautiful, beautiful song, "Blue Shadows On The Trail."

GROSS: And the animated critters are kind of echoed by the whistling (laughter), and that we'll hear at the opening of this song. So this is Sons of the Pioneers with Roy Rogers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE SHADOWS ON THE TRAIL")

SONS OF THE PIONEERS: (Whistling, singing) Shades of night are fallin' as the wind begins to sigh and the world is silhouetted 'gainst (ph) the sky. (Whistling) Blue shadows on the trail, (whistling) blue moon shinin' through the trees, (whistling) and the plaintiff wail from the distance (whistling) comes a-driftin' on the evenin' breeze. (Whistling) Move along blue shadows, move along. Ooh. Soon the dawn will come and you'll be on your way. But until...

GROSS: That's Sons of the Pioneers with Roy Rogers singing lead. And we're talking about cowboy music. My guest, Doug Green, is an expert in cowboy music. And he sings lead in the cowboy music band Riders in the Sky. He also hosts a cowboy music show on satellite radio on Willie Nelson's channel Willie's Roadhouse. And also he's been on Ken Burns' "Country Music" series on public television. Well, we should hear a woman singing cowboy music. And...

GREEN: Let's do that.

GROSS: Yeah. And there were - there - you know, the famous cowboys were men. But for instance, in a Gene Autry movie, there was always a love - or usually a love interest. And she was usually a really strong woman who could also sing (laughter). So there's some interesting singers in those movies. But here's somebody - here's a great recording that you've chosen for us to hear today. And this is Rosalie Allen singing "Wide Rolling Plains." So tell us about Rosalie Allen.

GREEN: Rosalie Allen was a little Polish girl from Pennsylvania who fell in love with the music of Patsy Montana and became a great yodeler. And again, I was very lucky to know her and to be able to sing with her. She did a number of great duets with a singer called Elton Britt, who was well-known in his day. And Rosalie went on to become a disc jockey and is a member of the disc jockey - Country Disc Jockey Hall of Fame.

She was a wonderful singer. And this song was written by the great Cindy Walker, who people who know country and western music know she wrote a lot of music for Gene Autry and Bob Wills and for Eddy Arnold. And Ray Charles recorded her songs. She was - this is just one of her many, many wonderful tunes, "Wide Rolling Plains." Great yodeling.

GROSS: OK. So here's Rosalie Allen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIDE ROLLING PLAINS")

ROSALIE ALLEN: (Singing) I want to ride, ride and yodel while I'm riding on those wide rolling plains. I want to ride, ride with a cowboy beside me on those wide rolling plains, let the world go by beneath the sunny sky where it never, never rains and settle down, down in some little cow town on those wide rolling plains (yodeling).

GROSS: That was Rosalie Allen singing "Wide Rolling Plains." And with me is Doug Green, who's an expert in cowboy music. So a lot of the women seem to be yodelers and some of them, like, really fancy yodelers..

GREEN: Oh, baby.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

GREEN: (Laughter).

GROSS: Is there reason why so many women became known for their yodeling?

GREEN: I suppose we can trace that back to Patsy Montana again, as she just popularized it the way Jimmie Rodgers popularized it for men. And Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Elton Britt and Rex Allen took it to whole other levels.

GROSS: So let's get to another great woman country singer, and she's a great songwriter. You referred to her because she wrote the Rosalie Allen song that we just heard. So now we're going to hear Cindy Walker sing one of her own songs. And, you know, among the songs she wrote, she wrote "You Don't Know Me," which Ray Charles has such a great recording of. It was a big hit for him.

A lot of our listeners might know "Blue Canadian Rockies" that was on the Byrds' album "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo." And as you mentioned, she wrote for Bob Wills and Gene Autry. So - oh, and she wrote Roy Orbison's song "Dream Baby."

GREEN: Right.

GROSS: And Willie Nelson did a whole album of her songs. That's how much he appreciates her. So you've chosen a song for us to hear by Cindy Walker called "Ridin' On Down." And the album that it's from is even called "The Swingin' Cowgirl From Texas" (laughter).

GREEN: (Laughter).

GROSS: And I have to say, listening to this, it sounds very much like she loves Bessie Smith.

GREEN: Oh, yes. She was very influenced by a lot of the performers of the '20s and '30s.

GROSS: Yeah. OK. So here's Cindy Walker singing one of her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDIN' ON DOWN")

CINDY WALKER: (Singing) Hey, Cotton. Have you seen Joe? Yes, I saw him about an hour ago. He was looking sad, riding alone, singing this song. Goodbye, gal. Goodbye, baby. You're going to miss me some day maybe. But I'm riding on down. Yes, Lord, I'm riding on down. Don't know where I'm going, but I know I'm somewhere bound.

GROSS: That was Cindy Walker singing her song "Ridin' On Down," one of the songs selected for us today by Doug Green. And he is an expert in cowboy music and hosts a show on cowboy music on satellite radio on Willie's Roadhouse, Willie Nelson's channel. And he's also featured in the Ken Burns series on country music. So this is just a great chance to catch up on cowboy songs. So we're going to do more of that after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CINDY WALKER SONG, "RIDIN' ON DOWN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're listening to some great cowboy songs with a great expert in cowboy songs, Doug Green, who sings cowboy songs with his band Riders in the Sky and plays recordings of cowboy songs on his satellite radio show, which is called "Classic Cowboy Corral," on satellite radio on Willie's Roadhouse. You may have also seen him on Ken Burns' "Country Music" series.

So there's also movies that were - that starred black singing cowboys. Probably the most famous of the black singing cowboys was Herb Jeffries. And a lot of his movies have, like, Harlem in the title (laughter). So what was the premise of some of his movies that enabled Harlem and cowboy to be in the same sentence?

GREEN: Well, as you sort of referred to, once Gene Autry became popular, then every studio had to have a singing cowboy. And there was a Mexican singing cowboy. There was a woman singing cowgirl, Dorothy Page, and there were four singing cowboy movies starring Herb Jeffries, who is African American. And the interesting part of it is, if you see those movies, there are just no white people in them. It's just like any other Western, except the entire cast is African American. And I've run into many, many elderly African Americans who loved Westerns, and I think Herb Jeffries had the idea that there was no singing cowboy movie expressly for that audience. So that's why he made those four movies, and he was known as the Bronze Buckaroo.

GROSS: So Herb Jeffries ended his movie career to join Duke Ellington's band.

GREEN: He did, and he did that very popular Duke Ellington record, "Flamingo." He's the one that sang that. And he had a great career as a singer. He was - had an incredible voice. And a wonderful guy. He lived to be 100.

GROSS: So we're going to hear "The Cowpoke's Life Is The Only Life For Me." And I think this is actually from the film, as opposed to from a record.

GREEN: Yes, it is. I've - on my show, I've taken a stripped - you could call it - I've stripped the songs out of movies for the show, and this is one of them. It's - he has a beautiful voice, as you'll hear, and I chose it because it just shows off his vocal talent and the kind of songs he sang.

GROSS: OK. So this is Herb Jeffries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COWPOKE'S LIFE IS THE ONLY LIFE FOR ME")

HERB JEFFRIES: (Singing) When the cowpoke's day has ended, and the sun has gone to rest, and the prairie seems so peaceful and so free, yet there is no one to greet him at his cabin in the West. Oh, the cowpoke's life is the only life for me. With his tried and trusted bronco and his saddle and his gun and the blanket rolled to pillow his head. Yet there is no one to meet him when his daily work is done, and it's time for all the West (ph) to go to bed. Now I know...

GROSS: So that was Herb Jeffries, one of the black singing cowboy, singing "The Cowpoke's Life Is The Only Life For Me," a song selected for us by my guest Doug Green, who is an expert in cowboy songs and sings them with his band, Riders in the Sky. I think we need to get in some Western swing...

GREEN: OK.

GROSS: ...And play some Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Where does Western swing fit into cowboy music? Because it's not really cowboy music.

GREEN: No, it's not. There is a lot of cross-fertilization, but Western swing is essentially dance music. And while there's - a lot of the outfits are Western, and a lot of the themes of many of the songs are Western, it is really, essentially, dance music, whereas what I call Western music or you call cowboy music is more about the West and more about the harmony than it is about the dance beat.

GROSS: And do you want to talk a little bit about the instrumentation in Bob Wills?

GREEN: Well, sure. The - Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys started with a fiddle or two, and they added drums and piano. And at his peak, Bob, of course, had a very big band with two or three singers and three fiddles and two guitars and a steel guitar and horns. It was a hillbilly big band. I mean, all the players in the band were influenced by the big bands and Dixieland and jazz that they had absorbed off the radio, and they just put - instead of horns, they put their fiddles to those beats and that kind of jazz approach.

GROSS: So we're going to hear one of Bob Wills' most famous songs. This is "New San Antonio Rose." You want to say a few words about it?

GREEN: Sure. It was an old fiddle tune that they - he released in the late '30s. And the publisher decided that they needed lyrics, and so they came up with some new lyrics, and it's become one of the great all-time standards in swing music and country music.

GROSS: So here's Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW SAN ANTONIO ROSE")

BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS: (Singing) Deep within my heart lies a melody, a song of old San Antone (ph) - San Antone - where in dreams I live with a memory beneath the stars, all alone. It was there I found, beside the Alamo, enchantment strange as the blue up above, a moonlit pass that only she would know. Still hears my broken song of love.

GROSS: That's Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. My guest is Doug Green, lead singer of the western band Riders in the Sky. He's featured in the new Ken Burns PBS series on the history of country music. We'll talk more after a break. We'll also listen back to my 1988 interview with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. He died Monday. And Maureen Corrigan will review a book about one of the most famous poems of the 20th century. She says it's the kind of poem people reach for in times of trouble. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW SAN ANTONIO ROSE")

BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS: (Singing) San Antone.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Doug Green. In the new Ken Burns series on the history of country music, Green serves as an expert on cowboy songs, focusing on Hollywood's famous singing cowboy Gene Autry. Green is also the author of a book about the history of the singing cowboy. He's best known as the lead singer of the western band Riders in the Sky, which has won two Grammys. With a fellow band member, he co-hosts the SiriusXM radio show "Classic Cowboy Corral" on the channel Willie's Roadhouse.

How did you get interested in cowboy music?

GREEN: A lot of different ways. My grandparents were Finnish immigrants and lived in the northern peninsula of Michigan, and they listened to the "National Barn Dance." So a couple of my uncles ordered cheap guitars from Montgomery Ward and began wanging (ph) away at them. And when I was about 11, I pulled that guitar, Uncle Hank's (ph) guitar off the wall and began wanging on it myself. And he sang, and my uncle Arvid (ph) sang. And we lived in California for a couple of years because my dad was in the Navy for a while.

And in those days, in the '50s, there was a lot of music on television. I used to run home from school to see Sheriff John. I wanted to be in the Fun Brigade. And he sang. Doye O'Dell had a TV show. Spade Cooley had a TV show. "Town Hall Party" was on.

And I just fell in love with the image and the music of the West. You know, a kid doesn't know a lot about broken hearts and feeling sorry for yourself and falling off a barstool, but a kid can relate to being on a horse and singing with your friends in the great outdoors. And I just fell in love with Western music. And I heard it live first with a band at Knott's Berry Farm, which has become a big amusement park now. But they had a campfire at night, and a cowboy band would sit around singing songs. And the romance of it completely entranced me.

GROSS: On your satellite radio show on Willie's Roadhouse, where you play cowboy songs, your partner in the band plays the role of the sidekick because there's always a sidekick in Westerns, you know, whether it's like Pat Brady or - you know, with Roy Rogers or Smiley Burnette with Gene Autry.

GREEN: Right.

GROSS: So the sidekick is named, in your work, Sidemeat. And every time I hear that, I think how did they come up with that name? So you can explain that to me.

GREEN: Well, every sidekick has to have a name. You know, nobody - they're either Fuzzy or Gabby or (laughter) have some sort of funny name. And, you know, Sidemeat has a very fascinating story. He was one of the original cowboys that drove the herds up the Chisholm Trail after the Civil War. And after the cowboy days were over, he went panning for gold in the Yukon, where he fell into the crevasse of a glacier and was flash frozen for 75 years.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREEN: And - but with global warming, he - we found him just as he was thawing out and added him to our crew as our cook and our sidekick.

GROSS: I love that you came up with such an elaborate backstory for him.

(LAUGHTER)

GREEN: Yes, he co-hosts with me. I provide the information, and he interrupts and asks the obvious question.

GROSS: Yeah, he's got the voice of the grizzled old prospector.

GREEN: He certainly does.

GROSS: Yeah.

GREEN: Gabby Hayes was his hero, no doubt about it.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the fun and the absurdity of some singing cowboy movies. I mean, like, the Gene Autry movies for the most part are really, like, cheap looking, you know, and all the big fights, there's, like, somebody punching each other, throwing a chair over someone or jumping out the window.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: There's, like, standard tropes that were in all of them. But, you know, you had to have a way for the singing cowboy to sing. So sometimes he'd be singing in the saddle. Sometimes he'd be serenading his girlfriend. Sometimes he and his girlfriend would be singing duets on their horses. But sometimes he'd be singing with his guitar, and suddenly, this invisible string orchestra is behind him.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So can you talk about some of the beauty and some of the absurdity of the singing cowboy films?

GREEN: Well, they were fantasies. You know, nobody dressed in - with those glorious outfits that they wore. And they would have a fight, and then his hat was completely clean, and his clothes were completely clean. It was just a wonderful fantasy of living in the West. And as far as the orchestra (laughter) coming up behind the sagebrush, I think Mel Brooks did that beautifully in "Blazing Saddles," when they - riding through the desert, and there's the Count Basie Orchestra behind the cactus (laughter).

GROSS: One of the ways of getting music into Western movies that didn't have singing cowboys in them - they just had cowboys - was to have a theme, a title theme, that was a song. And I think the most successful version of that was the theme for "High Noon," which was sung for the movie by Tex Ritter, and later Frankie Laine had a big hit of it. So we should hear that.

GREEN: Yes, let's.

GROSS: But talk about it a little bit. Talk about the importance of that song.

GREEN: There's a very interesting story on that because they - it wasn't part of the original movie. And when they screened it, they just felt they needed something really special, and it happened to be Tex Ritter, who just had that magnificent, unique voice. I mean, you knew who it was the second you heard him. And he just really brought it home, with that pounding beat and the sense of - I don't know how to say this.

GROSS: Doom?

GREEN: (Laughter) Yeah, that's a very good word for it. There was - yes, there was a sense of doom that he brought to that and a great sincerity, which he projected always in his songs. He was a brilliant communicator. And he was actually my favorite singing cowboy when I was a kid.

GROSS: There's a sense of doom because the song is about what the movie is about, which is that bad guys are coming to seek revenge against the sheriff.

GREEN: Right.

GROSS: And the sheriff knows he's going to be outnumbered. But he can't die a coward, so he has to stand up to them, even though it might be the end.

GREEN: Right. His wife, played by Grace Kelly, is a Quaker. She doesn't believe in violence. The town is all afraid of Frank Miller and his gang. And Gary Cooper has to stand up to him.

GROSS: It's a great film. It's really beautifully shot.

GREEN: It sure is.

GROSS: And Dimitri Tiomkin, who's one of, like, the great movie composers, wrote the score for this, and I think he wrote the song, too.

GREEN: He did. Ned Washington was the...

GROSS: Lyricist?

GREEN: ...Wrote the lyrics.

GROSS: OK. So this is Tex Ritter singing "High Noon." And one more thing about Tex Ritter - he had a really low bottom to his voice when he wanted to.

GREEN: Yes. Yes, he did.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK, so here's the theme from "High Noon."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH NOON")

TEX RITTER: (Singing) Do not forsake, oh, my darling, on this, our wedding day. Do not forsake me, oh, my darling. Wait, wait along. I do not know what fate awaits me. I only know I must be brave. And I must face a man who hates me or lie a coward, a craven coward, or lie a coward in my grave.

GROSS: That was the theme from "High Noon" sung by Tex Ritter. Doug Green, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for playing some music for us. It's been great to hear the songs.

GREEN: Oh, Terry, this has been great. Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH NOON")

RITTER: (Singing) We made a vow while in the state's prisons...

GROSS: Doug Green is the lead singer of the western band Riders In The Sky. He's featured in the new Ken Burns PBS series on the history of country music. After we take a short break, we'll listen back to my 1988 interview with Robert Hunter, who wrote the lyrics to many of the Grateful Dead's best-known songs. He died Monday.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "FRONTIERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.