Inside the Music | The Silver Screen | West Coast Scene | Country

The singing cowboys did not have the monopoly on country music on the silver screen, although it was their breed that first caught Hollywood’s attention. By the time the 1940s rolled around, several of Nashville’s top stars found that they could expand their careers by bringing their talents to the vast new audiences.

Singing Stars

In the earlier decade Gene Autry – generally credited as the first singing cowboy – brought his music to the silver screen in Tumbling Tumbleweeds, released by Republic in 1935. He wasn’t actually the first, though. Ken Maynard, initially seen in silent movies, sang occasionally when sound found its way into film, though the authenticity of John Wayne’s vocals have been questioned when he appeared as ‘Singing Sandy’ in one of his numerous Lone Star productions.

But Autry’s role as the ‘first’ may not have even happened if Warner Bros. hadn’t delayed the release of Dick Foran’s Treachery Rides The Range (1936). Then the floodgates were opened and every studio searched for their own singing cowboy. Roy Rogers came to Republic, the studio with the greatest western output, as a replacement for their star Autry following a studio dispute (Rogers was later joined by his wife Dale Evans in several movies and a long-running 1950s television series). Tex Ritter signed up with the poverty-row outlet Monogram Pictures. Among the many others were Eddie Dean, Jimmy Wakely, Monte Hale and Ray Whitley, the writer of Autry’s theme song ‘Back In The Saddle Again’, while Rex Allen was the last of the breed. Throughout, there was always a mass of West Coast singers and musicians available for support roles. There was also a black singing cowboy, Herb Jeffries (b. 1911); a singing cowgirl, Dorothy Page (1904–61); and Mexican interpretations, like ‘Pedro Infante’.

Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb were the first from Nashville to take a trip to Hollywood, making their sporadic film debuts in Grand Ole Opry (1940) and The Fighting Buckaroo (1943) respectively. The former also boasted the only screen appearance by the iconic Uncle Dave Macon and his son Dorris. Eddy Arnold, who virtually took over the country charts in the post-war years, made a handful of films beginning with Feudin’ Rhythm (1949), before hosting one of the earliest television series The Eddy Arnold Show (1952).

Walking The Line

Then, in the 1950s, as rock’n’roll found screen time via low budget ‘B’ movies, similarly so did country music. Ferlin Husky made a handful of movies commencing with Country Music Holiday (1958), while such productions as Hootenanny Hoot (1963), Country Music On Broadway (1965), Forty Acre Feud (1965) and The Road To Nashville (1967) were little more than an excuse to see a surfeit of artists performing. Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash sought out more precise movie careers, with the former complementing his distinctive vocals with dramatic roles that included Hell On Wheels (1967) and the western Guns Of A Stranger (1973). Robbins also produced a television series, The Drifter,...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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