Styles & Forms | Cowboy Music | Country

The myths, legends and lore of the Wild West, for better or worse, have done much to shape the American character. They have given rise to the nation’s lingering infatuation with guns, outlaws, the rugged ethos of self-reliance, individualism and a world with simplistic definitions.

These themes, usually portrayed in an earnest and nostalgic manner, lie at the heart of cowboy, or western, music. The style is marked by dreamy harmonies and subdued arrangements that suggest yearning and nostalgia for the long-gone ethos of the American West, or at least a romanticized version of it.

The Wild West Meets Tin Pan Alley

Some of the songs that have become western music standards, such as ‘Home On The Range’, ‘The Streets Of Laredo’, ‘The Yellow Rose Of Texas’, ‘Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie’, evolved directly out of a folk tradition and were once passed from one itinerant ranch hand or range rider to the next. These home-spun tunes were often set to the familiar melodies of Old World folk ballads, brought to the US by earlier waves of settlers. As early as 1895, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show featured cowboy singers among its attractions.

In fact, many of the songs most closely associated with cowboy music today, like ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’, ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, were actually penned by Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood pop composers in the 1930s and 1940s, when western music reached its peak. Even pop singers of the day such as Bing Crosby included the occasional western song in their recorded repertoires. But the form’s popularity was largely due to two ‘singing cowboy’ movie stars who have influenced countless country artists since and whose names have become more or less synonymous with the genre: Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Range Rovers

Autry, the archetypal singing cowboy, was the son of a Texas rancher. He began his career as a singer, actor and comedian in a medicine show, but by the late 1920s had immersed himself deeply in the musical style of Jimmie Rodgers and embarked on a solo career. By the early 1930s, he had shifted his style to the western song, and his singing conveyed the warm, expansive sincerity that is inherent to the ‘aw-shucks’ cinematic cowboy image.

In 1931, Autry joined the National Barndance, a popular live radio show in Chicago, billing himself as ‘Oklahoma’s Singing Cowboy’. In 1934 he appeared with Ken Maynard, the most popular cowboy star of the day, in his first film, In Old Santa Fe. A year later he landed his first starring role, in Tumbling Tumbleweeds, and by 1937 was voted America’s most popular western star. In the following years Autry continued to top both film box-office lists and the record charts with hits like ‘South Of The Border’ and ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’.

In terms of musical sophistication, the benchmark practitioners of western music were The Sons Of The Pioneers, headed by Roy Rogers...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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