Ranger Doug tells of singing the cowboy way – November 2002
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Ranger Doug tells of singing the cowboy way  Print

By Jon Johnson, November 2002

To most of the world, Douglas Green is better known as Ranger Doug, Idol of American Youth and the yodeling guitarist of cowboy trio (sometimes a quartet) Riders in the Sky. Longtime readers of country music journalism, however, know him as a first-rate scholar of singing cowboy films and records, even predating the formation of his band in late 1977.

And though the Riders keep Green on the road for much of the year, over the past 5 years, the 56-year-old Green has found the time to write "Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy," published in October by Vanderbilt University Press and the Country Music Foundation.

It's an impressive volume; close to 400 pages detailing the roots of cowboy songs in the late 19th century and tracing the rise and fall of the genre on stage, screen, radio and records through the 20th century.

It could easily be said that it's the book Green was born to write given his vocation of the past quarter-century.

"I felt then - as I feel now - that singing cowboys are kind of overlooked by music historians," says Green in a telephone interview from his band's tour bus while en route from Nashville to an engagement in Minnesota. "They've been touched (upon) by film historians, but it was mostly the 'Oh-gosh-aw-shucks' school. I think (music historians) thought it was 'too Hollywood.' Too slick. Not folk enough."

"That is true, but ignores, for example, everything the Sons of the Pioneers did or wrote, because they certainly came out of a folk or authentic background. As authentic as could be, really."

Born in Illinois in 1946, Green was just old enough to catch the tail end of the singing cowboy era.

"I was a Saturday afternoon front-row kid. I loved those movies," says Green. "I loved watching Roy and Gene on television, and music was a big part of our house. We spent a lot of time in California when I was a kid, and I think that's where I got into going to the movies. Going to Knox Berry Farms and hearing guys actually singing this stuff live made a big impression on me."

Following college (during which time Green served two brief stints as one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys) and graduate school, Green signed on as editor of the prestigious Journal of Country Music between 1974 and 1977.

During this time, he wrote the 1976 book "Country Roots: The Origins of Country Music." More important, though, was his lengthy essay, "Singing Cowboy: An American Dream," which appeared in a 1978 issue of the magazine and served as the genesis of his new book.

Green says that he had considered expanding the original essay into a book soon after the essay had been published, but a lack of time due to family and band commitments kept the project on a slow track until relatively recently.

"I had two publishers approach me, but neither wanted to pay any kind of advance. And I was just starting Riders in the Sky at the time, so naturally I didn't have the time or energy to do it. So, I just kept reading, collecting information, got to know people, did interviews and collected pictures - but with no particular plan in mind. The things that sent it over the top were the invention of the laptop computer and bookings at casinos that lasted (up to) two weeks, where you really don't have anything to do but go down and do a show between 8 and 10. And boy, that's a lot of free time."

Dating the start of the singing cowboy era is a little difficult since there was a thin line between a traditional western featuring a few songs (1929's "In Old Arizona" was the first of these) and the full-blown musical westerns that began appearing in 1933, including Ken Maynard's "The Strawberry Roan" and John Wayne's lone film as Singin' Sandy, "Riders of Destiny," in which Wayne's singing voice was overdubbed by Bill Bradbury.

In any event, by 1934, film studios were tripping over each other trying to make singing cowboy movies, partly because it was far cheaper to film someone singing and playing guitar than it was to film action sequences such as fights, Indian raids and horseback chase scenes.

Intriguingly, a few key figures in Green's book - particularly Gene Autry and Bob Nolan - were notorious for a certain reluctance to talk much about their careers.

Autry, for example, was generally uninterested in discussing his early recordings of the late '20s and early '30s, many of which were strongly influenced by Jimmie Rodgers.

"I really don't know why that is," says Green. "He was a lot more interested in talking about who he'd met. He scarcely mentioned Jimmie Rodgers at all, and he goes into loads of stuff on Kate Smith. He was an odd duck in that way. Maybe it was so long ago that he was much more interested in talking about the future of the California Angels (who Autry had owned until his death in 1998)."

Manitoba-born Bob Nolan, co-founder of and chief songwriter for the Sons of the Pioneers, also comes across in Green's book as a little mysterious, resisting at least one attempt by Columbia studio head Harry Cohn to spin the ' handsome, strapping Nolan off into feature roles of his own.

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