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Old and in the Way becomes Old and in the Gray

By Rick Bell, November 2002

Page 4...

Following the departure in 1948 of another of the group's founding singer/songwriters, Tim Spencer, Nolan too left the group, recording only on rare occasions after the '50s until his death from a heart attack in 1980.

"He had a famous reputation as a recluse," says Green of Nolan, who wrote timeless cowboy numbers such as "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water," among others. "He was apparently an artist and a dreamer. But he was more of a regular guy than you'd think. He wasn't a hermit or a grouch. He was a very nice man. He seemed very open and honest with his feelings. I wish I'd had more time with him, really."

One singing cowboy who Green not only got to know well, but actually performed and recorded with was Roy Rogers. Forever linked with Autry both in terms of sheer popularity and the success of his post-war business dealings, it was perhaps appropriate that Autry and Rogers died within three months of each other in 1998.

"I try not to be starstruck, but it was very hard not to be that way around him. He was very much the guy you see on screen. He was not pretentious; just the guy next door who happens to be a cowboy hero. I think he enjoyed working with us because we reminded him of the days when he started the (Sons of the) Pioneers. The last 30 years of his performing career, he mostly had country bands (with) drums, that steady beat. And with us, it harkened back to that airy acoustic sound. We did 'Hee-Haw' (with him in 1988) and sat around the dressing room singing the old songs. And, man, he looked 20 years younger. He kept saying, 'This is great! This is just like when we started!'"

Though it seems that no one set out to make 'the final singing cowboy picture,' most saw the end coming, and Rex Allen's 1954 release "Phantom Stallion" marked the finish of the singing cowboy, at least as far as films were concerned.

As Gene Autry later wrote, "There were no farewell toasts, no retirement dinner with someone handing out a pocket watch for 20 years of faithful service."

The movies simply stopped being made. Autry had hung up his spurs the previous year with "Last of the Pony Riders," and Roy Rogers had called it quits in 1951, except for a few cameo roles here and there in later years.

Most of the others had quit even before that; Tex Ritter closed the bunkhouse door for the last time in 1945, for instance.

Asked why it all ended, Green replies that the answers are really fairly simple.

"Well, my supposition in the book was partly (because of) television, which is what everybody blamed at the time. And partly because public tastes change. What was popular in the '70s and '80s isn't popular now. Same thing with singing cowboys. The sunny depression-era 'forget-your-troubles' fantasies of those movies didn't really suit people who'd been overseas in World War II, had seen real death firsthand and were genuinely worried about the future of the world. It wasn't a fantasy that sustained itself too much after the war."

After their last musical westerns appeared, most of the singing western heroes moved into other areas of show business.

The great black singing cowboy of the late '30s, Herb Jeffries, gained wider fame with Duke Ellington's band between 1940 and 1942 before going solo, and was still recording as recently as the mid-'90s. Rogers and Autry both made successful TV shows that ran until later in the '50s, and both continued to record and perform even after their TV shows ended, though Autry had retired even from these activities by the early '60s.

Others, such as Jimmy Wakeley and Tex Ritter, pursued successful careers as country performers, only occasionally recording western material.

The last few years have taken a deep toll on the remaining ranks of the singing cowboys of the pre- and post-war years. In the past four years alone, Autry, Rogers and his wife Dale Evans, and Rex Allen have all passed away.

And though a number of singing cowboys whose careers began on TV in the late '40s and '50s - such as Rex Trailer and Kenny Roberts - are still alive, Green says that only 81-year-old Monte Hale and Jeffries, 91, survive from the pre-television era.

Still, western music has enjoyed something of a revival over the past couple of decades. Much of that can be credited to the efforts of Green and his bandmates; "Woody Paul" Chrisman, Fred "Too Slim" LaBour and Joey the CowPolka King.

Though other western-oriented acts perform and record today with distinction, including Michael Martin Murphey, Sons of the San Joaquin and Don Edwards, there's little doubt about which act has the highest visibility.

Interestingly enough, Green's book is being published on the eve of his own group's 25th anniversary, with plans for a new album and the impending publication of a book covering the group's history.

"You hope that what you do will leave a lasting enough mark to give you a career," says Green. "But no musician with any sense at all can really expect it. Certainly I didn't. It's both a vindication and a real delight. Whatever it is, it's still working," adding that he attributes the group's longevity to "separate hotel rooms."

Asked if children today still look at cowboys with awe in the same way that he did when he was a boy, Green says, "Yeah, I think so. Very much. They don't see them as much as when I was a kid, but I think the image and the appeal of the cowboy is the same to little kids as it ever was. We play for kids now, and they love the big hats, the furry chaps and that western beat."

"I'm glad John Lasseter tapped into that with Woody in the 'Toy Story' movies. I think that kids still react to that sense of wonder that he had - the cowboy hero who's a little bit corny, but you still love him."

Photo by Rob Bleetsein

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