Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life And Times Of George Autry
By Holly George-Warren
Paperback, 480 pages
Oxford University Press, USA
List Price: $17.95
In 1994, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson spent four days together in a Los Angeles studio making what would be their third and final album as the Highwaymen. Among their repertoire of outlaw songs and road ballads, they launched into an old favorite: Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again." These four icons of country music, born during the Great Depression, had grown up with Gene Autry as their hero. He was their Public Cowboy No. 1. "I saw him in the movies when I was five years old," Johnny Cash wrote in 1977, "and haven't stopped loving him and his kind of movieland dreams. More than that, I took part of Gene Autry home with me in my heart and sang it out in the cotton fields, songs like 'Be Honest With Me,' [and 'The] Last Round-Up' . . ." Serving as a road map out of rural poverty for Cash — and for so many other future artists — Gene Autry shone as the singing cowboy star whose radio programs, recordings, and movies in the 1930s and '40s made him one of America's most celebrated entertainers.
For Highwaymen producer Don Was, a visit one day from eighty-six-year-old Gene Autry to the sessions "was very revealing." Over the course of their careers, according to Was, each of the Highwaymen had "adopted variations on the cowboy persona, and that's the guy they got it from." Captured in a 2006 documentary, American Revolutions: The Highwaymen, Cash, Nelson, Jennings, and Kristofferson — then in their fifties and sixties — "turned into little kids," Was related. "It was as if John Lennon came to my session. . . . Gene Autry is just sitting there with four of the most intimidating tough guys ever, and they're marshmallows next to him." As children, each of the Highwaymen, like so many others, had gone to Gene Autry movies on Saturday afternoons, listened to his music on the radio, and learned to play guitar on a Gene Autry Roundup Guitar ordered from the Sears catalogue. They, just like millions of other Americans who were born between the 1920s and the 1940s, bought his records and went to see him at rodeos, city auditoriums, and county fairs. Again, in the words of the Man in Black, "Reflecting upon . . . the great people I have known, as an All-American image of goodness, justice, good over bad, nothing or no one comes closer than Gene Autry."
Who was this man that exerted such an influence over Cash, his fellow Highwaymen, and countless others who experienced the Autry phenomenon from the thirties into the fifties? Born Orvon Grover Autry in 1907, he was a second-generation Texan. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents were among the frontierspeople who left the South after the Civil War and traveled west. Gene Autry embraced the tools of the twentieth century to make his way in the world — cutting phonograph records, broadcasting over the radio, appearing in motion pictures and, later, television — yet he found stardom by reinventing the saga of the cowboy and the West through his music and image. Growing up on the final vestiges of nineteenth-century pop culture — minstrel shows, dime novels, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West — he came of age during the heyday of vaudeville, whose stars Al Jolson, Gene Austin, and Will Rogers had profoundly influenced him. Gene Autry merged old sensibilities with new ideas to create a persona that bridged the gap between the two centuries. His ingenuity, ambition, and chameleonic artistry enabled him to develop further by adapting the sonics of yodeling bluesman Jimmie Rodgers and visuals of cowboy star Tom Mix.
As a recording artist, Autry evolved from a hillbilly-style Rodgers soundalike to the trend-setting crooner of cowboy songs to the progenitor of Yuletide perennial "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to children's balladeer. Between 1929 and the early 1960s, he made some 640 recordings, totaling sales of more than 100 million copies. Gene Autry's vocal and visual approach, with his eyecatching Western wear, shaped the sound and look of early country music and helped it grow from a regional favorite to a national sensation. After Autry's musical Westerns began screening in theaters across the country, the companion discs of songs featured in the movies became strong sellers nationwide. Eventually, the label "hillbilly music" was displaced by "country & western."
First finding local fame as the Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy on Tulsa radio, Autry attracted a larger audience as star of Chicago's WLS National Barn Dance. In Hollywood, his singing cowboy character successfully made the transition to film, where Autry and Republic Pictures created the prototype of the musical B-Western genre in the mid-1930s. His reassuring presence and unassuming boyishness provided a salve to audiences struggling with the Great Depression. Beginning with Tumbling Tumbleweeds in 1935, Autry's movies reinvigorated the Western with the addition of his country songcraft to action-packed morality plays. In those simpler times, good versus evil was easily delineated. He nearly always played himself — as Johnny Cash recalled, "a handsome man on a fine stallion, riding the bad trails of this land, righting wrongs, turning good for bad, smiling through with the assurance that justice will prevail."
None of the ninety-three Gene Autry pictures ever rose to the budgetary or artistic levels of a John Ford Western, yet he was more popular than John Wayne for nearly a decade. Voted the top Western star for six years straight, Autry was named the fourth most popular of all box-office stars in America by exhibitors in 1940. His movies played in every small town in the country, and he relentlessly toured the nation throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties. His Gene Autry Flying A Rodeo imbued the sport with glamour, giving it an enduring appeal and spreading its popularity eastward. His status as an entertainer brought him into the political sphere as early as the mid-1930s. He became the friend of several U.S. presidents — from Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Even John F. Kennedy invited him to the White House for "an exchange of ideas."
In 1950 Autry was the first movie star to create his own production company and play the lead in a television series, followed by a line of TV programming, including The Range Rider, Death Valley Days, and Annie Oakley — the first TV Western to star a woman. Following the trail blazed by his successful programs, Westerns came to monopolize the small screen in the 1950s and '60s. As a merchandising entrepreneur, he was one of the first cowboy icons to license his name and image to hundreds of products, beginning in the 1930s. During the cowboy craze of the 1950s, Autry-licensed goods ranged from comic books to bedspreads to breakfast cereal.
After Autry enlisted and served in World War II, he began to focus more on business investments and undertook a series of shrewd purchases of radio stations. By the time he retired as an entertainer in the early 1960s, his broadcast holdings had increased to include television. In 1992 he was the only entertainer-turned-businessman listed on the Forbes 400. The same drive and ambition that took him out of small-town Texas and Oklahoma motivated his business dealings. His final decades were spent devoted to a lifelong passion — owner of the American League baseball team the California Angels.
The child of an impoverished family with an absentee father, Gene Autry consistently sought out father figures — including Jimmy Long (co-writer of his first hit), Johnny Marvin (a pop singer who helped him get his first break), and Columbia Records A&R man Art Satherley, a seminal figure in recording history. As Public Cowboy No. 1, Autry became a father figure himself to millions of children. Autry never forgot his early mentors or his loyal employees, providing many of them with lifelong jobs and/or financial aid. He in turn served as mentor to the next generation of artists, encouraging and supporting Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and others who followed. Autry's audiences were black and white, male and female. His most celebrated acolytes range from Ringo Starr to Solomon Burke, Aaron Neville to James Taylor. Taylor told audiences during his 2006 tour that the inspiration behind his first hit, "Sweet Baby James," was to write a cowboy lullaby like the ones he'd heard Gene Autry sing in movies when he was a boy. Taylor's audience, though, was part of a new generation, born in the fifties and sixties, who had found other icons to worship: Elvis, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles — all with their own cowboy dreams. "I was eight years old and wanted to be a cowboy when I saw a Gene Autry movie," Ringo Starr once confessed. "I still do." Instead, Ringo and his peers became harbingers of change.
Public Cowboy No. 1 explores the world of Gene Autry, beginning with his family's nineteenth-century roots until the demise of his reign as an entertainer. The 1960s marked the end of an era — when a generation turned away from decades of infatuation with the cowboy. Public Cowboy No. 1 is also the portrait of a man who had his darker sides, but whose legacy is as Johnny Cash once remembered it: "He made the world look better to me."
Excerpted from Public Cowboy No.1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, by Holly George-Warren. Copyright 2007 by Holly George-Warren. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press Inc.