Gene Autry — Pioneer of Country-Western Music Image

You Tube Thanks to Gene Autry Official.

That’s Gene Autry singing his theme song Back In the Saddle Again in the movie with the same name. The song was originally written by Ray Whitley, himself an actor in western musicals.  Autry heard the song and purchased the rights to use it as his theme song.

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This picture of Gene Autry was an early publicity still taken in the late 1920’s as he struggled to become a singing star.  He came from a very modest background and started out his adult life, as did my father, as a railroad depot agent and telegrapher, working the “third trick” or the hours from midnight to 8 AM. Autry used his spare time in those lonely hours to practice his guitar and his singing.  Autry  took voice lessons to improve his breathing and resonance to get a better tone.    He then took time off to make records for the numerous record companies that sprang up during the 1920’s, most notably Gennett. He performed on the WLS National Barn Dance, broadcast from Chicago.

Then, according to his biographer, Holly George-Warren, he met Arthur Satherly. Uncle Art, as he came to be known, was a former motorcycle racer from Britain who came to the U.S. enchanted with visions of the Old West and cowboys. Satherly had become an talent agent and he sought to represent Gene Autry when he saw that Gene Autry’s personality was golden.  Autry had qualities that would make him very popular. Satherly said late in life that Gene Autry was his greatest discovery.

Gene_Autry_1942But it was Satherly who would make the most important change: wardrobe. He suggested that Autry sing cowboy songs and wear cowboy boots and hats.   In the picture at left from 1941, we see the new look fully fleshed out with his fancy cowboy clothes. With the advent of sound in motion pictures, beginning in 1929, this clearly opened the door to a new type of western picture, the western musical. These were budget pictures made mostly at Republic Pictures studio. They were shot on locations in the upper California Desert at Melody Ranch and Pioneertown.

Oddly enough, Autry’s first starring role was in a science fiction movie in 1934 but from there he went on to make about eight pictures per year except during World War II. After a contract dispute with Republic in 1947, he switched to Columbia pictures and made them until the mid-1950’s. My father—a World War II veteran— was not much impressed when watching Gene Autry movies with me when I was a child.  He  found it funny and a bit much.  He would say, “Notice how Autry never gets dirty in a fistfight.”  But, as usual, I was taken with the music.

Like my father, movie critics and social snobs,  scoffed at these movies, but the movies found large audiences among children and their mothers, and others for whom the music and the images of riding horses in the desert were exotic pleasures. It was true of other favorite targets of the snide humor of the critics, as Bob Hope once said of Lawrence Welk,  “…. he laughs all the way to the bank.”

Gene Autry primarily changed the image of  the  music rather than the music itself. Before Gene Autry, Country music was known as Hillbilly music and evoked images of nasally, sallow voices, bib overalls, bare feet and sleepy dogs.  After Gene Autry it became Country-Western music with cowboy hats, hand stitched boots, fancy shirts with pearl snaps and embroidery. BobWillsGeneAutry

Unfortunately, I can’t get a larger image of the picture at right.  But it’s a picture of Gene Autry visiting Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.  Autry is the one wearing his trademark white cowboy hat and western clothes.  The “Autry Effect” on Country Music can be seen in here and below.   When Autry visited with Bob Wills in 1939, Wills and the band were still performing in business suits and ties. After this visit from Autry and a signing with “Uncle Art”  Satherly, Bob Wills can be seen performing in hats and boots on his radio program on KGO Radio, San Francisco.
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Afterwards, Bob Wills and most of the subsequent stars of what was now called Country-Western music adopted the hats, boots, and the Nudie tailored clothes.  That wardrobe became the image of the music. Also, it’s hard to imagine Elvis Presley’s movies and image without Autry. He might have skipped the cowboy hats, but he used Nudie the tailor to create his image.  Presley’s movies shared some similarities with Autry’s movies, without the cowboy image but similarly adventurous roles with more emphasis on Presley’s attractiveness to young women.

Gene Autry also became a very wealthy man. As he told an interviewer for the Orange County Register shortly before his death, “…everybody knew I could sing, but what they didn’t know is that I was better at math.” He early on had the foresight to invest in broadcasting stations in the Southwestern United States, which benefited from the demographic migration after World War II. He was also the owner of the California Angels American League baseball team and builder of Anaheim Stadium.

For more information on Gene Autry, see Holly George-Warren’s fine biography.  For more information on Bob Wills, see Dr. Charles Townsend‘s equally fine biography.  Photo Sources either from Gene Autry Official  or Wikipedia Commons.

About Richard Rollo

I am a retired Community College Instructor. I taught Political Science 1 American Government for 22 years in Southern California. I am originally from Northern Minnesota. My earliest years were spent in the living quarters of a rural Duluth Winnipeg & Pacific Railway Depot. Then my family joined the great 1950's migration to Southern California where I joined up with fellow baby boomers in overcrowded schools.
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