There is no evidence whatsoever that actual cowboys — the sort who worked, and still work here and there, with cattle and fences and such — have ever done a whole lot of crooning. There is, on the other hand, ample evidence that once Hollywood forever changed people’s, even cowboys’, sense of who and what they were and what on God’s open plain they should sing, crooning came tumbling out like the tumbleweeds.
This new two-disc collection assembles 40 tracks from that manufactured but often pleasing breakout. Rather than focusing on overly-anthologized and previously reissued hit records, Cowboy Crooners Sing Songs Of The West is drawn from radio shows, where fans would have heard much more than the hits during cowboy crooning’s 1930s and ’40s heyday. Most of these tracks have not been available in any form before, and pleasing cooing they do make.
The quieter, person-to-person, subtler American singing style that came to be called crooning was born with electric microphones, and radio, in the late 1920s. Pop and jazz crooners Gene Austin and Bing Crosby, in particular, influenced the new sagebrush style, especially by way of the superstar of cowboy crooning, Gene Autry. The confluence of singing-cowboy movie popularity and swing-era musical styles led to everything on this set.
There are nods here to outright western swing — Johnny Lee Wills, Tex Williams, Spade Cooley and Tommy Duncan put in the effective appearances you’d expect, and Bob Wills duets with Miss Laura Lee on “I’ll Be True To The One I Love”. Governor Jimmie Davis, as he was still billed at the time, offers not just his “You Are My Sunshine”, but a terrific “It Makes No Difference Now” from the just-emerging honky-tonk bag.
Truth be told, though, there’s not a lot of cowboy subject matter in those cuts — any more than the subject was especially prominent in western swing in general. Western guys in hats, yes; cowboy songs, not so much.
The cowboy element comes to the fore in work centered around the “King of the Cowboys,” Autry competitor Roy Rogers. The group that backed Roger once he began starring, the Riders of the Purple Sage (no relation but in name to the later friends of Jerry Garcia), featured Foy Wiling’s deep, smooth vocal leads on versions of “Cool Water” and “San Antonio Rose” that challenge the hits.
Rogers and Dale Evans duet on “Lights Of Old Santa Fe”. Those who recall Dale only from TV and “Happy Trails To You” need to check out the sultry, clear-voiced swing-era chanteuse tackling “My Heart Is Down Texas Way”. Shades of Ella Mae Morse! The Johnson Sisters add a fast-paced cowgirl polka duet, “Ridin’ Down The Trail Together”, which somebody smart will cover.
And then there’s the large, somewhat unlikely treat on this set — multiple live radio cuts by the unique and wonderful Judy Canova, the belting ’40s comedy star of radio and screen who recorded very rarely. Her versions of “Walking The Floor Over You” and “No Letter Today” make this set worthwhile in themselves.
Add some sweet turns from cowboy crooners fans recall as such — Jimmy Wakely, Rogers himself for instance, a turn from Eddy Arnold that will remind you he was crooning from the start, and surprise rediscoveries such as Rhubarb Red and Pat Friday — and you’ve got 40 tunes here to put you back in the saddle again. Even if you’ve never been there before.