Happy Trails

Legendary record producer Snuff Garrett turned his back on Hollywood for a piece of the Arizona cowboy myth

Snuff Garrett leans forward. He pulls a smoke out of his bronze, sombrero-shaped cigarette holder, takes a puff and dumps the ashes in one of his many silver, spur-shaped ashtrays. He tries to describe the laid-back life he leads at Idle Spurs, his six-and-a-half-acre spread amongst the lush, green hills of Sonoita, about 40 miles south of Tucson.

"I'm just playing cowboys," says the man who scored dozens of pop hits for artists ranging from Cher to Gary Lewis and the Playboys to Bobby Vee.

It's one of the 60-year-old record producer's favorite expressions. It's his way of modestly downplaying his years of astonishing success in the record business, of making his life sound like nothing special.

But it's something more than that. It's also a literal expression of Garrett's lifelong obsession with the cowboy myth, fostered by years of watching Westerns at the local theater every Saturday morning.

"I just wanted to grow up and be a cowboy in movies," he says in a gravelly drawl reminiscent of Gary Busey. "Then when I got grown, I lost my hair, and realized it wasn't my gig."

Garrett's current gig allows him to play cowboy in the recording studio, at Tempe's Tempest Recording, where he's producing his first album in 15 years, a collection of old-school country duets between vintage cowboy singer Don Edwards (riding high from his supporting role in The Horse Whisperer) and Garrett's neighbor, 77-year-old Western legend Rex Allen.

In the '60s and early '70s, when he was arguably L.A.'s hottest producer, the Texas native played up the "Cowboy in Hollywood" image, wearing cowboy boots long before they were fashionable, and using his homespun manner to lull music moguls and entertainment lawyers into complacency. Over the years, his collection has reached 250 pairs of handmade boots, including a prized red-white-and-blue pair given to him by his childhood hero, Roy Rogers.

Even more remarkable than his boot collection is Garrett's rustic, brown-brick house, which looks modest and understated from the outside, but whose interior seems to go on forever. You won't find a recording machine or a single musical instrument in the house, but you'll quickly notice that every room--including the bathrooms--is loaded with cowboy memorabilia: posters from old Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Gene Autry movies, rodeo fliers, sculptures of cowboys on horseback, mounted saddles, and rifles encased in glass. The lampshades in the living room are made of cowhide, and Garrett's bedroom has both a ceiling and bedframe made of bamboo. There's even an old picture of Garrett and Roy Rogers together, drawing guns from their holsters at the same time. Next to it is an autographed picture of Rogers, with the tongue-in-cheek note, "Who's Gene Autry?"

His walls offer graphic reminders that this down-home Texan consistently rubbed shoulders with Hollywood aristocracy. In one hallway, rows of framed pictures are autographed with personalized messages to Garrett: Sinatra ("Snuffy--Keep swingin', Frank Sinatra"), Cher ("Snuff--You bastard. What am I gonna do with you? Love, Cher"), Cary Grant, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson and Walter Brennan (for whom Garrett produced "Old Rivers," an unlikely Top 5 hit in 1962) are all represented. In another room, John Wayne puts his arms around a beaming Garrett in a shot from the premiere of True Grit.

Garrett bought his Sonoita property when he was still living in Beverly Hills. In the mid-'80s, he left the glitz of Hollywood behind and fulfilled a lifelong desire to live in Arizona. Initially, he settled in Paradise Valley, and used the Sonoita home as a getaway place. Finally, six years ago, after having additions made to this house, he decided to make Idle Spurs his home.

"I used to come down here on a trail run," he says, explaining what drew him to this scarcely populated area. "Then years later, I ran into Rex Allen in Atlanta. He wanted to come up here and look at some land. He was going to move from California. I was still living in Beverly Hills then. He only wanted eight or 10 acres, and the best place we could find was about 18-and-a-half acres. So I said, 'Hell, I'll take the rest of it.' So I took the rest of it, and built a little place down here, and decided I wanted to move here. We came here, and I love it. It's quiet and nice."

Wearing a coffee-brown cap that covers his balding pate, Garrett looks remarkably fit and vigorous for his age. He still looks like the rangy maverick described in the Phil Spector biography, He's a Rebel, as having a "long, gravelly face . . . excavated by the force of a thousand Texas saloons." If anything, his touches of gray hair and his stubbly beard make him look even more like the grizzled gunslinger he always fancied himself to be.

Decked out in a gray sweat shirt, white warm-ups and brown slip-on shoes with no socks, Garrett is the picture of easygoing contentment. It's hard to believe that this is the same person who, according to his own accounts, didn't sleep until he was 35, and was such a workaholic that he kept a blanket and pillow at United B recording studio, so he could cut tracks all night if necessary.

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