About 60 years ago, a place called the Wild West came into existence. This was a raw, exciting, savage land that sometimes came in black and white, sometimes in glorious Technicolor. It was a place as vast and open as a movie screen, as far away as a living-room television set.
In the West, a man walked tall and lived by his word. Things were clear-cut, folks were either good or bad--you could always tell by the way they dressed--and justice was as swift as a bullet. The West produced plenty of good guys, real American heroes such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger.
Many of these guys did more than just shoot the bad men and ride off into the sunset. Sure, they could be as tough as the bark on a hanging tree, but when the time was right, they would put down the six-gun, pick up the six-string and break into song. Beautiful tunes that spoke of the loneliness of the trail and the glories of the cowboy life. Now you can return to those thrilling days of yesteryear by way of Rhino Records' Songs of the West collection. The seemingly infallible folks at Rhino have put together a four-CD set of cowboy music that is the ultimate roundup not only of a genre, but of an era. "Cowboy Classics," "Silver Screen Cowboys," "Gene Autry and Roy Rogers" and "Movie and Television Themes" are the volumes offered, 73 tracks in all. But don't confuse this stuff with country music; these are songs with a feel that is nowhere near Nashville, and the subject matter is strictly Western. Some of the selections are traditional, others are performed by the artists who made them famous, others were written by Tin Pan Alley pros to whom the most familiar Western thing was an omelet.
There are classics like Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again" and Roy Rogers' and Dale Evans' "Happy Trails," but there are many treats to be found by the Sons of the Pioneers (Rogers' original group), Marty Robbins, contemporary cowboy singer Ian Tyson and, yes, Walter Brennan, among others. It's warm, simple music that is hard not to like, and almost always succeeds in evoking a time and a place that is positive, happy and about as American as you can get. Perhaps best of all is the "Movie and Television Themes" disc; it's impossible to listen to "The Magnificent Seven" or "Bonanza" and not want to be galloping into the hills, shooting a pistol at something.
A few tunes lapse perilously close to corniness--Rex Allen and the Merry Melody Singers' "Don't Go Near the Indians," for example--but that's part of the attraction of this subculture. Remember, this was a West in which a man could get shot and not bleed, or fall off a horse and stand up as clean as a whistle.
And a subculture it is. The delicious, 58-page booklet included with the box is loaded with great photos and information not only on the songs and artists, but also on Cowboy Kitsch (a whole chapter). Lunchboxes, paperbacks, clothes--any product with Roy's or Gene's name or mug on it is worth a fortune, and is highly collectible these days.
Dusty Rogers is someone who knows all of this well. He assisted Rhino in putting the package together, and works at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, California. This is because they're his folks.
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"I had Roy Rogers everything," he says by phone from the museum, which draws 150,000 to 200,000 visitors per year. "Roy Rogers bedspreads and curtains and carpet and dressers, everything was Roy Rogers. Double R."
Dusty, 47, grew up steeped in the Western tradition, traveling with his folks and performing at shows. "I thought everybody dressed Western and was in the movie business," he says. But the cowboy outfit wasn't something Roy put on just for the cameras, Dusty says. "You wouldn't catch him in anything else. A while back, his legs were bothering him, and I tried to talk him into wearing some Reeboks. He said, 'No, people don't expect to see me in that.'"
Which is perfect. Roy really is a straight shooter.
"He always says he was lucky he didn't have to play anybody other than Roy Rogers," Dusty offers. "When you play yourself and you're no different on or off the screen, it's simple."
But perhaps as famous as any cowboy, maybe as well-known as any cowboy song, is Trigger. Now stuffed and frozen forever rearing into the air on display at the museum, Roy's loyal steed holds special memories for Dusty.
"He was a fun horse to be around--you wouldn't think so, being a stallion all his life, but you could walk under him and hang on his tail, hang on his neck. We had six or seven kids up on him at one time," Dusty remembers.
"And he was potty-trained," adds Dusty with pride, "so he would never go into the lobby of a hotel and dump something there. Dad could cue him and get him to empty his bladder before they went and did anything. Dad used to take him into hospitals with rubber shoes. . . . You never had to worry about Trigger hurting anybody or making a mess. He was a fantastic horse."
Trigger may well be gathering dust in a museum, and God knows the West itself is not what it used to be, but within the world captured by Songs of the West, none of that matters. It's not someplace to go, anyway; it's someplace to listen to.