Green's book retraces happy trails

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The horse opera is long gone, but those seeking to relive the movies' glorious era of six-shooters and sagebrush songs will feast on Douglas B. Green's new book, "Singing Cowboys" (Gibbs Smith).

As "Ranger Doug," Green has fronted the Western music band Riders in the Sky for more than 25 years; the group has received two Grammys, for its companion albums to the animated features "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc." He also has sustained a productive parallel career as a country music historian; in 2002, he published a scholarly history of the cowboy musical, "Singing in the Saddle."

Green's new book is a coffee-table tome that juxtaposes short, info-packed profiles of more than 50 singing cowboys (and cowgirls) with luminous photos and reproductions of lobby cards and one-sheets. Readers who grew up on the movies of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers when they flooded into TV syndication in the '50s will enjoy some warm memories. The book comes with a 10-track CD of performances by the major cowboy performers -- Autry, Rogers, Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard, Jimmy Wakely.

The Western musical was an oddball genre -- a fanciful imagining of the plains in which a cowboy could deftly shoot a revolver out of a desperado's hand and then romance a pretty girl with a song at the drop of a 10-gallon hat. "People don't like to hear it, but it really was a fantasy world," Green says. "But it's a wonderful fantasy. It spoke to me -- I do it for a living."

The singing cowboy dates back to the first sound Western: In 1928's "In Old Arizona," Warner Baxter sang "My Tonia" in his Oscar-winning turn as the Cisco Kid. That picture inspired Ken Maynard, whom Green describes as "a visionary," to lobby Universal's Carl Laemmle about a Western musical series.

Maynard was a fine horseman but a middlin' tune wrangler, and he was upstaged in the 1934 Mascot feature "In Old Santa Fe" by a movie newcomer who had made a name for himself on radio and records as a Western-garbed Jimmie Rodgers imitator: Gene Autry.

Green says of Autry's amazing 18-year success as a singing cowboy star, "Gene was the guy next door, and it was in his voice. ... The other guys didn't have it. Eddie Dean could outsing all of them, but he didn't project that naturalness."

The singing cowboy picture ruled boxoffices during the Depression era. Green explains, "People were so overwhelmed with confusion and change in their lives. It was such a romantic getaway -- you could get away to where good and bad were very clear-cut. It was set in this wonderful fairyland."

The Western musical was double-feature material, and every B-movie studio -- Republic, Monogram, PRC -- had its own warbling cow-puncher. "They were geared up to (make Westerns)," Green says. "To add a few hillbilly guitar players was no big problem."

"Singing Cowboys" enumerates both the famed stars of the genre and the obscure one-shots. The book profiles some titanic musicians who appeared mainly in supporting roles, like the classic cowboy band the Sons of the Pioneers and Western swing king Bob Wills. It also delineates the misadventures of nonsinging cowpokes like John Wayne, who reluctantly played "Singin' Sandy Saunders," with vocals dubbed by Bill Bradbury, in one misbegotten 1933 feature.

TV and changing audience tastes finally killed off the horse opera in the early '50s. But "Singing Cowboys" allows nostalgic buckaroos to ride down those happy trails once more.
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