NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Gene Autry Was a Genuine Hero

New Biography Tells the Story of America's Favorite Singing Cowboy

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

How about a little good news this week? And I don’t mean the news about Sanjaya being voted off American Idol. I’m just finishing reading a new, genuinely good biography about a genuinely good country music hero. He’s America’s singing cowboy and movie star Gene Autry.

For all of you who have been culturally deprived enough to have never heard of him, please visit Gene Autry’s artist page Gene Autry’s artist page at CMT.com him right now. And then Google him. And then YouTube him. Then, you’ll feel comfortable enough to continue reading.

The book is Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry. It was written by Holly George-Warren, who I must disclose is a longtime friend of mine. But the book stands or fails on its own merits. And it stands very well on its own merits. The book is well-researched and written with a careful eye to history and a keen appreciation of music. And it is — appropriately, I think — tinged with a bit of George-Warren’s genuine appreciation of Autry the artist and star but even more of Autry the person, the one she got to know before his death in 1998. Biographers don’t always meet their subjects, obviously, and if they do, the results may be disastrous — or beneficial. In George-Warren’s case, it proved to be providential.

One of my favorite video clips of all time is of the Highwaymen receiving a visit from Gene Autry in a recording studio. These were four of the biggest country music stars in history — Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson — and they were literally worshipping their hero Gene Autry as they sat and listened to him. That’s how important Gene Autry was. And still is.

Autry was, to put it simply, the image of the American West, forever known as America’s favorite singing cowboy and revered even more than his chief rival, Roy Rogers. Interestingly, George-Warren writes that, during World War II, when Autry voluntarily joined the Army Air Corps and became a pilot, it gave Rogers his break over Autry. His film studio, Republic Pictures, was very unhappy about losing Autry to the military and began promoting Roy Rogers — who avoided military service due to a deferment — as his replacement. Autry later testified in a lawsuit that Republic chief Herb Yates had told him, “You wouldn’t cooperate, and I’ll break you if it’s the last thing I ever do, and I’ll make Roy Rogers the biggest thing that ever happened in this business.” Thanks to audience loyalty, Autry survived Yates’ vendetta.

So why don’t we hear much about him anymore? Well, basically because he was a nice guy, an average singer and actor, a tireless worker for charities and was never involved in any scandals, although he did have a roving eye and a taste for the grape and never did anything to make headlines. He was not an exceptional talent, but he worked hard and believed in what he was doing. He was a perfect country singer is what I’m trying to say.

He made 92 B-grade western movies. Autry is the only entertainer to have five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one each for records, radio, film, television and live theatrical performance. He performed at rodeos throughout his career. He had only 27 charting country singles, including the No. 1 “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which unfortunately will live forever. But he also recorded the all-time cowboy anthem “Back in the Saddle Again” — which never charted.

When Autry died in 1998, he was worth $320 million and owned the Anaheim Angels baseball team in California, along with TV and radio stations and rodeos. His most lasting legacy is likely the splendid Autry National Center which he launched in 1988 in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. It’s the world’s leading repository of artifacts from and information on the American West. It incorporates the Museum of the American West, the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the Institute for the Study of the American West.

Autry pretty much exemplified the country music ideal that Jeff Foxworthy spoke so passionately about in his monologue on our CMT Music Awards show the other night. We’re all better off because of people like Gene Autry. Thanks to Jeff for pointing that out.