LOS ANGELES — The cowboy is a uniquely American icon, a rugged image associated with the nation’s expansion, the early days of the cinema and the pioneering era of country music, formerly known as country & western.
So it’s only appropriate that the cowboy became the centerpiece for a celebration at the vaunted Hollywood Bowl, as Riders in the Sky joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic under western skies Monday (July 2) in the first of three nights honoring the legacies of John Wayne and Gene Autry, who were each born 100 years ago.
A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Autry had a huge impact on 20th century American culture, building many of the blocks upon which modern country music was built:
Autry never saw himself as a spectacular performer in any field. He was more pleasant than passionate as a vocalist, and no one ever held him in the kind of esteem as an actor that was bestowed upon, say, Marlon Brando.
But he was tireless as a public figure and devoted to using his platform for the benefit of his fellow citizens.
“I want to show [the kids] that in this country everybody has a chance — just as I did,” he’s quoted in Gene Autry and the Twentieth-Century West: The Centennial Exhibition on display at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles through Jan. 13. “We should show young people the decent, good things that are in this country; things that don’t exist now in other countries of the world.”
To that end, he regularly visited children in hospitals of the towns where he performed, and he showed his support for the nation’s efforts in World War II by publicly enlisting in the service on his national radio show — and by refusing to wrangle out of military duty when the head of the Republic film studio suggested they push for a deferment.
Autry’s ideals were, it would appear, as black and white as the film on which he was most often presented. They’re certainly anachronistic in an era that finds the raunchy image of a Paris Hilton acceptable and gives the use of steroids in baseball little more than a shrug.
Riders in the Sky’s unique ability to play with that other-era dichotomy made them the perfect voice for the Autry celebration in what is arguably the perfect venue. The Hollywood Bowl is just three exits down U.S. 101 from Autry’s former home and a little more than two miles from Gower Gulch, the area where the studios that made the first Western films were located.
The Riders’ get-up — chaps, fringe, cowboy hats and boots — plays right into Yosemite Sam visuals, and their smooth, masculine vocal work mirrors the easygoing nature of western music’s most acclaimed group, the Sons of the Pioneers (who, incidentally, came to fame on L.A. radio station KFWB.)
But the Riders wisely play with the out-of-step nature of the cowboy way they help to preserve. Bassist Too Slim grabbed his saguaro-shaped neckwear in mock surprise: “Black tie!? I thought it said ‘cacti!” He would also deliver a weirdly funny rap that turned Eminem’s Slim Shady character to Too Slim and made a fairly modern reference with a parting Star Wars allusion: “May the horse be with you.”
Ranger Doug, the Riders’ lead vocalist, proved to be a remarkable speed yodeler. Complementing Woody Paul’s nimble work as a fiddler, Joey Miskulin provided an important link to western music’s Mexican influences with his conjunto-flavored accordion.
And they hit the highlights of western music’s progression, kicking off with Autry’s signature “Back in the Saddle Again,” kicking up dust with the Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” running through their own contributions to the animated Toy Story 2 and closing with the Roy Rogers classic, “Happy Trails.”
Most of the silver-screen cowboys have ridden off into the sunset, though their effects can still be detected in country’s current evolution. The ubiquitous Stetson still tops the heads of Brad Paisley and Toby Keith, and cowboy themes play in such hits as Tim McGraw’s “The Cowboy in Me” and Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” Even the storyline of Autry’s “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” is reprised in Strait’s hit version of Merle Haggard’s “The Seashores of Old Mexico.”
In this centennial year, Autry is being remembered in a big way, and not just with the Hollywood Bowl series, which concludes Wednesday (July 4). Holly George-Warren wrote an engaging biography, Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry. Vince Gill, John Anderson and Glen Campbell lead a bevy of artists in the just-released album, Boots Too Big to Fill: A Tribute to Gene Autry, and Riders in the Sky reissued an album of Autry songs, including “Sioux City Sue,” “Mexicali Rose” and “Be Honest With Me.”
The latter title provides something of a clue about the way his legacy is being treated. Both the George-Warren book and the Autry Center exhibit are honest about his history, acknowledging both his successes and his weaknesses, particularly a midlife battle with the bottle.
That’s probably part of the reason the cowboy prospered as an American icon in the first place: He never backed down from a fight, even if that fight was with himself. Autry, in his public persona and it seems in his private life, embodied a good-natured feistiness that represents how most Americans choose to see themselves.