Autry's popularity held spread music's

October 03, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

These days, when we see a guy in a cowboy hat with a guitar, we immediately think: country singer.

But it wasn't always that way. There was a time when what we now think of as country music was divided between two camps.

One belonged to the so-called "hillbilly" singers, artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and relied on old Appalachian tunes and what came to be known as "the white man's blues." The other was the province of cowboys, a sound that drew on camp songs, gold-rush ballads and the sweet, sad norteno sound of Texas and northern Mexico. Each was regional and appealed to a specific audience.

Gene Autry was instrumental in changing that.

From his early days on the radio in Oklahoma and Chicago, to his later fame as the film world's most famous singing cowboy, Autry was an enormously popular recording artist.

He was also a great popularizer, taking elements from both the country and the western styles and delivering them with such polish and finesse that even city slickers found themselves wanting to sing along.

Some of his accessibility can be credited to the fact that his singing had none of the rough edges or overt regionalism that kept many early country singers out of the mainstream. But more of his appeal had to do with the mellifluous ease with which he applied his baritone. Autry was a true smoothie, whose affable croon did for country and western what Bing Crosby did for swing.

It's no wonder, then, that he had as much success with country songs like "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine" and "You Are My Sunshine" as he did with such cowboy classics as "Jingle Jangle Jingle" and "Back in the Saddle Again." It hardly mattered whether he was backed by a traditional, guitar-and-fiddle western band or fronting a full orchestra; his performance was equally unaffected either way.

His last big hits, interestingly enough, were neither country nor western -- they were holiday songs. "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was the biggest hit he had, but he had several other Christmas hits, including "Frosty the Snowman" and his own "Here Comes Santa Claus."

Because he could seem so genuine even while working within the boundaries of mainstream show-biz, Autry considerably broadened the audience for country and western, helping it move from a strictly regional sound to something that could truly be considered "America's music." For that, he not only earned his place in the Country Music Hall of Fame but paved the way for future crossover stars from Johnny Cash to Garth Brooks -- Stetson wearers, both of them.

Pub Date: 10/03/98

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