RW Hampton offers a cure for these stir-crazy times: watching westerns, especially singin’-cowboy movies.
Editor's Note: Cimarron Sounds is an online blog series presented by C&I from award-winning Western artist RW Hampton. Read — or listen to — Hampton's musings on Western life and music.
Well, howdy, folks. If you’re like me, by now you’ve probably enjoyed about all the COVID news and election updates you can stand. Also, you may have been advised to not wander too danged far from the ol’ ranch HQ. Yep, me too.
Well, I think I have an answer to cabin fever. It sure works for me anyway.
It’s a sweet diversion called the western.
Yes, the western movie — America’s very own unique genre of entertainment. Thanks to the availability of DVDs as well as other platforms, we have access to films that range from the latest releases to the most obscure pictures from almost a century ago. From John Wayne to Johnny Depp, there’s a whole lot to choose from and a whole lot of stories and country to ride.
There’s the classic westerns like Shane, Red River, High Noon, The Searchers, The Magnificent Seven, and Dances With Wolves — plenty to choose from. But then there’s a whole other category not to be ignored and that’s the B western.
I’m talking about the B westerns of the silver screen era that started in the ’30s and faded out shortly after World War II.
These films were referred to as B westerns because they were shot on a much smaller budget and a much tighter schedule than the big-budget A films. Some were shot in color, but most were in beautiful black and white — and I do mean beautiful! Crisp, sharp black-and-white photography is an art form all its own. I once asked world champion steer roper and Academy Award-winning actor Ben Johnson how long it took to shoot those good old B westerns. He told me “six days, nine days tops.”
Ben along with western film legend Richard “Dick” Farnsworth, cut their teeth in the Bs doing incredible stunts and doubling the stars in their most dangerous hard-riding and fight scenes. Johnson said, “Back in those days, it was not uncommon in a picture for fellers like us to ride with the posse and ride with the bad guys.” Farnsworth said, “Yup, we were just chasing ourselves. All we had to do was to swap our white hats for black hats and we were good to go!”
Both Johnson and Farnsworth eventually went from doing stunts in B pictures to playing principal roles in some of the classics of the western film genre. My old compadre Buck Taylor started off working stunts, too, and through hard work, grit, determination, and true talent, found himself costarring in one of the most popular and enduring western TV series of all time, Gunsmoke. The Duke himself rode his way to stardom in the B westerns of the ’30s before emerging as an A-lister in the Howard Hawks classic Red River.
And now, folks, for your entertainment pleasure, let me introduce one of my favorite variations, the “singin’-cowboy western.”
In the long, hard, bleak years of the Great Depression; the desolation of the seemingly endless Dust Bowl years; and World War II, Americans needed some form of relief, a break from the dark reality they faced in their everyday lives. Folks in small towns and big cities all across this land crowded theaters to be thrilled and whisked away by the likes of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Eddie Dean, Tex Ritter, and Rex Allen.
These fellas looked good, rode hard, fought fair, and always got the girl with a “geetar” and a cowboy song before riding off into the sunset.
Now one thing needed to enjoy a singing-cowboy western picture is something I like to call the “willful suspension of disbelief.” That’s right, because riding along for 90 minutes with these dashing lads was truly a flight of fancy.
First of all, Roy Rogers always played Roy Rogers, Gene Autry played — you guessed it, Gene Autry, and Tex Ritter played Tex. In a lot of these oaters you had to mentally accept that there in the Western town featured in the picture — a place with a name like Sidewinder Flats or Tascosa — you were going to see men horseback, driving stagecoaches, buckboards, wagons, and buggies, but also passenger trains, Greyhound buses, and Lincoln convertibles. It was not even uncommon, every now and then, in these pictures for aircraft of the day to play a role in the story line.
It was a fanciful combination of Old West settings, cowboys, villains, and heroes living out a drama in the exact same time period the audience was watching it. A frequent scenario was our six-gun-packin’ horseback heroes battling it out with suit-wearing Chicago gangsters with tommy guns driving fast black cars.
On the movie marquees and posters you would notice that most of these crooning cowpunchers’ ponies got second billing right under the star but well above their leading ladies and the rest of the supporting cast. Roy rode Trigger, “the smartest horse in pictures!” Gene rode Champ, or “Champion the Wonder Horse.” Third on the billing was the lovable sidekick. The sidekick’s sole purpose was to add comic relief. They were usually portrayed as older, cantankerous, ornery characters but always funny and forever loyal. Top sidekick credits would include George “Gabby” Hayes, Andy Devine, Fuzzy Knight, Smiley Burnette, Pat Buttram, and Dub “Cannonball” Taylor.
Two things you’re always gonna find in these pictures are action (lots of it!) and music. I’m absolutely amazed by the chase scenes, fistfights, shootouts, and horse-fall stunts. One tried-and-true thriller involves our hero, horseback, chasing a speeding passenger train, catching up to it then successfully jumping from his running mount to the train’s last car. Stunt Men refer to these feats if daring as transfers.
Many times watching these, my boys and I would watch in disbelief, pause, rewind, and watch it again. This was long before CGI and the only way, back then, to make it look like what you were doing on screen was real, was to really do it and pray the cameraman got it on the first take!
As cowboy stunt legend Walt LaRue once told me, “There was about a hundred ways to get killed in the filming of those scenes if something went wrong and it didn’t take much!” Not only were there transfers by heroes from horse to train but by horse to runaway stagecoaches, even to the running boards of speeding roadsters. And how about my personal favorite, a transfer from a horse to an airplane that is taking off and just leaving the ground!
The next element was, of course, music. Folks back then (as well as now) needed what only music can bring to the heart of man. Now this is another example of where the willful suspension of disbelief comes into play, because at just about anytime in the picture, a song could happen! Yes, it could happen anytime, anywhere: on a cattle drive, on the porch swing in a courtin’ scene, or at a rodeo. Or maybe just while Gene and Champ were out a-lopin’ along, a-singin’ a song with full orchestral accompaniment.
There are times in these pictures where there’s just no need in asking, “Hey where’d that guitar come from and how did the Sons of the Pioneers just appear from behind those rocks, and how did they know the song Roy was gonna sing?”
Some of these songs were no more than fun little ditties and were silly at best. Others, like Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” and “You Are My Sunshine,” have stood the test of time and are still recognizable and bring a smile yet today after all these years.
Now, no discussion of this type of motion picture would be complete without talking about one of the most important elements of this form of entertainment, and that is our leading ladies, better known as the heroine. It’s interesting to note, when there is so much discussion about the ever-evolving role of women in society today, that the women portrayed in these 70- and 80-year-old movies, even by today’s standards, were smart, beautiful, confident, quick-witted, resourceful, and fearless! One such plot line involved Dale Evans playing a tough big-city reporter, employed by a magazine headquartered in a large Eastern city, who was sent out west by the editor to cover a mining company’s corruption and an unexplained murder.
Spoiler alert! Dale’s character and Roy, who plays a Ranger working undercover, don’t much like each other at the start of the picture, but after some misunderstandings get cleared up, a few songs sung, some romantic Western moonlight, a wild horseback chase followed by a shootout with the desperados (which result in only minor non-life-threatening wounds), the bad guys give it up and the case is closed! The End! The music plays and the credits roll. Life is good!
It is my opinion that we could use more of this type of entertainment today — more of these kinds of stories where goodness and decency conquer fear and evil. In our world, right now, today, there is more than enough reality to go around for everyone. So why not get lost in a musical western movie every now and then?
Down through the years, with help of friends, I have put together a large collection of western movies. Now with the technology we have at our fingertips, it’s become easy to search for, find ,and order these old motion picture treasures. When life’s storm clouds gather and the mental strain of stress gets to be too much, I like to gather up my family, pop some corn, throw a log on the fire, and shut out the world with a silver-screen-era singin’-cowboy movie.
It works for me and I highly recommend it to you! Give it a try and let me know what ya think.
See ya down the trail!
Playlist: Ridin’ the Dreamland Range
(All songs from my album of the same name.)
About RW Hampton
Since growing up in a small Texas town, RW Hampton has drifted all across the American West, working cowboy jobs punching cattle, riding young colts, shoeing horses, and even leading trail rides and guiding hunters in the high country. But perhaps his favorite thing and the through line of all his kicking around the West was singing around the campfire while out with the wagon. Never glamorous, ranch work instilled in him a positive approach to life. Hampton’s rich baritone voice brings an honest quality whether he’s performing live or on record. He writes and sings about what he knows and lives. Hampton’s music has earned numerous honors from such prestigious organizations as the Academy of Western Artists and the Western Music Association, which inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2011.