Gene Autry, perhaps the greatest singing cowboy of all time, is born on this day in 1907, in Tioga, Texas.
While still a boy, Autry moved with his family to a ranch in Oklahoma where he learned to play the guitar and sing. The young Autry was quickly attracted to a new style of music that was becoming popular at the time, which combined the traditional cowboy music popular in Texas and Oklahoma and the folk songs, ballads, and hymns of southern-style country music. Known as country-western, the new sound was popularized by musicians from the East Coast and the South who had never been near a horse and couldn’t tell a stirrup from a lariat. Donning cowboy hats and boots and affecting what they thought were western drawls, hundreds of these newly minted “cowboys” were soon crooning popular western ballads like “Tumbling Tumble Weeds” all around the nation.
While Autry was also no cowboy, he was, at least, a genuine westerner who had lived on a ranch. After a chance encounter with cowboy-humorist Will Rogers, who encouraged his dream of singing professionally, Autry made his first recording in 1929, and for several years performed as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy” on a Tulsa radio program. Following a stint as the star of the Chicago-based National Barn Dance radio show, he signed a recording contract with the Sears label, which also marketed a Gene Autry guitar through its famous catalog.
Autry’s lasting fame, though, came from his career as the film industry’s favorite singing cowboy. His first movie, In Old Santa Fe, was eventually followed by nearly 100 other films that made him one of the most popular stars in America and vastly expanded the audience for country-western music around the world.
He died in October 1998 at the age of 91.