Those who know me sometimes say I have a one-track mind when it comes to music. That is a fallacy. After all, I listen to both country AND western. So, for a bit of a twist, I thought I’d concentrate a couple of columns on the less appreciated (at least by today’s standards) of the two — western.
With that, here’s the story of how tiny Tioga, Texas, lost its claim as the home of recording and silver screen star Gene Autry. Not only did Tioga lose its star, but so did Autry’s home state.
Silent film actors like Tom Mix, a native of Pennsylvania, are credited with starring in the earliest Western films. While cowboy antics of the Old West as fictionalized on motion picture screens remained only a generation in the past, Mix and others, like Broncho Billy Anderson and William S. Hart, began filming early westerns around the turn of the 20th century.
Perhaps the most noted film of the era was “The Great Train Robbery” — which is actually not based in the West, as some would expect, but instead in Paterson, New Jersey. A number of western movie stars of both the silent and modern era played cowboy roles set in the rough and tumble towns of Texas, the badlands of New Mexico and the deserts of Arizona. These actors came from across the country and called states like New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan and California their homes.
The early western stars used the concept of “Texas” as a stage for their on-film personas. Too often, the actors never actually set foot in the Lone Star State. After all, California offered its share of terrain that resembled parts of Texas, and it cost producers far less to film near the motion picture hub of Los Angeles than traveling nearly halfway across the country.
In many ways, it could be said that Hollywood stole Texas’ identity and passed the masquerade off as “authentic” to the generations of western movie fans who followed. But if you’re from Texas, misleading moviegoers was not nearly as criminal as the true story of a Texan who was considered among the most popular of all 20th century entertainers.
Orvon Grover “Gene” Autry was born Sept. 29, 1907, near the small town of Tioga in north central Texas. At the time of Autry’s birth, Tioga claimed less than 800 citizens, a number that declined to 600 by the time Autry began his show business career two decades later. Tioga was cattle country — and true to his on-screen persona, Autry was every bit a cowboy, growing up on his parents’ ranch. One newspaper declared that Autry was “riding a horse before he could walk.” He eventually worked on the ranch and entered his first rodeo at the age of 12.
But even more than cattle, Gene Autry loved music.
Although the stories documenting Autry’s earliest days in music vary, most agree he began singing at a very young age. When he was 10, Autry decided he didn’t like the way his voice sounded without instruments in the background. He saved up $5 to buy a mail-order guitar and taught himself to play chords. Soon he was playing and singing at nightspots along the Red River. While the reported date of the event varies, at some point during this period Autry and his family moved 60 miles north of Tioga to Ravia, Oklahoma. In fact, many accounts of Gene Autry’s life note Ravia as his boyhood home. But Texas doesn’t like to turn loose of its heroes.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Tioga, Texas, took its name from a New York Indian tribe. After all, as so many supposedly Texas-based movies were filmed on out-of-state sets, it could be considered poetic justice that Autry lived in a town named after northerners. Then again, Autry was no Yankee. He was Texas-born and played the role of a Texan in most of the 93 films in which he starred from the 1930s to the 1950s.
If only it could be so easy for Texas to lay claim to Hollywood’s first and most successful singing cowboy.
Some historians have credited Autry as the second most influential star in the development of country music, arriving on the scene just a few years after Jimmie Rodgers. Biographer Don Cusic noted Autry as using the appeal of western movies along with his distinction as a singing cowboy, to introduce much of America to country music, a genre rooted in the South. And there is little doubt Autry’s singing gave a sub-genre of country music — western — its first widespread popularity outside states like Texas and Oklahoma. Moviegoers perceived Autry for what he was — a singing cowboy from Texas (although it was a brand of Texas twisted to Hollywood’s marketing preferences).
Autry never lived in the cactus-thriving region of West Texas and Big Bend Country, the fictional set of many of his movies. And he certainly was not native to California, where he shot his 1950s television show, “The Gene Autry Show,” on a ranch he purchased. Despite the entertainment business’ ability to parlay the Texas mystique into untold millions of dollars, in reality, Autry only occasionally performed live shows in his home state. The rest, as they said, was “Hollywood.” It was also reality — Autry didn’t begin riding the trail to stardom until he drifted across the Red River to Oklahoma.
Ravia was only a short distance north of Tioga, but it might as well have been a world away. After all, Texans stake claim to anything happening inside Texas boundaries. In North Texas, the determining factor depends on which side of the Red River the event occurs. And the privilege of claiming to be Texan follows along the imaginary lines dividing Texas from its four bordering states and Mexico. The width of a cowboy boot is the difference between being a Texan or just another cowpoke.
Autry attended school in Ravia, Oklahoma, and eventually took a job as a telegraph operator with the Frisco Railroad. Working the late-night shift, he passed his time singing and strumming his guitar in the Berwyn telegraph station, a short distance from his adopted home.
Eventually, he went to work for another telegraph company in Chelsea, a town in northeast Oklahoma. Here, company policy prohibited Autry from playing music on the job, and he soon found himself unemployed. But before his dismissal, his singing caught the ear of Oklahoma’s famed humorist Will Rogers, who suggested the young singer take his music to a larger stage.
Autry didn’t find that larger stage in Dallas or San Antonio; rather, he traveled to the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York City to get his official start in the music business. That’s where we’ll pick up next month for the continuation of Autry’s story.
Until next time, have a listen to the western side of the country music business. In some cases, it’ll conjure up old memories, and in others it may just spur a love for a whole new brand of listening pleasure.
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.