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Music Reviews

Randy's Buttons

April 9, 1997
Gene Autry Compilation is Pleasant Surprise
Gene Autry Gene Autry, Sing Cowboy Sing (Rhino 1997) - I'll admit it: I thought Sing Cowboy Sing was going to be a cheesy collection when it arrived.

But I was wrong. This three-disc set, featuring 84 songs recorded between 1939 and 1955, shows Gene Autry in top form: Comfortable, confident, and charming.

Now age 89, most younger people think of Gene Autry as the owner of the California Angels baseball club. But Autry enjoyed a fabulous career in records and on film before purchasing the Angels in 1960.

Autry first struck gold in 1931 with "That Silver-Haired Dandy of Mine," a duet recorded with pal Jimmy Long. Autry then joined W.L.S. National Barn Dance in Chicago, the oldest, and for years the most popular, of the radio barn dances (the Grand Ole Opry did not supplant it until the late 40s).

Billed as Oklahoma's "yodeling cowboy," Autry became the hottest star on the hottest rural-oriented radio show in America. But even bigger things awaited Autry.

In 1935, he was cast in the lead role in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Autry's success as film's singing cowboy cannot be overestimated: In his peak period, he made up to eight films per year, including such favorites as Mexicali Rose and South of the Border. Autry also opened the door for Roy Rogers, when a salary dispute gave rise to a short-lived walk out.

All told, Autry starred in 91 films, making up to $600,000 a year. And the hits kept coming, including million sellers "Back in the Saddle Again" and "You are My Sunshine," still favorites to this day.

But then World War II intervened, and Gene Autry became Sergeant Autry of the Army Air Corps. After the war, Autry resumed his weekly radio show, "Melody Ranch," which began in 1940 and which continued through 1956. In addition, he starred in TV's "The Gene Autry Show" from 1950 through 1955, which ironically, aired 91 episodes. (Maybe that's Autry's lucky number.)

And, in a remarkable change, Autry started recording Christmas songs, including "Here Comes Santa Claus" (1947) and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1949), which sold eight million copies on its release, making it the biggest seller the Columbia label had ever known.

Recognizing that he didn't want to get old on the stage, Autry began branching into business enterprises, and made his last real tour in 1961.

The recordings on Sing Cowboy Sing (a 3-disc set) show Autry at his best. Autry had a gentle, soothing voice, and a guileless honesty that created a bond between singer and listener. While Autry's songs may sound like sentimental favorites today, the interesting point is that they were sentimental favorites even in his day: Autry was willing to dip into tap into the well of nostalgia for his cross-over success.

The tracks on Sing Cowboy Sing are almost all from the "Melody Ranch" radio show: the few exceptions include 1939's "Back in the Saddle Again," and the wartime single, "At Mail Call Today."

Gene Autry
The list of hits on Sing Cowboy Sing never ends, and includes "I'm a Fool to Care," "Someday You'll Want Me to Want You," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Peter Cottontail," and "Your Cheatin' Heart."

The quality of the recordings is excellent: Autry had a down-home style, and his slightly lazy, sun-warmed western tone is like an old friend. Thanks to excellent arrangements by Carl Cotner, both the new songs and the re-recordings of earlier hits showcase Autry at his best.

Like Bob Wills, Autry's sound was more Hollywood than country: the Sing Cowboy Sing recordings feature strings and a studio backing, with a tasteful touches of steel guitar and no twang. Thus, these tracks hold up as pop music, rather than country songs. Don't miss Sing Cowboy Sing.
Widespread Panic Widespread Panic, Bombs & Butterflies (Capricorn 1997) - The six musicians who comprise Widespread Panic have built a nationwide fan base through relentless touring, radio success, and TV appearances. With Bombs & Butterflies, the Athens, Georgia-based band finds a steady, southern boogie that's part Allman Brothers and part Hootie.

The years of touring and playing together have developed a finely-tuned sextet which includes John Bell on vocals and guitar, John Hermann on keyboards and vocals, Michael Houser on guitar and vocals, Todd Nance on drums, Domingo Ortiz on percussion and vocals, and Dave Schools on base and vocals.

While extended jams like "Rebirtha" develop an Allman sound with the twin percussionists, "You Got Yours" has more of a straight-ahead rock sound, with R.E.M. influences.

For WP fans

Moon Times (online fanzine)
The centerpiece of the album Pop Staples' "Hope in a Hopeless World," a challenging and insightful song with the feel of the late, lamented Subdudes.

My one complaint is the last song, "Greta," which includes five minutes of electronic "chirping" and other bug-noises at the end. Because of their expanded recording capabilities (74 minutes), CDs encourage artists to become indulgent. The noise at the end of Bombs & Butterflies only detracts from an otherwise fine release, and would have been trimmed by a producer with a steadier hand.

Someone at Capricorn Records has a keen ear for new music. With solid releases from Cake and 311, Capricorn seeks to reestablish itself as a force. Bombs & Butterflies will help strengthen the label.

-- Randy Krbechek
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