Patsy Montana sang and yodeled her way into the hearts of radio listeners in Depression-era America. Her 1935 single, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweet-heart,” was the first recording by a female country artist to sell a million copies. Donning a cowboy hat, checkered shirt, and vest, the “girl with a million dollar smile” gave the appearance of a rugged, independent western woman. “[H]er success,” noted Sandra Bren-nan in All Music Guide, “encouraged the traditionally male-oriented country music business to welcome and respect the scores of female performers that followed her.”
“By popularizing the cowgirl image…,” explained Mary Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann in Finding Her Voice, “Montana gave female country performers their first new solo style. The cowgirl was an alternative to the shy country sweetheart.… This independent yet compassionate image was soon adopted by dozens of other Depression-era female entertainers.” Montana sang on popular radio programs, starred in a movie Western with Gene Autry, and in the 1950s and 1960s, appeared on television. “Montana continued to perform and record well into the 1990s,” wrote Brian Mansfield in MusicHound Folk, “providing a standard against which nearly every female singer that followed could measure herself.”
Although known for her cowgirl image, Montana was born Ruby Rebecca Blevins on October 30, 1912, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Augustus and Amanda Blevins. Out of eleven children, Ruby was the only girl. “Without qualification,” Montana wrote in her autobiography, Patsy Montana: The Cowboy’s Sweetheart, “I became a tomboy. There really is no other way it could have been.” She remembered singing along with a Caruso cylinder played on an Edison talking machine. When she hit the high notes, she broke into a yodel, which later became her signature. At the time, however, her mother told her: “Stop that hollering!” She learned even more about yodeling from listening to Jimmie Rodgers records. “Jimmie Rodgers began making records in 1927,” she wrote, “and we owned as many of his recordings as possible.” She learned to play fiddle, first by taking lessons, and later, when the money for lessons ran out, on her own. “Independent and plucky,” wrote Bufwack and Oermann, “Ruby had stars in her eyes by the time she was a teenager.”
As a high school student she began adding an “e” to Ruby because, as she later explained, “I thought Rubye looked more sophisticated.” Although no one in her family had attended college, Montana’s father and older brother Ira were determined that she receive every opportunity to be independent. A year after her graduation in 1928, she moved to Los Angeles and began music studies at the University of the West (later the University of California, Los Angeles). “California,”
For the Record…
Born Ruby Rebecca Blevins on October 30, 1912, in Hot Springs, AR; died on May 3, 1996, in San Jancinto, CA; daughter of Augustus Marion Blevins and Amanda Victoria Meeks; married Paul Rose, 1934; children: Beverly Paula, Judy Rocelle. Education: Attended University of the West (now the University of California, Los Angeles).
Won talent contest, 1931; sang on KTMR radio in Los Angeles, 1931; joined Lorraine Mclntire and Ruthy De-Mondrum as the Montana Cowgirls on KMIC in Ingle-wood, CA; recorded first single on Victor, “When the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming,” 1932; joined the Kentucky Ramblers, 1933; recorded “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” 1935; became solo artist, 1940; appeared with Gene Autry in film Colorado Sunset, 1940; starred on Louisiana Hayride, 1948; performed on television, 1950s-1960s; attended Fan Fare and performed on college campuses, 1970s; recorded for independent record labels, 1980s-1990s.
Awards: Induction, Country Music Hall of Fame, 1996.
Addresses: Record company —Collectors’ Choice, P.O. Box 838, Itasca, IL 60143-0838, website: http://www.collectorschoicemusic.com.
she recalled in her autobiography, “opened my eyes to a new world just waiting to be explored.” Montana hung out with hillbilly musicians and after winning first place in a singing contest, performed on radio station KTMR as Rubye Blevins, “the yodeling cowgirl from San An-tone.” “Before long,” wrote Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon in The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, “she cut short her educational efforts in favor of a show business career.”
When Montana was asked by Stuart Hamblen to sing on a rival radio station for more money, she accepted the job. She joined Lorraine Mclntire and Ruthy De-Mondrum as the Montana Cowgirls, and because Ruthie was similar to Ruby, Hamblen decided a name change was in order for the group’s new member. On learning that Ruby’s ancestors were Irish, Hamblen dubbed her Patsy Montana. Montana returned home for a vacation in the summer of 1932 and received a week’s booking on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Following these performances, Jimmie Davis phoned her, inviting her to travel to New York to record. At first she brushed him off. “I was not about to fall for that one,” she recalled. “I told him I would think about it.” When her brother informed her that Davis was an important Victor recording artist, Montana called him back. After singing back-up for Davis in Victor’s recording studio in Camden, New Jersey, she recorded her first single, “When the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming.” She rejoined the Montana Cowgirls in California and the group became quite popular before dissolving in 1933 when her two partners married. “I lost my best friends and my job,” Montana recalled. “It was 1933 and I had to start my career all over again.” She returned to Arkansas once again, unsure of the future.
Montana was only home for a short time when a whim inspired her brothers Kenneth and Claude to enter an extra large watermelon in the Chicago World’s Fair. Montana decided to tag along and upon arrival sought out Dolly Good of the Girls of the Golden West. Informed that the Kentucky Ramblers needed a new lead singer, she arranged to audition with Texas Plains. Impressing the band by performing a self-penned song, Montana was given the job. This began an eight-year relationship with the group which would later become the Prairie Ramblers; it would include dozens of recordings and hundreds of appearances. While the group’s home base was in Chicago at WSL’s National Bam Dance, the band also performed for a year on WOR in New York City. Between performances in the Windy City, the Prairie Ramblers traveled hundreds of miles, all packed in one car, for $7.50 a day. In 1934 Montana married Paul Rose, an organizer of the traveling portion of the WSL program. Unlike a number of women performers of the time, however, Montana continued her career after marriage.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the market for records dropped severely. Although female singers were not considered a good prospect in this market, the American Record Company (ARC) decided to record Montana. She, along with the Prairie Ramblers, traveled to New York for a recording session in August of 1935. The band cut “Nobody’s Darling but Mine,” which became one of the biggest hits of the decade. Montana, however, wasn’t sure what to record. When her producer, Art Satherly, suggested, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” she hesitated. Her self-penned song might make a good B-side, but was it good enough for the big time? She recorded it nonetheless and never regretted doing so. “It did not ‘hit’ overnight,” Montana wrote. “It slowly grew in popularity. The ‘magic’ of ‘I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart’ is that it never died.” The first song by a female country artist to sell a million copies, the song also tapped into a desire for female self-determination. “Despite its title, ‘I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart’ is not about a traditional sweetheart,” noted Bufwack and Oermann. “It expresses a woman’s desire for independence, alongside her cowboy lover as an equal.” The song became Montana’s theme song for the next 50 years.
In 1940 Montana appeared in Colorado Sunset with Gene Autry, and although she was offered opportunities to appear in other movies, she declined: she was pregnant with her second child. Montana also parted ways, on friendly terms, with the Prairie Ramblers in 1940. From 1946 to 1947 the American Broadcast Corporation (ABC) hosted her network radio program, Wake up and Smile, and in 1948, she joined Louisiana Hayride. She also toured throughout the 1940s and 1950s with her two daughters as the Patsy Montana Trio. In 1962 her yodeling was dubbed for a character on The Beverly Hillbillies, and in 1966 she recorded a second version of “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” with a little-known guitarist named Waylon Jennings. During the 1970s Montana attended summer Fan Fair Reunions in Nashville and found a receptive audience on college campuses. “By 1992,” wrote Bufwack and Oermann, “her concert appearances numbered well over seven thousand.”
“I never knew I was doing anything important for women until people started writing about me,” Montana told Bufwack and Oermann. “I didn’t understand it until it was explained to me. At the time, I was just tryin’ to make a living.” Montana continued to perform and record in the 1990s, and also wrote her autobiography. Her signature tune was revived by vocalist Suzy Bog-guss in 1988, and recorded again by Lynn Anderson in 1992. Montana died in the summer of 1996 at her home in San Jancinto, California and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the fall of the same year. Remembering “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” Montana explained to Bufwack and Oermann that “The amazing thing was, it’s a girl’s number, and that ain’t ‘sposed to happen.… There were girls on the radio then … but they had no personality. So maybe in that way, maybe I did break the ice … for the Dolly Partons and the Loretta Lynns.… But I wasn’t aware of breaking the ice for anybody.… Maybe it was time for a change and I happened to be there.”
“I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” ARC, 1935.
“Ridin’ Old Paint,” ARC, 1935.
(With the Prairie Ramblers) “Blazin’ the Trail,” ARC, 1936.
(With the Prairie Ramblers) “A Cowboy’s Honeymoon,” ARC, 1937.
(With the Prairie Ramblers) “I Wanna Be a Western Cowgirl,” ARC, 1939.
“When I Get to Where I’m Going,” Vogue, 1946.
Live at the Matador Room, Sims, 1966.
The Cowboy’s Sweetheart, Flying Fish, 1988.
The Best of Patsy Montana, Collectors’ Choice, 2001.
Bufwack, Mary A., and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, Crown Publishers, 1993.
Montana, Patsy, with Jane Frost, Patsy Montana: The Cowboy’s Sweetheart, McFarland, 2002.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
“Patsy Montana,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 27, 2002).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
"Montana, Patsy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/montana-patsy
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