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Sons of the Pioneers

Sons of the Pioneers

Country music group

From their formation in 1934 to their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980, the Sons of the Pioneers have proven to be one of the most enduring and beloved Western groups. Combining close harmony with odes to tumbleweeds, cattle roundups, and the lonesome campsite at the end of a long day, the group mapped out a romantic version of the nineteenth-century western landscape. During the worst years of the Depression, the Sons of the Pioneers brightened American spirits with a steady release of classic records including "Cool Water," "Happy Rovin' Cowboy," and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." "The Sons of the Pioneers," wrote Bruce Eder in All Music Guide, "were the foremost vocal and instrumental group in western music, and the definitive groups specializing in cowboy songs, setting the standard for every group that has come since."

The group also joined Gene Autry and many other singing cowboys on screen, adding their distinct vocal sound to B-westerns including Hollywood Canteen (1944), Gay Rancheros (1944), and Melody Time (1948). Although the B-western would fade and cowboy songs make way for other musical trends, the Sons of the Pioneers continued to persevere into the 1990s, celebrating 65 consecutive years of performing in 1998.

The Sons of the Pioneers were formed from the ashes of several unsuccessful groups in the early 1930s. Leonard Franklin Slye was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1911, and never intended to become a musician. In the early 1930s, however, he traveled to Los Angeles, where he entered and won an amateur singing contest. Soon he found himself singing for the Rocky Mountaineers. Slye, however, believed the group might benefit from more vocal support, and soon Canadian Bob Nolan had joined the band. Frustrated by the Rocky Mountaineers' lack of success, however, Nolan left the group after three months, and was replaced by Webb City, Missouri, singer Tim Spencer. Soon, though, Slye and Spencer also departed from the group, and while they formed a new trio, the group quickly fell apart.

Early in 1933 Slye and Spencer were more determined than ever to make it, and once again recruited Nolan to fill out the group. For several weeks, the group—soon to be the Pioneer Trio—worked on its harmony and yodeling until the three singers had achieved a smooth blend. Spencer and Nolan, meanwhile, began writing original songs for the group, and the Pioneer Trio soon made its debut on KFWB radio in Los Angeles. In a short time, mail was pouring into the station, praising the group's high-spirited singing and helping the trio land a spot on both the morning and evening programs. In 1934 the Pioneer Trio added a fourth member, Texas fiddler Hugh Farr, expanding both their vocal and instrumental lineup. Despite the fourth member, the band only renamed itself when a broadcaster introduced the group as the Sons of the Pioneers. In offering an explanation for his mistake, the announcer said that the members weren't old enough to be pioneers, but they were old enough to be sons of the pioneers.

The Sons of the Pioneers' popularity grew rapidly in and beyond their Los Angeles base. In 1934 they signed (along with Bing Crosby) to Decca Records, and in August they recorded their first singles for the label. One of the first songs recorded at this August session was a Bob Nolan original, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," soon to become a staple in the Pioneers' repertoire. Originally titled "Tumbling Leaves," the group eventually changed the name to give the song a western flavor. Over the next two years the group would record 32 songs for Decca.

In 1935 the Sons of the Pioneers expanded their sound once again, adding Hugh Farr's brother, Karl Farr, on guitar. A year later, Lloyd Perryman, from Ruth, Arkansas, replaced Spencer. The five-piece band also found new work in the movies, first in short films and then in features like The Gallant Defender and The Old Homestead. The Pioneers' singing would grace the movies of well-known silver screen cowboys over the next 20 years, from Gene Autry's The Old Corral in 1936 to John Wayne's The Searchers in 1956. The movies, however, would also prompt the first significant change in the Pioneers' line-up. In 1938 Slye auditioned for the lead role in Under the Western Stars. He won the role, and the studio, perhaps fearing that Leonard Slye wasn't a very heroic name, changed his name to Roy Rogers. Although Rogers left the group to pursue a movie career, he would later use the Sons of the Pioneers in his popular movies of the 1940s and on his television show in the 1950s.

Following Rogers' departure, the Pioneers hired comedian-bassist Pat Brady, and then, to bolster their harmony, brought Spencer back into the group. Many consider the 1938-1942 line-up—Nolan, Hugh and Karl Farr, Spencer, Perryman, and Brady—the classic Sons of the Pioneers. Although both Perryman and Brady would leave the group for military service during World War II, the band remained active, and both players later returned to the line-up. In 1944 the group signed with RCA and would effectively remain with the label until 1969. The Pioneers continued to record strong material throughout the 1940s, and scored numerous hits including "Cool Water," "Room Full of Roses," and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." "These," wrote Eder, "were golden years for the Sons of the Pioneers."

For the Record . . .

Members include Pat Brady (joined group, 1938), vocals; Karl Farr (joined group, 1935), guitar, vocals; Thomas "Hugh" Farr , fiddle, vocals; Bob Nolan , vocals; Lloyd Perryman (joined group, 1936), vocals; Leonard Slye (left group, 1938), vocals; Tim Spencer , vocals.

Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 1934; signed to Decca Records, 1934; appeared in 28 western films, 1937-41; signed with the American Recording Company, 1936; signed with RCA Victor, 1944; performed for three John Ford Westerns, Wagon Master (1950), Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956); commemorated 65 years of consecutive performances, 1998.

Awards: Inducted into the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame (Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer), 1971; inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1980.

Addresses: Record company—RCA, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036, website: http://www.rca.com/.

Selected discography

Cowboy Hymns and Spirituals, RCA, 1952.

Cool Water (and 17 Timeless Favorites), RCA, 1959.

Good Old Country Music, RCA, 1963.

The Songs of Bob Nolan, RCA, 1966.

Riders in the Sky, RCA, 1973.

Let's Go West Again, RCA, 1981.

Collection, Vol. 1, Bear Family, 1987.

Collection, Vol. 2, Bear Family, 1987.

Collection, Vol. 3, Bear Family, 1987.

Collection, Vol. 4, Bear Family, 1987.

Wagons West [Box Set], Bear Family, 1996.

Songs of the Prairie, Bear Family, 1998.

Sources

Books

Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, Music Hound Folk, Visible Ink, 1998.

Online

"Sons of the Pioneers," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (December 22, 2004)

—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

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