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With a song in their hearts, stars salute the Singing Cowboy

June 21, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

"NOTHING seems as natural," Gene Autry once said, "as holding a guitar in my hand and having a tune to sing." The Singing Cowboy certainly spent a considerable amount of time hefting that instrument: The hundreds of songs he wrote and recorded not only made him a screen hero, they also established him as a musical and radio superstar.

A celebration of that musical legacy just hit stores with "Boots Too Big to Fill: A Tribute to Gene Autry," featuring Vince Gill, John Anderson, Glen Campbell, Charlie Daniels and others performing the songs made famous by the Western icon.

The band Riders in the Sky not only appear on that tribute CD (they perform the Autry hit "Lonely River"), they also are currently touring under the banner of a "Centennial Salute to Gene Autry!" and performing selections from his songbook. That tour stops at the Hollywood Bowl July 2-4, when, as part of the Bowl's July 4th Fireworks Spectacular, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will join the group to perform "Back in the Saddle Again," "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and other signature Autry hits.

Doug Green, a member of the Riders who wrote a history of Western music, said the echoes of the late icon's music are still strong.

"I'm glad to see that in a largely disposable pop culture where things are forgotten so quickly that something from so long ago is getting celebrated still and has a chance to reach new fans," Green said. "This is a wonderful turn in the sun for Gene Autry, and we're just proud to be part of it. That show at the Hollywood Bowl is, for us, the most exciting moment in our career, which is 30 years in."

Next month, the Riders will also re-release their 1996 album "Public Cowboy #1: The Music of Gene Autry," through Rounder Records. The album has been remastered and expanded with four bonus cuts and new liner notes by Green.

For a deep survey of Autry's career, there's also "Sing Cowboy Sing," the Rhino Records boxed set of a decade ago. The 84-song collection has his famous Western tunes ("Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Sing Me a Song of the Saddle"), as well as holiday classics ("Peter Cottontail" and his biggest hit, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" from 1949). The collection presents a star who began as a yodeling devotee of Jimmie Rodgers and eventually found his own voice with the serene, guileless style that matched his screen persona.

It was 1928 when "Oklahoma's yodeling cowboy" hit the radio airwaves, and three years later he inked a deal with Columbia Records. In 1932 he scored his real breakthrough hit, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," a duet with Jimmy Long. As Autry's career took off in film, TV, radio and records, he became a reassuring presence for a public dealing with the grim days of the Great Depression.

"His music and screen presence meant so much to people," Green said. "During the Depression, he gave people these wonderfully inspiring escapist movies and gave people this sense of freedom. He stood up for what's right, and he did it with a guitar in his hand."

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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