Holly George-Warren‘s new book, Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry is based on exclusive access to Gene Autry’s personal papers, as well as interviews with more than 100 relatives, employees, colleagues, and friends. George-Warren was able to synthesize all this information and bring the legendary Gene Autry to life. We were lucky enough to get her to answer a few questions for us about this project. Check out her answers below.
OUP: What was the first song you heard Gene Autry sing?
Holly George-Warren: Like most people my age, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has been part of my life ever since I remember….
OUP: What is your favorite Autry song?
George-Warren: I really couldn’t narrow it down to one, but I very much love the bluesy hillbilly songs he did in the late ’20s and early ’30s (like “Slue-Foot Lou,” “Stay Away from My Chicken House,” and “Wild Cat Mama Blues” — the pre-singing cowboy material) –and I love his early versions of Western classics, like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddles,” and “The Last Round-Up.” Of his huge hits, my faves are “South of the Border” and of course “Back in the Saddle Again.”
OUP: What medium, television, film, music, or radio do you think was Autry’s strongest and why?
George-Warren: He made a huge impact in all of those areas, because he pioneered the singing cowboy song and image in each area…his music really helped to popularize the country sound throughout America–previously he had just been popular in rural areas. On radio, he developed a format that included music, comedy and drama that would have influence everything from today’s “Prairie Home Companion” to the variety shows that developed on TV in the 1950s. And the popularity of his 1950s TV Westerns helped to usher in the early dominance of cowboy programs on television.
OUP: What do you think Autry’s enduring legacy will be?
George-Warren: The image of the singing cowboy–gussied up in fancy clothes and crooning Western songs–as well as the broadening of the country music sonic palate to be more inclusive of other styles; and of course, the museum he founded in Los Angeles, which has expanded to become the Autry National Center.
OUP: In the conclusion to your book you mention meeting Autry. Can you tell us more about this visit?
George-Warren: I met him in his office in Studio City in March 1997 and interviewed him for the New York Times. We really hit it off, and though he was 89 he sang some of his most famous songs to me.
OUP: How did Autry get the nickname “Public Cowboy No 1”?
George-Warren: One of his films (from 1937) had this title and the media picked it up back then; when he was touring the country, newspapers would run headlines like “Public Cowboy No. 1 to visit Nashville.” He was so hugely popular that in July 1939, the New York World’s Fair proclaimed “Gene Autry Day” and NYC newspapers ran the Public Cowboy headline…
OUP: Have you visited the Autry National Center? What exhibits should we check out?
George-Warren: I can’t count the numerous times I’ve been there, beginning in the late 1980s. I spent countless hours at the fantastic library/research center doing research for the biography. I really love the parts of the museum that explore the cowboy image in popular culture, from the nineteenth century and the Wild West shows, to the B-movies that starred Gene and Roy Rogers, to more contemporary Western film. They have some originated some superb traveling exhibits there–some of my favorites have been “How the West Was Worn” (2001), which explores the history of Western wear, and “Once Upon a Time in Italy–The Western Films of Sergio Leone (2005). This June, a centennial exhibit on Gene Autry will open–I’m really looking forward to that.
OUP: What was the biggest challenge of researching this book?
George-Warren: Gene Autry had such a multi-faceted career and life; there was a great deal of ground to cover — he was very prodigious!–and digging into all of that and making sense of it was tricky. Also, he rarely spoke of his childhood, and trying to uncover the mysteries of his early life, as well as his family history, took a lot of detective work. There were several “show biz fables” repeated over the years in numerous Autry articles and documentaries, and I was determined to discern the “real” story. In total, I spent close to a decade researching his life.