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The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys

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Album Review

Some listeners may think cowboy music and country & western are the same thing, and a listen to this collection of original radio transcription discs from the '40s will result in more than just a game of spotting the differences. The performances of Rex Allen, and particularly the instrumental backgrounds, simply come from another world than country & western. (Remember that the "western" in this genre label is simply there because country star Ernest Tubb thought it might remind people of cowboy music). Although Allen and his repertoire of songs might come from out West or be about the cowboy life, these performances are really just plain Hollywood cowboy. Although Allen's career began on radio, the music he made is directly linked in concept to oaters where the action halts while a singing cowboy presents a number with a complete orchestral background, including instruments such as accordion and clarinet that would normally get a cowboy boot in the rear, then a push toward the exit in a Nashville studio. "Mexicali Rose" has pizzicato strings and squeezebox playing right off a gondola, for example. The opening arrangement of "Arkansas Traveler" is more Aaron Copland doing a hillbilly soundtrack than Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, but that's not to say it isn't good. And it is important to point out that much of the fancy instrumental work is pulled off by performers with solid credits in country music, such as mandolinist Chick Hurt and the brilliant fiddler Alan Crocket, who really does some great old-time stuff on the short instrumental "Raggin' On." The accordion player, who is also quite swinging on certain tracks, is Frank Messina. Of course there will always be an aspect of these performances that is just plain corny, but one wonders if this perception has not been overly emphasized by the music's connections with a style of films that has badly dated, failing to retain much interest except among the most fanatic vintage film buffs who claim it is cozy to "warm up with a B-western." As a vocalist, Allen's style is closest to Bing Crosby. His outlook is bright and cheery, even when singing lines such as, "There is no one to love me/I am always alone." The jaunty nature of the backup, with a solid four-to-the-bar sometimes chomped out by a small string section, is a far cry from the mass hysteria that has supposedly been caused from time to time by an overdose of weeping pedal steel. The final result as all these influences combine is really quite impressive. Let's face it, ranging from genuine hillbilly musical influences to the sophistication of classical music and jazzy saloon singing is a huge musical world. When it all comes together, such as the perfect mix of country and jazz on "Tyin' Knots in the Devil's Tail," the recordings of Rex Allen are just plain brilliant.


Born: 31 December 1922 in Wilcox, AZ

Genre: Traditional Pop

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s

Better-known as the Arizona Cowboy, Rex Allen was the last of Hollywood's singing cowboys. Between 1950 and 1954, Allen starred in 19 movies for Republic studios. The films launched a popular recording career for Allen, as he had several hit singles and albums in the early '50s, before the singing cowboys slowly disappeared from the charts. The son of a fiddle player, Rex Allen was given his first guitar when he was 11 years old; his father intended Rex to support him at dances. Shortly afterwards,...
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The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys, Rex Allen
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