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Gene Autry, America's 'Public Cowboy No. 1.'

The Singing Cowboy was one of the country's most popular and prolific film stars during his career; he also gained fame as a radio star, producer and TV personality. Biographer Holly George-Warren traces Autry's lengthy career in Public Cowboy No. 1.

37:23

Other segments from the episode on July 5, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 5, 2011: Interview with Holly George-Warren; Review of Dolly Parton's album "Better Day"; Review of Michael Sims's book "The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's…

Transcript

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Gene Autry, America's 'Public Cowboy No. 1'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of film, "Public Cowboy No. 1")

Mr. GENE AUTRY (Musician): This is Gene Autry calling all cowboys. Calling all
cowboys, go to (unintelligible) ranch at one, rustlers headed that way. Calling
all cowboys.

GROSS: That's Gene Autry in his 1937 film "Public Cowboy No. 1," using his
radio broadcast to call for help in catching the cattle rustlers. It's not the
only one of his films in which he had a radio show.

Gene Autry was the first singing cowboy movie star. He influenced Westerns,
country music and Western clothing. Frankly, much as I love Westerns, I didn't
pay much attention to him as a kid, but a few years ago, I learned what a great
singer he was. I've been watching his films Sundays on the Encore Western
Channel. Turner Classic Movies is showing singing cowboy films every Friday
night this month with five back-to-back Gene Autry movies this Friday.

So we asked Holly George-Warren to talk with us about Gene Autry. She's the
author of the Autry biography "Public Cowboy No. 1." She also wrote "Cowboy:
How Hollywood Invented the Wild West" and co-authored "How the West Was Worn."

I told you how much I like Autry's singing. In his movies, he didn't just do
cowboy songs, he did some pop songs, too, like this one, "Someday You'll Want
Me to Want You," from his 1946 film "Sioux City Sue."

(Soundbite of song, "Someday You'll Want Me to Want You")

Mr. AUTRY: (Singing) When I'm in love with somebody else, you expect me to be
true and keep on loving you, though I am feeling blue. You think I can't forget
you until someday you'll want me to want you, when I am strong for somebody
new. And though you don't want me now, I'll get along somehow, and then I won't
want you.

I know that someday you'll want me to want you...

GROSS: Holly George-Warren, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. HOLLY GEORGE-WARREN (Author, "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life And Times Of
Gene Autry"): Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: You know, it's so interesting in the Gene Autry singing cowboy movies,
there's often like a radio show that fits into it, you know, because Gene Autry
is always playing a character called Gene Autry, and usually he's not only
singing with the boys on the trail and singing to his sweetheart, he's also
singing on the radio, or he's singing in a rodeo or singing in a medicine show.
But they're always in their own way kind of show biz-oriented.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: They're show biz-oriented, and the other new thing in these
movies was that often they took place in the present day. Usually, the Westerns
took place in the 19th century, and in these films, even though Gene was riding
Champion, his horse, and there were plenty of - lots of, you know, Western
things everywhere, but there were cars, there were airplanes.

The bad guys were often either corporate guys trying to wipe out the little man
on the range or, you know, gangsters from back East and things like that. So of
course radio was part of that modern-day period that they were depicting in
these films.

GROSS: There were often women from the city who would come in to, like, the
ranch with high heels on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Exactly.

GROSS: And then there's like, you know, Gene Autry in his, like, Western outfit
on his horse and everything. So you had those two worlds colliding. It's always
interesting to see in the Gene Autry Westerns how they were going to work in
radio in those Westerns where they did work it in.

So I want to play an example. One of his better-known movies is called "Melody
Ranch," and in this one, you know, Ann Miller, who is the star of musical
movies, is in it. Jimmy Durante, the famous comic, is in it. So here's a scene
in which, you know, Gene Autry actually has his own radio show, and his friend
played by Jimmy Durante has lost a court fight against the villains who run the
town. And Gene is on Durante's side, and here's Gene Autry in the court after
the verdict.

(Soundbite of film, "Melody Ranch")

Mr. AUTRY (As Gene Autry): All right, your honor, I'm forced to respect the
law, even the way it's handed out in Torpedo.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Court adjourned.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Cheer up, Genie Boy, you might be
able to use that story on your radio program sometime.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) You'll have to rewrite the script
so you'll be the noble hero that scares off all the bold bad men.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) (Unintelligible), you're a scream, you're
terrific. My brother.

Mr. AUTRY: (As Autry) Thanks, boys, you just gave me a swell idea. Listen in on
my program tomorrow night, and you'll hear a story about the law in Torpedo,
and so will everybody else in the country.

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character)I wouldn't use that material if I
was you, Gene.

Mr. AUTRY: (As Autry) You may be running this town right now, Mark, but you're
not running my radio program.

GROSS: I just think it's so funny because, like, the conflict isn't about,
like, the cattle drive in the scene, it's about, you know, the radio program.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: And yes, the radio show actually was almost like a character
of Gene Autry films from the very beginning. He was in a serial called "Phantom
Empire," which is this just amazing sci-fi Western. And the whole crux of the
matter was if he didn't arrive at the ranch each day, called The Radio Ranch,
to do his broadcast, then they would lose the ranch.

And throughout his career, the radio plays an important role, and that was the
other aspect of the Gene Autry films. He always played himself, Gene Autry
radio star, singing star, and even if he was a sheriff, he was Gene Autry the
singing, you know, sheriff.

And sometimes even the radio would be used to save the day, to alert his
friends, like Smiley Burnette, where the bad guys were hiding. Or sometimes he
would use a phonograph record, it would be playing as a way to trick the bad
guys. They would think he was in the other room singing, and it was really, you
know, the phonograph record.

So he definitely incorporated all those other parts of his career into his
movies.

GROSS: For the movie "Melody Ranch" that we just heard a clip from, the studio
hired Julie Stein, the great songwriter, who later wrote the music for the
shows "Gypsy," "Funny Girl," "Bells Are Ringing," the music for "Gentlemen
Prefer Blondes." So he wrote the melodies for this movie, and one of them - I
just love this song.

So I thought we'd play it. It's called "Melody Ranch," and it's the title song
for the film, and Gene Autry later named his ranch "Melody Ranch." And it's so
interesting the way it opens the film because the film opens with this song,
and it's later reprised at the end, where he's singing it to his sweetheart.

But in the opening of the film, Gene Autry and the boys are sitting around a
campfire singing this song. Then Gene Autry gets up, the camera pulls back, and
we see he's walking toward a microphone, and the campfire isn't real, it's a
set for his radio program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Right.

GROSS: So it's just so interesting again how they get radio and the West to
figure into the same movie. But anyways, I want to play this song "Melody
Ranch." I have to say the lyrics don't quite measure up to the melody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: That's true sometimes.

GROSS: But, you know, his singing's so good, so relaxed, kind of behind the
beat. So here's Gene Autry with Ann Miller singing "Melody Ranch."

(Soundbite of song, "Melody Ranch")

Mr. AUTRY: (Singing) Stake your claim on Melody Ranch with a song. As you ride
'neath the moon side by side let a tune be your guide. Stake your claim on
Melody Ranch with a song, harmonize, learn the words, vocalize with the birds
in the skies.

You'll find your love...

GROSS: That's Gene Autry with Ann Miller, from the movie "Melody Ranch," which
of course starred Gene Autry. And we're talking to Holly George-Warren, who is
the author of a book about Gene Autry, which is called "Public Cowboy No. 1."

And on Friday, July 8, TCM is going to be playing several Gene Autry Western
musicals back to back. But also if you like Gene Autry films, the Encore
Western Channel shows them every Sunday at noon.

So we just heard "Melody Ranch," very nice. These movies that Gene Autry made,
he did so many of them. How many did he do?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: He was in about 93 films altogether.

GROSS: That's really a lot, and you said there were periods where he would do a
movie a month. Now, okay, these are low-budget films, and, you know, some of
them kind of adhere to a formula. Still, a movie a month, and they were short.
Some of them were like an hour, an hour and 10 minutes. Nevertheless, that
seems kind of ambitious or really cranking it out.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: He was - yeah. Before James Brown and Elvis Presley, but I
think Gene Autry was the hardest-working man in show business. I mean, the guy
sometimes made eight films a year. He was doing a national radio show that
began in 1940. So that was a weekly show. He did public appearances all over,
traveled around with a Western variety show, and he was always in the recording
studio.

He was a Columbia Records artist. So he was working in the studios in
California and New York, and then later on, he was the first of the Western
film stars to get onto TV. He started his own production company in 1950 and
started doing a weekly TV show, as well.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Gene Autry, who was among
the most famous of the singing cowboys. And my guest is Holly George-Warren,
who is the author of the book "Public Cowboy No. 1," which is a biography of
Gene Autry. And on Friday July 8, Turner Classic Movies is going to be showing
several Gene Autry musical Westerns back to back as part of their Singing
Cowboy Month. But also if you like Gene Autry Westerns, the Encore Western
Movie Channel shows them every Sunday at noon.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Gene Autry, who was among
the most famous of the singing cowboys. And my guest, Holly George-Warren, is
the author of the book "Public Cowboy No. 1," which is about Gene Autry, it's a
biography of him.

And on Friday July 8, Turner Classic Movies is going to show several Gene Autry
movies back to back as part of their Singing Cowboy Month. And if you enjoy
those movies, they are shown, those Gene Autry movies are also shown every
Sunday at noon on the Encore Western Channel.

Now, he started off working on the railroad and singing. How did the railroad
help him get started in its own way?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, back in those days, we're talking mid- to late '20s,
he worked for the Frisco Railroad, which had stops up and down Oklahoma,
Missouri, and it was really a very family atmosphere. They had their own
newspaper.

So I was able to find copies of the Frisco Railroad Newspaper, touting this
great, you know, railroad telegrapher. He was a telegraph operator who
entertained his friends and co-workers by performing for them. And he also
started doing a local show in Tulsa, where he performed on the radio and
started doing a few little shows around in that area.

So it kind of built up his confidence until he finally got his recording career
started in 1929, actually October of '29 - not the most auspicious time to
start a recording career, but that's when he went to New York and cut his first
records.

GROSS: Yeah, his first records coincided with the crash that led to the Great
Depression.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Right, and it was just one of those perfect-timing things
because Gene had this very kind of like everyman quality to him, and recording
had changed so that - he had a soft, kind of an intimate way of singing, much
like, say, Bing Crosby did, and with the new type of microphones, this was
perfect for Gene's voice.

And the other thing was Gene was a real mimic, and he could do songs like a
very popular singer Jimmie Rodgers, which was a big seller for Victor Records
back in the day and were selling for 75 cents a record. Gene started doing kind
of Jimmie Rodgers sound-a-likes for 20 cents a record at these budget discount
labels, and they started selling like hotcakes because people in rural areas
could order these from mail-order catalogues, and he built up a big audience
that way, though really kind of the budget chains of the day.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned Jimmie Rodgers, and, you know, it's understandable
why Gene Autry would want to emulate Jimmie Rodgers, because Jimmie Rodgers was
not only a great singer and songwriter, but he also was a railroad man like
Gene Autry was.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Exactly, and in fact when I did research for the book, thank
goodness there was all this correspondent that Gene had kept going back to the
early '40s. And through a lot of detective work, I figured out that Gene and
Jimmie actually did meet a few times.

And then of course when Jimmie Rodgers died, sadly, of TB, Gene recorded I
think it was three or four tribute songs to Jimmie Rodgers, and he was really
quite touched by the man.

GROSS: Well, let's hear one of the Jimmie Rodgers imitation, budget-label
recordings, one of the knock-offs that Gene Autry did very early in his career,
in 1929, and this is "Blue Yodel No. 5." You say this is basically like
gesture-for-gesture, note-for-note replication of Jimmie Rodgers.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes, and it was so strange, Terry, because he ended up
actually recording some Jimmie Rodgers songs that Rodgers did at Victor and
releasing them even before Rodgers' own versions came out. I think that he, you
know, was able to get the lead sheets and the sheet music for some of these
songs, and then he actually saw some of Jimmie Rodgers' performances, learned
the songs and then rushed into to the studio and did the budget version of it,
and it actually came out either the same week or even before Rodgers in a
couple of cases.

GROSS: All right, so here's Gene Autry in 1929, singing Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue
Yodel No. 5."

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Yodel No. 5")

Mr. AUTRY: (Singing) (Yodeling) It's raining here, stormin' on the deep blue
sea. Lord, it's raining here, stormin' on the deep blue sea. Ain't no black-
headed mama can make a fool out of me.

(Yodeling) Now I can see a train coming down the railroad track, lord, lord,
lord, I see a train coming down the railroad track and I love to hear the bark
of that old smokestack. (Yodeling).

GROSS: So that's Gene Autry, singing Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 5,"
recorded very early in Autry's career, 1929, and recorded in a much higher
voice than we're used to hearing him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes, he did these crazy - I love them, actually - these
rambling, gambling kind of, you know, songs that were the antithesis to the
white-hatted good guy that Gene played in the Western movies. You know these
were about loose women and boozing it up and things like that.

GROSS: So how did Gene Autry find his own voice after imitating Jimmie Rodgers?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, he was billed early on as the Oklahoma yodeling cowboy
because he did, you know, grow up in Texas and Oklahoma. And by the time he
made his way to Chicago to star on WLS, which was a huge radio station and had
the National Barn Dance in 1932, his announcer, a woman named Ann Williams
started really building up: Here comes our hero cowboy Gene Autry.

And they would do the whole clippity-clappity, you know, of him riding up and
really inspiring him to start dressing more in cowboy outfits because before
that, he just dressed, you know, in a nice business suit when he did public
appearances.

So he really started taking on this guise as the cowboy, even though he knew
what it was really like to be a cowboy, having come from Texas and Oklahoma,
and that was really drudgery and hard work in reality. So of course he started
emphasizing the fantasy, the beauty of being a cowboy and the heroicism(ph) of
being a cowboy.

So by 1933, he had begun recording strictly cowboy songs, along with still a
few of the Jimmie Rodgers style rambling, gamboling songs.

GROSS: Had he ever been a cowboy? Had he ever rode horses before being in
movies?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, he grew up in, you know, rural Texas. So you pretty
much had to be able to ride a horse. I think sadly he probably rode a mule more
often because he came from a very impoverished background, and his father
deserted the family when he was quite young.

But his uncle ran a small ranch in Texas, and he helped a lot on the ranch and
definitely knew how to, you know, drive a cart, you know, and ride a horse. But
he was not an expert horseman, and he certainly did not want to be. I mean,
it's kind of ironic, when he made it out in California in the movies, in 1935,
he had to take a lot of lessons and really train to learn how to be good on
horseback.

GROSS: Of course, one of the songs Gene Autry became most famous for is "Back
in the Saddle Again." Did he use that as the theme on his radio show?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes, Gene was very shrewd. He did not write that song. A guy
named Ray Whitley wrote it, and it actually appeared in a film that Whitley was
in around 1938. But Gene loved the song, and maybe, you know, he was a great
stylist. So maybe he changed it a little bit with the way he sang it, but
before long, his name was on the writing credits, and he ended up getting the
publishing to the song. Once that happened, it became the theme song to his
radio show.

GROSS: Clever, because you get a lot of money when people buy it.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Oh yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So let's hear "Back in the Saddle Again," and I have to say I always
thought of this as just, like a really corny song, but it's really lovely the
way he sings it. So here's Gene Autry.

(Soundbite of song, "Back in the Saddle Again")

Mr. AUTRY: (Singing) I'm back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a
friend, where the long-horned cattle feed on the lowly gypsum weed. I'm back in
the saddle again.

Riding the range once more, toting my old .44, where you sleep out every night,
and the only law is right, back in the saddle again. Whoopi-ty-aye-o, rocking
to and fro, back in the saddle again. Whoopi-ty-aye-o I go my way, back in the
saddle again.

GROSS: Holly George-Warren will be back in the second half of the show. She's
the author of "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life And Times Of Gene Autry." Turner
Classic Movies will show five back-to-back Autry films this Friday night as
part of this month's singing cowboy series. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We're talking about Gene Autry with
Holly George-Warren, the author of a biography called "Gene Autry: Public
Cowboy No. 1." This Friday, Turner Classic Movies is showing five Autry films
back-to-back as part of their July Singing Cowboy series. And the Encore
Western Channel shows Autry films every Sunday. Gene Autry was also quite a
businessman, and after his movie career owned the American League baseball team
the California Angels. I became a Gene Autry fan because I love his singing.

Holly, where would you say Gene Autry fits into country music? And what impact
would you say he had on subsequent country music performers?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Gene Autry had a huge impact on the history of country
music. Prior to his popularity, most of the kind of music considered country or
country and western was labeled hillbilly music, or old-time tunes, that kind
of thing. And for example, the music that was popular in Nashville, there was
kind of a hayseed image surrounding the music. Most of the performers even
dressed kind of in these overstated outfits with the overalls and the patches
and the blacked out teeth, sometimes that kind of thing, to really give it that
rural flavor.

When Gene came along basically singing country songs for a national audience on
the movies beginning in '35, he was dressed up as a cowboy. And it had this
much more kind of heroic stature than, say, the country bumpkin that country
music was associated with. So...

GROSS: And romantic because he was a leading man.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes. It was romantic. He won the day with the music rather
than his fist, although he could throw a punch now and again. But it was
basically playing guitar and singing that often won the day. And suddenly
national audiences started clamoring for this kind of music.

And before, you know, country music had been quite regional with the audiences
mostly in, you know, pockets of the Midwest, like the Southeast and Texas and
places like that. So the popular audience for country music started to expand
and Western music, which had some similarities to it but different themes, of
course, with great songs like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and those kind of things,
you know, descriptive lyrics about the Western plains, etcetera, those kind of
lyrics sometimes matched with the more traditional country music, the hillbilly
mountain style music and created what became known as country and western music
in the 1940s.

GROSS: Do you think that Autry played any role in establishing the clothing
style for country music?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Gene played a huge role in that because, again, the country
artists who dressed kind of not with a lot of stage presence, saw these great
cowboy outfits with, you know, the piping and embroidery and things like that
and they began wearing them on stage. And pretty soon the stages of the Grand
Ole Opry, everybody had on a cowboy hat and boots and, you know, a fancy
western shirt.

GROSS: So Gene Autry actually started his movie career with a serial, a
cliffhanger serial of, you know, of really short movies called "Phantom
Empire." And this is actually on DVD. So I'm going to read the blurb on the
back, on the video box because it's concise and perfect.

So Gene Autry does a radio show from a place called Radio Ranch and this is:
(Reading) Radio Ranch is a dude ranch resort owned by Tom Baxter and popular
radio entertainer Gene Autry. Twenty-five thousand feet beneath the ranch lies
the super-scientific highly advanced kingdom of Murania, which is rich in
radium deposits and ruled by the beautiful Queen Tika. Gene's radio contract
states that he must broadcast daily from the ranch or he will lose it to a
discredited scientist trying to steal the ranch for its radium. The Queen tries
to protect her kingdom from the outside world by getting rid of Gene Autry and
the Junior Thunder Riders.

And that's a group of children and teenagers who, well, it's too complicated to
explain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: But they have great costumes, like they have helmets made
out of buckets on their head and, of course, the capes and it's got all this
kind of things like the Little Rascals used to have as far as secret hideouts
and secret laboratories. But mixed in with that we have Gene Autry singing this
great country music with his sidekick Smiley Burnette, who was called Oscar in
this particular serial but later became known as Frog Millhouse because of his
way of making the frog voice and all these kinds of funny sound effects and
things like that.

But it's got an early (unintelligible) television. And, you know, you figure
this was 1934 when they started filming this and television is a big part of
the Queen Tika's artillery of technological advances that she uses to see what
the surface people are up to. And there are robots that are just hysterical.

GROSS: The robots look like the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz."

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes they do. And one really great part, they get inhabited
by Oscar and Pete, the two bumbling sidekicks, which is really quite amusing.

GROSS: So to give a sense of what this serial sounded like I thought I'd play a
short scene. Gene Autry isn't in this scene but he's the subject of the scene
because the Queen and one of her men are talking about how to get rid of Gene
Autry.

(Soundbite of show, "Phantom Empire")

Mr. WHEELER OAKMAN (Actor): (as Lord Argo) There's the key to our entire
situation.

Ms. DOROTHY CHRISTY (Actor): (as Queen Tika) Explain yourself, Argo.

Mr. OAKMAN: (as Lord Argo) If we can capture Gene Autry, Radio Ranch would soon
become deserted and the entrance to our underground kingdom would forever
remain undiscovered.

Ms. CHRISTY: (as Queen Tika) We can never allow Murania to become desecrated by
the presence of surface people. Our lives are serene. Our minds are superior,
our accomplishments greater. Gene Autry must be captured.

GROSS: Give you a sense of the great acting...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes.

GROSS: ...in that. But this was his breakthrough, huh?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: This was. It became hugely popular. And it was interesting
too that some of the themes that we would later see in the Gene Autry films,
kind of like the, you know, the cowboys-versus-technology kind of thing. And
then also there was a really strong female character, the young girl who was an
incredible trick rider, Betsy King Ross, who plays a large role in the film, I
think was a big inspiration to a lot of the young girls who were watching the
serial on Saturday afternoons.

GROSS: After Gene Autry became famous his biggest rival was Roy Rogers. When
did Roy Rogers come along?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, it's interesting. One of my favorite early Gene films
was from 1936 call "The Old Corral." And in that film there's this guy, I don't
think he even gets credited, but his name at that time was Dick Weston and he
was a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, a great singing group, and that was
Roy Rogers to be. He played actually kind of a bad guy in that that Gene turns
around and he becomes a good guy in the end. And he actually does a little bit
of singing in it as do the Sons of the Pioneers.

Well, a couple of years later in 1938 Gene actually went on strike because he
had such a horrific contract with his movie company. I mean he started out at
$100 a week and hadn't gotten that much more it even though he was a huge star.
So while he was on strike literally refusing to go before the cameras, that's
when Herb Yates, who ran Republic Pictures said okay, we're going to make
somebody else a star. And that's when he helped Roy Rogers get the name Roy
Rogers. He was actually born Leonard Slye in Ohio.

Anyway, that was his first starring role was in 1938. And so he then became
kind of a little bit of a competition to Gene at that period. But it wasn't
really until World War II, when Gene served in the military, that Roy Rogers
became the, you know, king of the cowboys.

GROSS: So while Gene Autry was serving in the Pacific, Roy Rogers was making
movies?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yeah. It's - I go into a lot of detail in the book about
this because I was able to find correspondence of - pretty unbelievable, Herb
Yates really wanted Gene Autry to stay out of the service, and Gene insisted in
going in and Herb Yates, you know, Gene was Republic Pictures' cash cow. He was
much more popular than John Wayne even at that point.

And so Herb Yates said okay, forget it. We're going to make somebody else a
star. You're never going to work again. And literally, I found correspondence
that Herb Yates sent to all the movie theater chains in the country saying
forget Gene Autry. Republic's new cowboy king is Roy Rogers. We only want you
to play the Roy Rogers.

And, of course, Gene wasn’t able to make films while he was serving in the Army
Air Corps so suddenly, you know, these Roy Rogers pictures became, you know,
number one. He was on the cover of Life magazine. And Gene recovered somewhat
when he came back from the war and started making pictures again but never
quite outdid Roy Rogers in popularity after that.

GROSS: Something that Gene Autry and his rival Roy Rogers shared is that they
didn't want their studio to show their movies on TV. What were they afraid of?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, what started happening was that people stopped going
to the movies to stay home and watch television for free. And, you know, these
B westerns had always been kind of budget films, a lot of times they were
double features and things like that. So they were really afraid that they were
undercutting their, you know, the film's value by having them on TV for free.

Of course, Gene got very smart and actually ended up buying all of his films
from Republic Pictures and was able to then show them on his own television
stations because he was also very smart and he got into broadcasting. He
started buying radio stations during World War II and later TV stations, so he
started showing his own films the way he wanted them to be seen on his own
stations.

GROSS: You know, we’ve talked about where Gene Autry fits into the movies as
the singing cowboy where his music fits into country music. Where would you say
he fits in as a businessman within the entertainment world?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Gene was very savvy early on, that the way to make money in
music and a way to sustain an income was through publishing, music publishing.
So very, very early, even when he was just singing on the radio in Chicago, he
started his own publishing company and started trying to buy copyrights of
songs. So that kind of sustained him through some hard times in, you know, in
World War II when he was just drawing the pay of a soldier, he was able to make
quite a bit of money from the publishing company. And also shrewdly, he was
able to invest in radio stations that would continue to, you know, play his
music.

During the shellac shortages during World War II he bought a jukebox company
that distributed jukeboxes, so he knew that all the enlisted men and women
would be listening to jukeboxes, and also that his records would have to be
distributed to go on to these jukeboxes.

So he really had a knack for figuring out business and also he was able to look
into the future as far as, you know, getting in television really early, buying
up some real estate really early and, you know, buying TV stations too when
still it was kind of a crapshoot if those were going to really pan out at the
time.

GROSS: Gene Autry retired from public performance in 1962. He died of lymphoma
in 1998 at the age of 91. You did a feature story on him for The New York
Times. You met him when you wrote that story. What was your impression of him?

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: It was so incredible. He was 89 years old. I met him in
March of '97 and he still had that charisma. You know, even though he was an
elderly guy and, you know, he was funny. He was charming. He definitely liked
the ladies. I happen to have a penchant for, you know, Western outfits myself
and I was, of course, decked out in my fanciest cowgirl outfit and my fanciest
boots that day when I went to meet him and interview him and he was quite taken
by my outfit and even said honey, did you bring a Kodak with you so we can get
some pictures? And gave me tips on how to keep my boots all shiny and he was
just a really - I could see why so many people loved the guy.

GROSS: Well, Holly George-Warren, I want to thank you so much talking with us.

Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Oh, this has been just a true honor. Thanks for having me on
the show.

GROSS: Thanks for being here.

Holly George-Warren is the author of "Public Cowboy No. 1." You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. You can see five Gene Autry films
this Friday night on Turner Classic Movies as part of this month Singing Cowboy
series. The Encore Western Channel shows Autry films every Sunday.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Dolly Parton, who Ken
thinks is often underestimated as a singer and songwriter.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Dolly Parton: No 'Better Day' Than Today

TERRY GROSS, host:

Dolly Parton released her first solo album in 1967. Since then she's become a
multimedia star in movies and on television. But rock critic Ken Tucker says
Parton's new album, "Better Day," returns the focus to Parton's singing and her
songwriting, which Ken says has frequently been underestimated.

(Soundbite of song, "Better Day")

Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Musician): (Singing) Now we don’t know what heaven looks
like, but we've seen enough hell right here, and right now. But when the road
is the roughest, and the problems are the toughest, or when the times are the
hardest or that old sky turns the darkest, you gotta keep the faith. Because I
believe there’s a better day. And those ole blues, why, they're going to just
roll right on away. I know they are. Listen to me.

All this blue (unintelligible) sky and sea some of that blue is bound to get on
me. But the blues don't come to stay, they'll move away on a better day.
Troubles and woes...

KEN TUCKER: Dolly Parton has spent the past few years reconnecting with country
music's past, putting out albums that illustrate her love for bluegrass, 1960s-
style countrypolitan ballads, and high-lonesome harmony. She had all but
conceded the commercial mainstream to a younger generation.

But with "Better Day" she's trying out a different strategy - placing herself
very much in the here-and-now, even talking about the bad economy and the
country's restlessness, but framing the music with a positive, upbeat attitude.
The song that serves as the manifesto for this is its lead-off track, "In the
Meantime."

(Soundbite of song, "In the Meantime")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) You know, people been talking about the end of time ever
since time began. We've been living in the last days ever since the first day,
ever since the dawn of man. Well, nobody knows when the end is coming, but some
people tell you they do. Well, it might be today. It might be tomorrow. Or in
million years or two.

In the meantime, in between time, let us make time to make it right. And let us
not fear what is not clear. Faith should be your guide. Just follow this
advice. And think about life. Think about living. Think about love, sharing and
giving. Drop this doomsday attitude. (Unintelligible) these are wonderful times
we're living in. God still walks in the hearts of men and Eden's garden waits
within so let the flowers grow.

TUCKER: The greatest days we've ever known are the days we're livin' in, sings
Parton on that song. So drop this doomsday attitude, these are wonderful times
we're living in. Optimism in the service of heightened realism suits Parton.
Her voice has always curled up into a giggle of glee, a bubble of
bumptiousness. Her high pitch has frequently been a place to find jaunty
novelty songs that match her cartoonish image. But underneath all the glitter
and tight dresses, there's always been a skilled songwriter, a technically
adept craftsperson who knows how to weave a metaphor throughout the entire
fabric of a song. She does this most intriguingly in "The Sacrifice," a song
about how hard she's worked, rhyming rhinestones with grindstones without a
trace of self-pity.

(Soundbite of song, "The Sacrifice")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Well, I think of my time with family and friends. Gave up
vacations for work without end. Twenty-four/seven, 365, I was willing to make
the sacrifice. It's your (unintelligible). I carried my pail. You don't drink
the water if you don't dig your well. Through blood sweat and tears I have felt
it in life. But it didn't come without sacrifice.

I was going to be rich no matter how much it cost. I'm going to win no matter
how much I lost. All through the years I kept my eye on the prize. You ask if
it's worth the sacrifice. The sacrifice.

TUCKER: One of the most lovely songs on "Better Day" is a deceptively simple
love song called "Somebody's Missing You." With harmonies by her friends
Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, "Somebody's Missing You" is the lullaby to an
absent lover, assuring him that the singer is thinking only of him. Parton
sings the verses as almost whispered secrets.

(Soundbite of song, "Somebody's Missing You")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Somebody's missing you, longs to be kissing you. You had
better listen, you mean all the world to me. You're on somebody's mind just
almost all the time. That you already knew, somebody's missing you. The days go
slowly by...

TUCKER: "Better Day" is the album that takes Dolly Parton's sunny smile and
makes sure you understand that it's not a Cheshire-cat grin. There's a
sincerity and earnest quality to this music that enables it to stand apart from
so much of the trumped-up emotionalism and cheesy irony of the pop music world
all around it. It may be that, in the words of a song title here, "Country Is
As Country Does." But Parton doesn't just follow country fashion; she makes her
own garments and wears them well.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Dolly Parton's new album, called "Better Day."
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How E.B. White Spun 'Charlotte's Web'

TERRY GROSS, host:

In a poll of librarians, teachers, publishers and authors, the trade magazine
Publisher's Weekly asked for a list of the best children's books ever published
in the United States. Hands down, the number book was E.B. White's "Charlotte's
Web." Now a new book called "The Story of Charlotte's Web" explores how White's
masterpiece came to be.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: One early fall morning in 1949, E.B. White walked into the
barn of his farm in Maine and saw a spider web. That in itself was nothing new,
but this web, with its elaborate loops and whirls that glistened with the
morning dew, caught his attention. Weeks passed until one cold October evening
when he noticed that the spider was spinning what turned out to be an egg sac.
White never saw the spider again and so when he had to return later that fall
to New York City to his job as a regular contributor to The New Yorker
magazine, White took out a razor blade and cut the silken egg sac out of the
web. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and
absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.

Weeks later, a movement on that bureau alerted him to the fact that tiny
spiderlings were making a great escape through the air holes in the candy box.
White was delighted at this affirmation of life and left the hundreds of barn
spiderlings alone for the next week or so - to spin webs from his hair brush to
his nail scissors to his mirror - until finally the cleaning lady complained.

Thus was hatched the idea for "Charlotte's Web," White's magical meditation on
the passage of time, mortality and the great gift of finding a true friend in
this world. However, as Michael Sims tells us in his wonderful new book called
"The Story of Charlotte's Web," there was also a much longer incubation period
for White's classic - a period that began with his isolated childhood as the
youngest of seven children; the snappy creative bustle of the New York
newspaper world in the 1920s, which gave White his career and his writing role
models; and White's own lifelong struggle with anxiety. That anxiety was
soothed, in part, by writing and by the company of animals, all except, that
is, for rats - take that, Templeton. If you love "Charlotte's Web" - and,
please, if you don't, just get help now - Sims' lively and detailed excursion
into the mystery of how White's classic came to be is a perfect read for this
season: full of grass and insects, pigs and summer rain.

The first two-thirds or so of "The Story of Charlotte's Web" recounts White's
life up to his 50s, when he began writing his masterpiece. Good as it is, the
final section of Sims' book is the real revelation - not only about the
influences on "Charlotte's Web," but about just how hard it was for White to
write despite the fact that his style always seemed effortless. White was
encouraged to attempt children's fiction by his wife, Katherine White, who was
the fiction editor of The New Yorker and a regular reviewer of children's
literature. She'd urged him to write his first children's book, "Stuart
Little," which was published in 1945 and had taken him over six years to write.

White also took inspiration from the 1920s newspaper columnist Don Marquis, who
wrote acclaimed stories about a poetic typing cockroach named Archy. White was
adamant that, like Archy, his fictional animal characters should not be cute
but should remain true to their predatory and, in the case of Wilbur, their
manure-loving, messy nature. White finished the first draft of the novel in
1951 and then let it sit for a year.

He said in a letter to his patient editor that: I've recently finished another
children's book, but have put it away to ripen, let the body heat out of it. It
doesn't satisfy me the way it is and I think eventually I shall rewrite it
pretty much. When "Charlotte's Web" finally came out in October of 1952, most
of the reviews were laudatory, except for one, written by Anne Carroll Moore,
the influential children's division librarian for the New York Public Library.
Years earlier, Moore had panned "Stuart Little" and now she slammed
"Charlotte's Web" for leaving the human character of Fern undeveloped.

White's own later understated estimation of his work is the most touching. In
old age, when he was suffering from Alzheimer's, White liked to have his own
essays and books read to him. Sometimes White would ask who wrote what he was
listening to, and his chief reader, his son Joe, would tell him, you did, Dad.
Sims says that White would think about this odd fact for a moment and sometimes
murmur: Not bad.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Story of Charlotte's Web" by Michael Sims. You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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