The relentless reissuing of back-catalog material has made the word essential fairly meaningless: It’s hard to imagine, for example, what could be so absolutely necessary about the “Essential” Nik Kershaw, Leo Sayer, and John Waite collections on the market. This devaluation is a shame, because this Gene Autry compilation is truly essential by several different standards. If you want to understand anything about how the American West became mythologized once the frontier had been closed, how the realities of exploitative greed, outlaw brutality, and anti-Indian savagery of the Anglo conquest were tempered, you need to understand the peculiar “singing cowboy” phenomenon in American films, and Autry was the singing cowboy par excellence. Also, the “western” of country-western music is epitomized by Autry; his body of work is fundamental to the entire genre. His most famous songs — “You Are My Sunshine”, “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, “Back in the Saddle Again” — transcend mere popular music to become quintessential pieces of Americana, treasured antiques that encapsulate the country’s better image of itself. And his holiday music, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” particularly, has become ubiquitous to the point of cliché. Autry’s songs sustained America’s optimistic sense of itself through the Depression and World War II, and they still resonate with the same mellow assurance and confidence.
Autry began as an imitator of “the singing brakeman”, Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first recorded country musicians and pioneer of the “blue yodel”, who died of tuberculosis in 1933. Autry was discovered by frontier humorist and “cowboy philosopher” Will Rogers and had early hits with “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. He quickly made his way to Hollywood, where he would eventually appear in 93 films, often with his trick-performing horse, Champion (aka the World’s Wonder Horse). By the end of the 1930s he was one of the most famous entertainers alive, outgrossing nearly every other leading man in movies and selling millions of records.
Most of his biggest hits are compiled on this two-disc set, which supplants the single-disc Essential collection from 1992. Expanding from the narrower focus of the earlier collection (which is perhaps not entirely a good thing), the first disc compiles his pre-war cowboy hits, and the second his post-war balladry. Ideally, Autry’s holiday songs would have been left off, but mercifully they are placed at the end, where they can be easily ignored. In the same spirit, strict chronological order has been slightly disrupted, which helps break up the sound-alike hits the music industry routinely encourages its artists to produce while allowing for some intriguing thematic groupings: “The Convict’s Dream” with “Dallas County Jail Blues” (both of which also serve as reminders that Autry could range into tougher material than his feel-good film songs), Jimmie Rodgers’s forlorn “T.B Blues” from 1931 with 1942’s restrained reading of “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes”.
Blinded by his immense popularity, roots-music aficionados might scorn Autry as an inauthentic Hollywood knockoff of real backwoods, roughneck country singers, labeling his voice bland as a network anchor’s and dubbing his work sentimental and pandering. But this extremely uncharitable view neglects the subtle power of his deceptively simple approach, which transforms borderline cornpone material like “(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle Jingle” into irresistible nostalgia and render his ballads into something elemental and moving. He ventures no cloying embellishments, no phony hillbillyisms, and generally he’s saddled with no histrionic arrangements or saccharine orchestrations. Since decades have past since he was relevant, Autry can evoke a fabled (fictional) time when entertainment and goodwill were synonymous, when the music business was uncomplicated and audiences were univocal. This transportation to an entirely more benevolent zeitgeist, so unlike the fractured, combative commercialized public sphere that now reigns, trumps the considerable appeal of Autry’s songs themselves and makes this collection more than merely a period-piece pleasure but a kind of healing salve, rehabilitating wounds inflicted by current cultural wars. A few bars of “Amapola”, and you forget all about how American cultural icons could have ever become politically polarized, how one ideology could have ever laid claim to the genre of country music as a whole.