Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe wowed movie viewers of all ages, the cowboys of the silver screen’s musical selections and moral compasses filled a role in popular culture similar to that of today’s superheroes. For examples, see the singing cowboy films of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Nowadays, Western films and television series rely on moral relativity and violence to paint a brutally honest picture of the Old West. Yet in the heyday of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others, good guys wore white hats, constantly broke out into song and didn’t exactly pile up justifiable homicides.
Although some of their adventures seem hokey compared to modern entertainment, the singing cowboys and cowgirls who dominated B-movie matinees should be remembered for more than their on-screen impact. The following 10 stars played roles in the transition of country singers from regional radio celebrities to widely known pop culture icons.
Like most other Top 10 lists, this roundup barely scratches the surface of the named talents’ legacies. For more on these and other singing cowboys and cowgirls, check out Riders in the Sky member Douglas B. Green’s exhaustive and entertaining book Singing in the Saddle.
The 10th spot goes to the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell, if only to encourage country music fans to look up one of the best vocalists involved in B-movie Westerns. Between 1944 and 1952, Carolina Cotton proved her singing talents and acting chops in Smiley Burnette’s The Rough, Tough West (1952) and other films.
Ken Curtis’ career included so much more than his iconic role as Festus Haggen in the long-running TV series Gunsmoke. As a son-in-law of legendary director John Ford and a member of the influential singing cowboy group Sons of the Pioneers, Curtis had the connections and talents to appear in everything from the John Wayne classic The Searchers to the Bob Wills and Hoosier Hotshots promotional tool Rhythm Round-Up.
Aside from his great country sides with pop singer Margaret Whiting, Jimmy Wakely played supporting roles for others on this list and starred in his own musical Westerns, including Song of the Range (1944). Wakely’s supporting parts included coveted roles alongside Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and the team of Tex Ritter and Johnny Mack Brown.
To Western film fans, Smiley Burnette was the comedic sidekick of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others, and a future star of TV’s Petticoat Junction. In the bigger picture, Burnette should be remembered as the multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter behind the future Willie Nelson cut “Ridin’ Down the Canyon (to Watch the Sun Go Down)" and other great songs.
Actor, screenwriter, producer and stunt rider Ken Maynard helped introduce the singing cowboy trope not long after silent films gave way to “talkies.” Young co-stars in Maynard films who’d go on to bigger things include Eddie Dean and Gene Autry. Before Autry and Roy Rogers’ horses became celebrities, Maynard showed off his horse-riding skills on his trusty pal Tarzan.
Dorothy Page sidestepped damsel in distress roles and became a silver screen hero in her own right. A trio of Singing Cowgirl films from 1938 depict her as every bit resourceful, tough and morally upright as her male cowboy counterparts. Page’s career was relatively short-lived, but her small body of work holds up well compared to the massive catalogs of the following household names.
Aside from arguably putting together the best recording career of anyone on this list, Tex Ritter was one of the big-screen superheroes of his time. The recurring co-star of former University of Alabama football star Johnny Mack Brown helped define singing cowboy B-movies through his roles in Song of the Gringo (1936) and other films.
Dale Evans earned equal billing to husband Roy Rogers throughout a film career that ranged from John Wayne’s In Old Oklahoma (1943) to numerous chances to share the screen with her partner in harmony and matrimony. Evans went on to become a great ambassador for gospel music as a recording artist and television host.
Roy Rogers’ transition from Country Music Hall of Fame singing group Sons of the Pioneers to the big screen made him and his horse Trigger the second best-known Western film duo of the time behind Gene Autry and Champion. Rogers’ films career reached a new level with 1938’s Shine On, Harvest Moon — a film also featuring country duo Lulu Belle and Scotty.
Gene Autry shaped elements of American popular culture beyond country music and cowboy movies. Autry impacted Christmas standards as the writer of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and played a role in pro sports history as the longtime owner of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels. For the sake of this list, think of Autry and his horse Champion as the stars of films ranging from the sci-fi serial The Phantom Empire (1935) to Last of the Pony Riders (1953).