By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Cooley, a gifted fiddler and bandleader who was prone to violent mood swings, is a cult figure thanks to his wild life, which is itself worthy of a country song. In 1961, he beat his wife to death in front of their teenage daughter, who later testified against him in court. Although he was eventually sentenced to life in prison for the crime, he became such a model inmate that the parole board agreed to consider his release and gave him permission to perform at a 1970 sheriff's benefit in Oakland, California. By all accounts, Cooley wowed the crowd--but when he went backstage after the concert, he suffered a heart attack and died. Shame on You, a Soundies offering credited to "Spade Cooley & the Western Swing Dance Gang, featuring Vocals by Tex Williams!" dates from an earlier period--1944 and 1945, when Cooley was at the height of his powers. The disc is 25 previously unreleased tracks strong, with spritely instrumentals ("Steel Guitar Rag"), fabulous cross-cultural blends ("Yodeling Polka") and romantic corn ("Forgive Me One More Time") supplementing the cool-as-ice title track and some charming vocal inserts. In one, a perky Cooley invites fans to come see him play at a ballroom on the Santa Monica pier--"and if you don't, shame, shame on you."
Equally enjoyable is The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys, by Rex Allen, a performer who is known for work in several different mediums. Between 1950 and 1954, Allen made nineteen musical Westerns for Republic, a B-movie specialist; his sidekicks included Slim Pickens and Buddy Ebsen. He also earned hit singles well into the Sixties, starred in the TV series Frontier Doctor, and served as the narrator for many of Walt Disney's popular nature films; he's known to generations as the warm-voiced fellow describing the antics of Charlie, the lonesome cougar. The Soundies disc catches him in the late Forties, when he was the focus of Barn Dance, a program on Chicago's WLS radio that served as a career launching pad for Gene Autrey and Red Foley. The relaxed tenor exhibited on these previously unreleased M.M. Cole transcriptions fuels nostalgia fests like "Out Where the West Winds Blow," "Headin' for the Open Range" and the finger-popping "Tyin' Knots in the Devil's Tail," and his songwriting is illuminated on "Gonna Marry Me a Cowboy," crooned by his wife, the former Bonnie Linder.
Unlike Cooley, Allen is still in the land of the living; he resides in his hometown of Willcox, Arizona, just down the street from the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame. Parks consulted Allen, who's 78, on the project, and the liner notes include a testimonial from the man himself. It reads, in part, "I am so pleased that some of that early material is getting released on Soundies' Last of the Great Singing Cowboys project. These western tunes never do go out of style, and if I do say so myself, the singing holds up too!" During a recent interview, Allen is considerably less effusive. After revealing that "we probably did twenty of 'em in a day--one take, and then you'd move on to the next one," he describes them as "passable--although some people like 'em real good."
They certainly do. The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys and Shame on You have won positive reviews from scribes here and overseas and have been selling briskly. Nan Warshaw, co-owner of Bloodshot, expected that the discs would appeal mostly to buyers at unconventional retail environments--libraries, museums, national parks. But, she says, "we've been pleasantly surprised at how well they've been received by the regular Bloodshot core fan base. I didn't know that many people would understand and be excited by them. They're even being played on college radio, which is the last thing we would have expected."
"Reissuing stuff seemed like a curveball at first," adds Rob Miller, Warshaw's Bloodshot partner. "We exist by the skin of our teeth most of the time, so it seemed presumptuous to even think about doing something like this. But I'm really happy with how our distributors, who mainly specialize in indie rock, have picked up on it and are getting it to people who are willing to go exploring with us. I think that a lot of our customers are disenchanted with contemporary country but are knowledgeable of or actively into Hank Williams or Ernest Tubb or artists like that--and if we endorse it, they're willing to give it a shot."
Given their success with Soundies thus far, Warshaw and Miller are eagerly anticipating the July 20 release of a disc filled with transcriptions by Hank Thompson, a living country legend who has agreed to help promote the CD during a summer tour in Texas and parts of the East and Midwest (no Colorado appearances are planned at this time). On the drawing board as well are transcription discs from the Bill Cook archives by the Sons of the Pioneers, Hank Penny, Pee Wee King and Texas Jim Lewis, and even though their sonics are leagues apart from the work of the Waco Brothers and other contemporary Bloodshot signees, Miller sees common ground.