The Cowboy in Country Music: Rex Allen Jr.

Rex Allen Jr.
Rex Allen Jr.

“During my entire career, it didn’t make any difference if I was doing Paris, Texas, or Paris, France, I always did western music in my shows because that’s my heritage,” said Rex Allen Jr. “That’s what I grew up with.” Indeed, Rex had hits with “Can You Hear Those Pioneers” (which featured his dad as well as the Sons of the Pioneers on background vocals) back in 1976 and “Last of the Silver Screen Cowboys” (with his dad and Roy Rogers) in 1982 when he was a country act on Warner Brothers.


Other chart songs from Rex include “Cowboy in a Three Piece Business Suit,” “Teardrops in My Heart” and “Ride Cowboy Ride.” Although Rex made an effort to get western music back on the radio—and succeeded to an extent—western did not become a mainstream music. This led Rex Allen Jr. to develop some definite ideas about the past and future of western music. “In order for western music to come back and be a mainstream music, it needs film or television like it had in the 1930s and 1940s,” said Rex.

“When my dad did his last film in 1954 it ended western music in film and, since that time, it seems that western music has developed almost like a cult following. “For my father’s generation, the great western songs were ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky,’ ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ ‘Cool Water’—those songs. But for my generation, the greatest western song is ‘Desperado’ by the Eagles. Some of the old- line traditional western people will argue against that but it’s an attitude towards western music that’s at stake here.


How those people think about it and whether they accept it will determine the future of western music. That’s why on my newest album I have a duet with Johnny Western on ‘Pancho and Lefty.’ That’s a western song! “I think if more of us who are western artists are more open to the new generation of western songs, we’ll go a long way towards pulling western music into the mainstream. But you’ve got to teach your audience.

Western music did not end in 1954. There’s some great western acts out there like the Sons of the San Joaquin and Riders in the Sky, but we should be giving the Entertainer of the Year award to acts like Garth Brooks. ‘Beaches of Cheyenne’ and ‘Rodeo’ are western songs.” When it was pointed out that the most popular country song during the 1990s—determined by airplay—was “Shoulda Been a Cowboy,” Rex nodded his head and said, “But did Toby Keith win Song of the Year according to the Western Music Association? No!” There is an uneasy alliance between those involved in country and western music.

Country performers tend to embrace the image of the cowboy and the West and this connection to the West has long been an important part of country music. But those in western music have emphasized the differences between western and country music, wanting to keep a distance between the two worlds. Still, the biggest asset a western performer can have is a successful background in country music that includes some hit records. “A country background pays off,” noted Rex who, like several others, enjoyed success as a country artist before moving into western music.

“Michael Martin Murphey and I do the same thing but he plays off the pop audience as much as he does the country audience. Murph had one of the greatest pop records of all time with ‘Wildfire.’ I’ve had almost fifty chart records and nineteen albums. I believe that Murph did everything he could to bring western music into the mainstream again and got very little support. “I think the western music community was sometimes at odds with him about that just like they’re at odds with me because I do western festivals and I do cowboy music but I also do my country hits, ‘Lonely Street,’ ‘It’s Over,’ and ‘Solitaire.’


I’ve got an album full of cowboy songs but I find that people get pissed off if I don’t do the country songs because they come to hear those too. It’s the same with Murphey, but the western traditionalists don’t like it when Michael and I do things like that. But that’s part of what made us what we are.” Rex Allen Jr. was born on August 23, 1947, in Chicago during the time his father was appearing on National Barn Dance on WLS. Before Rex Jr.

was two, the family moved to Hollywood, where Rex Allen became a singing cowboy in the movies. Rex Jr. grew up in Hollywood and from a very early age accompanied his father on the road. “In high school I started out with a band playing folk music. When I was about fourteen I’d play folk music during the school year but when June came, I’d go out on the road and play rhythm guitar in my father’s band—playing cowboy music,” said Rex. “When the Beatles came along in the early sixties, they killed folk music, so my band added a set of drums and a microphone, did the same songs. But then we were a rock ’n’ roll band.

So during my high school years I had a rock ’n’ roll band.” There was a generation gap that surfaced between Rex Sr. and Rex Jr. and Rex Jr. went through a period when he thought his father wasn’t cool, and Rex Jr. wanted to keep a distance. “I wanted to grow my hair long and he wouldn’t allow me to do that,” said Rex. “Musically it was very interesting because Dad would say about the Beatles, ‘I hate those long- haired hippies,’ and kept telling me how bad their music was.

According to him, it was terrible music. So one day my Dad and I were talking and he said ‘Play me a song.’ I played the Beatles song ‘Help’ but slowed it down and made it a ballad. Then I played another Beatles song, ‘In My Life.’ He said, ‘Those are great songs. Did you write them?’ And I said, ‘No, they were written by those long- haired hippie Beatles that you hate so much.’ That changed Dad’s attitude toward them. 


For the rest of his years, until he died, I’d bring him different things, like Mark O’Connor. I turned Dad on to Mark O’Connor and he became a huge fan. The most wonderful thing about my father is that he gave me the freedom of expression. To a limit. I mean I wasn’t allowed to have my hair long but musically he didn’t suppress anything.

He loved to experiment with music.” As a youngster, Rex Jr. socialized with others in the field of western entertainment. “My parents would have parties and Roy and Dale would be there, Bob Nolan would be there and they’d pass the guitar around,” remembered Rex. “Slim Pickens did ‘Strawberry Roan’ and there’s about eight billion different verses for ‘Strawberry Roan’ and the ones that Slim sang were the filthiest ones I’d ever heard. That’s the kind of thing I grew up with.

People like Hi Pockets Busse and the Frontiersmen were always around. “You know, as a performer, there are times when I need to be ‘Rex Allen Jr.’ for a while. My Dad, Roy and Gene were like that too. They would put on the persona of the singing cowboy star, but I grew up with Dad and Slim Pickins going on hunting trips. The same with Roy Rogers. When I was a kid, I used to spend two weeks of the summer at the Rogers’ house with Dusty, and then Dusty would spend two weeks of the summer at my house.

Dale was the mom who said, ‘No you can’t have that.’ They were just people to me. “After high school I went to college, even though I didn’t want to, but to stay out of the draft. I ended up at the MGM Actor’s Studio but I never did much acting. Then I got drafted and went in during the Vietnam War and had people spit on me when I entered the service. I remember those days; it was a horrible, horrible time. But the service was wonderful to me. I ended up in Special Services.


My first record had just come out and didn’t do a flip but I guess it played a part in me ending up in Special Services. I kept my nose clean and did over ninety variety shows for the troops. I performed at hospitals, was in some theatre productions. I got more education in the service when it came to performing than I ever did at college. “When I got out of the service I moved back to California and started working in clubs. I worked every beer bar and skull orchard in Southern California, but I wasn’t the only one doing them. Tex Williams and Jimmy Wakely did them too; Johnny Bond worked them occasionally.

I had an agent—Marty Landau—who booked all of us hillbilly acts on the West Coast. Finally, I got my first record deal and moved to Nashville.” Rex Allen Jr. was signed to Warner Brothers records. His first chart record, “The Great Mail Robbery,” came out at the end of 1973. The following year he had three chart records: “Goodbye,” “Another Goodbye Song” and “Never Coming Back Again.” His biggest hits were “Two Less Lonely People,” “I’m Getting Good at Missing You (Solitaire),” “Lonely Street,” “No, No, No (I’d Rather Be Free),” “With Love” and “Me and My Broken Heart,” which were all top ten records during the 1976–1979 period.

Rex Jr. had a band, a bus and a big overhead on the road. He played regularly on the road but never broke through into the top echelon of hit acts and his last chart record came in 1987. Still, he made his mark in Nashville as a steady, reliable performer and someone whose records fit easily on country radio. But it was after he moved from Nashville that he had his biggest impact in the country music industry.

In 1983 The Nashville Network (TNN) was created and by the 1990s had programming that reached a large number of American homes. In 1992 Rex Allen Jr. became a regular on The Statler Brothers Show on TNN. He had a regular slot in a segment titled “Yesteryear,” where songs from a particular year were sung. This eventually spun off into a series of its own, Yesteryear, on September 30, 1994. In addition to Rex, the show starred Eddy Raven, Lisa Stewart and Kathy Ballie. Rex said “I have no idea how I got on the Statler Brothers Show.


I had gotten a divorce and had to leave town so I moved to Tyler, Texas, which is where Deanna is from. I still had an agent, bus and band based in Nashville but I lived in Texas. One morning the phone rang and Deanna answered it and said, ‘you probably want to take this call.’ I said, ‘Who is it?’ She said, ‘They claim it’s the Statler Brothers.’ Yeah, right, but I got on the phone and it was all four of the Statler Brothers on a conference call. They said, ‘Rex, we’re doing a television show and we’d like you to be on it.’ I said, ‘I’d love to.

Do you want me to do one episode or two?’ They said, ‘No, we want you to be a regular.’ To this day, I don’t know how they got my phone number.” However, getting on the show may have had something to do with an old Rex Allen film. “The Statlers and I always had something in common because Don and Harold Reid and Lew DeWitt were big western film buffs,” said Rex. “Back in the seventies, my fan club got me a copy of my Dad’s first film, Arizona Cowboy. I made a copy and sent it to Harold and Don because I always wanted to be the opening act on a Statler Brothers tour.

But the Statlers never hired a male, they always hired a female singer like Reba or Barbara Mandrell. Anyway, I sent them the film with a letter that said, ‘Dear Stafford Brothers, I understand that you’uns folks like to watch these old western films.’ Just a funny letter. I got a letter back from Harold, which started, ‘Dear Tex Alvin Jr.’ So we had a running gag for years.” During the show’s run, the Reid brothers, Harold and Don, who wrote the show, “would throw songs at me every week that were obscure tunes for the ‘Yesteryear’ segment,” said Rex. “Finally, one day Harold and Don walked up to me and they were smiling.

I said, ‘What’s going on?’ They said, ‘Rex, for two years we have thrown every off- the- wall freak hit record at you and you’ve known every one of them. And we want to know how? “I told them that my musical college was AM radio in Los Angeles and they played everything from Squeakin’ Deacon to Hoagy Carmichael so I knew all that stuff. “The Statler Brothers Show still holds the record for being the highest rated cable show on Saturday nights. It was a huge, huge audience.


And record companies couldn’t understand the audience—still don’t. The only thing the record companies in Nashville know about TV is video. They don’t understand the power of television or how to market to that audience. What it means for me when it comes to western festivals is that people are more apt to come and see me perform because it’s not just the music but the TV exposure too. “I had a great time with them and had a lot of fun. Those shows were a lot of work because the whole season was taped in about three weeks.

That’s like ninety songs in three weeks and there’s no way you can memorize the lyrics to ninety songs, so everything was on cue cards. The hardest one I did was the old Hank Snow song ‘I’ve Been Everywhere.’ I was laughing through most of it because there are so many words to that song that cue cards were flying behind me.” In 1997 Rex Allen Jr. wrote, staged and starred in Gone Country, a major stage production in Las Vegas. But the show took a toll on him and almost marked the end of his performing career.

“Before we staged Gone Country, I went to Las Vegas eight months ahead of time. I was still on the road but I commuted back and forth,” said Rex. “I was vice president of entertainment for this resort and we built a theater from the ground up. They hired Deanna and me to do the first show at the resort, and I wrote the show and it lasted about eight months. I worked two shows a day six days a week.

Deanna was dealing with the seventeen women on the show, and there were always problems to be dealt with there. Then there were the men, and one guy was always mad at some other guy. I was off Monday but Monday I had a corporate staff meeting at eight in the morning. I was also doing all the payrolls, so I worked seven days a week for two years. When I finished that show, I went to the house, put my guitar in the corner and told Deanna, ‘I hope I never pick up a guitar again! 


“It had been wonderful but I’d had enough, and it was only because of Johnny Western that I went back singing. John called one day and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘NOTHING!’ He said, ‘I want you to come to Gene Autry, Oklahoma,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to go to Gene Autry, Oklahoma.’ He said ‘Yeah, I know but you really need to come to Gene Autry.’ I said, ‘Why do I need to go to Gene Autry, Oklahoma? I don’t even know where it is.’ He said, ‘Well, they’re giving me an award and I want you to present the award.’

Just do you and the guitar.’ “Out of the mouths of the old wise ones sometimes comes the most wonderful suggestions.” [Rex smiled.] One of the highlights of my career was when I got to do my solo show for my Dad. I did it in Tucson. He came and saw the show and loved it. Because of that, about sixty percent of the dates I do now are just me and the guitar. “People ask me about longevity. Dad certainly had it; he was around a long time. More than Roy or Gene, who both stopped performing.

The key is that you have to continually reinvent yourself. My Dad taught me that. I remember when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, he handed me a Wallensack tape recorder and the Los Angeles Times and said, ‘Son, if you’re going to be in this business, you’re going to have to know how to read.’ I said, ‘Dad, I already know how to read.’ He said, ‘No, you need to learn how to read copy.’ He said, ‘My business is changing. I’ve been in movies, television and performing but my business is moving and I’m doing more and more narrations and commercials.

That’s how my life is changing.’ So I sat down with the Los Angeles Times and my Dad taught me how to read copy. Dad continually reinvented himself and by example he taught me to do the same thing. “Lives and careers are like curves; there are peaks and valleys. We all have them. I had one of the valleys several years ago, right after the ‘Gone Country’ show closed in Vegas, where I sat down and was kicking myself in the butt, thinking, I’m a failure, so on and so forth, but I went back thanks to Johnny Western and started having fun with the music.


Johnny taught me that what matters is the music—that’s what really matters. Still, I found me kicking myself one day and going down and down until I realized, Hey, you’ve had over fifty top fifty records, you’ve been on the most popular television show in cable history, you have a wonderful heritage, and you’ve entertained people all over the world.

What a wonderful career! And it’s not over yet! “I had one down period for almost two years when I was the director of the Media Department at Baptist Hospital in Nashville. “That was 1988 and 1989. I was off the road. I still worked occasionally but not very much. It was a great experience, a great education. But like my wife said, ‘All you guys are basically hams at heart. Once you’re in this business you basically never get out of it.’

So I said, ‘O.K., for you I’ll do that.’ Then he said, ‘By the way, bring your guitar.’ I said, ‘I don’t play anymore.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know. Bring your guitar anyway.’ I said, ‘John, I’ve had buses and bands for the past fifteen to twenty years and I’ve had enough.’ He said, “Yeah, right. Bring your guitar and be prepared to sing a few songs.’ So I said, ‘All right.’

“So my wife and I climbed on a plane and went to Gene Autry, Oklahoma, and for the first time in twenty-five years I went out on a stage just me and a guitar and played—and had a great time! Part of the reason I had a wonderful time is that I got to do all those wonderful songs I could never do before. When you have a band you have a set show you have to do and I always did ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ ‘Cool Water’ and ‘Streets of Laredo.’ But I never got to do ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky,’ and if somebody wanted ‘Ride, Cowboy, Ride’ I had to say, ‘Sorry, the band doesn’t know it.’


But there I got to go out on stage and do an hour and fifteen minutes with just the guitar and have a great time. The funny thing is that through all the bus and band years, the ‘Gone Country’ and Las Vegas years, my Dad would say, ‘You need to get rid of that damn band. It’s covering you up. 

“There’s a lot of things I credit my Dad with—things that he taught me and things I try to teach my kids. My Dad treated everybody the same. It didn’t make any difference to Dad if you were the president of General Motors or a cowhand building fences. He treated everyone the same—as genuine and as honest as he could.

What he taught me was that everyone has something to give to you if you’ll allow them to give it to you—a piece of themselves. I try to live my life that way.” “I live in Las Vegas because I love the West and it’s very easy to commute out of there,” said Rex. “My year runs from January through April when I generally perform in the Southwest. My country music buddies don’t understand it because they say, ‘What are you doing?’ and I say ‘I’m working big RV parks.’ They say, ‘Rex, that’s horrible—you have to work RV parks!’ I say, ‘No, you don’t understand.

There’s an RV park I work in Tucson that will not allow any RV in the park if their motor home is worth less than a million dollars. They book people like me, Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson. “Those RV parks have wonderful stages and activities departments. So I work those and then I usually have a couple of months to do other things and then in June I start the fairs with a little band. I usually work with Leroy Van Dyke; we have a package called ‘Country Gold.’ I do probably ten to fifteen dates with them. Then, in the fall, I go back into concerts all over the United States.


“I’ve done some Western festivals, like Mary Brown’s Festival of the West, but I try to limit those to a great extent. I bring a larger, different kind of audience to the festivals. I have the heritage of Rex Allen, and I’ve had hit songs on the radio like ‘Can You Hear Those Pioneers’ and ‘Ride, Cowboy, Ride,’ so I carry the western heritage. But I was also on television for eight years with the Statler Brothers.” Rex says there are “a lot of people in the western music business” that he admires: I think there are some unbelievably talented people coming into the western music business and it makes me sad that they are not getting the recognition they deserve.”

“I think that I’m at the point in my career where I really care a lot about two things career- wise,” Rex Allen Jr. continued. “One is the music. I want to take people on some kind of musical historical journey through my music. I’m not trying to educate people, I’m just trying to say, … ‘It’s here, let’s see it.’ The second thing is that it’s extremely important for me to try to remind people where our heritage comes from.

I think the best way for me to do that is get people interested in the two hundred fifty to three hundred singing cowboy films. The Western channel has only four of my dad’s films; they don’t have any of Tex Ritter’s. “I think that eventually students will write doctoral theses on that genre of film and what it did for the morality of children. You know, Tom Brokaw wrote a wonderful book called The Greatest Generation, but I think Brokaw missed something when he talked about the morality of that generation. In my opinion, they got that morality from the films of Rex Allen, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.”

SOURCE: Allen, Rex, Jr. Personal interview with the author, May 31, 2006, in Nashville, Tennessee.