The Western groups that emerged during the 1940s in the shadow of the Sons of the Pioneers were heavily influenced by the pop music of the day. The big band sound of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James and others was the sound that dominated that era. The music of singing cowboys Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers added another important element to the sound; so did western swing music coming out of Texas and California. The hillbilly sound that had originated in the South was also part of the mix, but often it was more cultural than musical.
The plain fact was that many of these young men and women who performed and recorded western music were country boys and girls—from the rural areas of America—and their roots showed. Andy Parker is a good example. He was born in Mangum, Oklahoma, about thirty miles east of the Texas Panhandle, on March 17, 1913. Parker’s debut on radio came on KGMP in Elk City, Oklahoma, when he was 16. He moved to San Francisco, where he achieved his initial fame as the singing cowboy on NBC’s Death Valley Days (1937–1941). He also appeared on the popular barn dance program on KGO, Dude Martin’s Roundup. During World War II Parker worked in a defense plant. In 1944 he moved to Los Angeles.
cThe trio obtained a recording contract with Coast Records, resulting in songs such as “Throw a Saddle on a Star,” which featured Ocie Waters on lead vocal. The recording contract came after appearances in movies with Deuce Spriggins, Carolina Cotton, Ken Curtis and others. By this time (1946) the Plainsmen had expanded to include legendary steel guitarist Joaquin Murphy, fiddler Harry Simms and accordionist George Bamby; these three members had previously been with Spade Cooley’s western swing group.
After the early years (1945–1948) when the group was called the Plainsmen, the group became Andy Parker and the Plainsmen when they began a series of eight westerns with Eddie Dean for PRC in 1947. That same year they signed with Capitol Records and achieved success with the Parker compositions “Trail Dust” and “A Calico Apron and a Gingham Gown.” However, the sound of the group changed when, just before they started recording for Capitol, steel guitarist Joaquin Murphy went back to Spade Cooley’s band; thus Harry Simms’ fiddle became more prominent. The group remained on Capitol for five years and recorded over 200 transcriptions; they also served as a studio group, backing Tex Ritter.
Andy Parker and the Plainsmen gained national exposure through weekly network appearances on Hollywood Barn Dance, working with artists such as Jimmy Wakely, Merle Travis, Cliffie Stone, Johnny Bond, Dusty King and others. At this point Hank Caldwell left the group and was replaced by bassist Paul “Clem” Smith. In 1950 George Bamby was replaced by Leroy Kruble. During the first part of the 1950s the group appeared on television shows hosted by Dude Martin, Eddie Dean, Tex Ritter, Leo Carillo and others. They also appeared in films such as The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, released in 1949, which starred Betty Grable and Cesar Romero.
They were on the soundtrack for the movie River of No Return, which starred Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Andy Parker and the Plainsmen were a popular group in Southern California, but they never really achieved national success on their own. In 1951, their contract with Capitol ended and during the early to mid–1950s, the public discovered rhythm and blues and early rock’n’roll. Suddenly, the sounds that had been so popular during the previous 20 years— songs from classic writers like Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Hoagy Carmichael and sung by crooners like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Patti Page and others—were part of the past. Group members dropped out of the Plainsmen and the group disbanded by 1956, although they made their final appearance in 1957.
Andy Parker died in 1977, before the western music renaissance began, so he never saw the popularity of western music return. It is difficult—but not impossible—to find recordings by Andy Parker and the Plainsmen, but fans of western music are well- rewarded when they find the group on CD. The pictures of Andy Parker and the Plainsmen generally show a group dressed in western shirts and cowboy hats, but the sounds inside are jazzy and their pop- influenced tight harmonies are smooth and seamless. It is a sound that harks back to the 1940s and an era before the singing cowboys left the silver screen.
SOURCES: Andy Parker and the Plainsmen. File at Frist Library and Archive, Country Music Foundation, Nashville, TN. Green, Douglas B. Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy. Nashville: Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 2002.