Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing feature where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
Last time on “Pop Goes The Country,” we explored the effects of cigarettes and harmful addictions. This time, we’re taking a hard right turn toward … a Christmas carol?!? At any rate, I guess I better get this out before at least the end of January.
When I took a look at Tex Williams’ “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” last time on this feature, I mentioned how two forms of country music emerged in the 1930s – western swing and the western songs of the singing cowboys. While Williams fit the former category more than the latter, Gene Autry was undoubtedly a singing cowboy.
In a rare case, during this edition of “Pop Goes The Country,” I’ll admittedly have more to say about the artist who recorded the song and the writer who penned it rather than the song itself. While Autry was unquestionably the best-selling country & western singer until the end of World War II, he was known for more than that.
Movies were still a fairly new phenomenon in America during the ’30s. Although high-end Hollywood westerns essentially disappeared during the early 1930s, the genre still flourished with low-budget series and serial production. As the decade wore on, expensive production once again resumed for this movie genre. It’s because of Autry’s status as a top box-office attraction in motion pictures that he was able to bring his music to a large audience unfamiliar with country music.
Before that though, Autry was just a bright-eyed kid inspired by the music of Jimmie Rodgers and trying to make it as a singer. Sometime in 1928, he traveled to New York, the entertainment capital of the world, where he didn’t know a soul.
He set out looking up Johnny and Frankie Marvin, two of the most popular entertainers in the city. With a big smile and a sense of naivety about him, Autry walked up to the Marvins and told them he wanted to make records. Of course, this wasn’t a done deal, and Autry didn’t become a star overnight. He auditioned a few tunes for Nat Shilkret, then A&R for Victor Records, who didn’t think Autry was ready to record despite admitting there was potential. The Marvins further suggested Autry try learning some “yodel songs” and practice singing.
Autry returned to Oklahoma and took every chance he could to better himself. He performed over the radio at KVOO in Tulsa and made appearances at schools, private parties and civic clubs. The persistent little fellow then went back to Victor Records for another shot. His efforts paid off, but were undercut by the oncoming Depression. Autry had recorded his first sides just 20 days before the stock market crashed.
Autry responded with a vengeance, cutting masters for five different companies, each of which issued records on several record labels for chain-store distribution. In the meantime, Autry had fallen deeper in love with the aforementioned Jimmie Rodgers’ material. It was only until Autry found his own style though that he achieved stardom. After making a guest appearance in the Republic Pictures western movie, In Old Santa Fe, in 1934, his own series of films began the following year.
This wasn’t meant to be a complete biography of Autry, and truthfully I condensed a lot of key information down into what you just read. But Autry’s story of perseverance and trudging on despite not fitting the current mold of what people were looking for eventually paid off for him. As we all know by now, there was another character who didn’t quite fit a certain mold either.
In 1939 when the Great Depression was waning, a store manager at Montgomery Ward in Chicago decided the store needed to create its own children’s book to assist with the annual holiday promotion. They enlisted Robert L. May for the job, a man who didn’t feel worthy for the task. At 35, May felt like an outcast and a failed dreamer who hadn’t achieved much of anything he was hoping to by the time he reached his age. In a way, he channeled that frustration and anguish into his story. Along with that, May also channeled his childhood frustrations of being the smallest kid in his class and for being taunted as a scrawny misfit in his youth.
The result of May’s work was the story of the underdog – a red-nosed reindeer just waiting for his chance to shine. The concept was originally shot down, but like Autry, May was persistent, and he eventually convinced the boss to give the story a shot.
May’s fictional friend almost became real just months after he started the project. His wife had died from cancer, leaving May as a widower and single father. He pushed on, and the book became a hit. Montgomery Ward printed and distributed more than 2 million copies that year at branches across the country.
Success for Rudolph didn’t mean success for May though, as he was still living on a copywriter’s salary and left to pay his wife’s medical bills. Call it a Christmas miracle, but for reasons unknown, May was eventually granted the rights to his fictional friend via Sewell Avery, Montgomery Ward’s then-CEO.
After this, worlds collided. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was an aspiring songwriter looking for a hit. With May’s permission, Marks wrote that little tune we’re all familiar with today.
You’d think the story of an underdog would appeal to Autry, but that wasn’t the case. Autry didn’t want anything to do with this song. Because Autry’s reputation was that of a western star, he didn’t feel suited to sing a Christmas song. If there’s any running theme to these stories though, it’s persistence. Sure enough, Marks was determined to change Autry’s mind. He enlisted an unknown singer named Al Cernik to record a demo of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” in the style of Autry and shipped it to the star in California. Autry’s wife, Ina May Spivey, eventually convinced Autry to record the song. It went on to become the second biggest-selling Christmas song of all time, next to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” It’s the only Christmas song to hit the top of both the country and pop charts. On an even happier note too, May was able to secure his family financially for the remainder of his life.
On the surface, Autry recording a Christmas tune was, at this point in his career, simply a way to maintain stardom. He recorded other Christmas tunes, but none reached the same heights “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” did. It’s when you unveil the curtain and take a look at the circumstances surrounding Autry, May and Rudolph that a much greater narrative arises. It’s a tale that speaks to the power of perseverance and believing in the underdogs. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, you’ll go down in history indeed.
Thanks to the following sources for helping me write this piece:
- Pupovac, J. (2013, Dec. 25). Writing ‘Rudolph’: The Original Red-Nosed Manuscript. NPR. Retrieved from here
- Schatz, T. (2007, Nov. 10). Cowboy Business. The New York Times. Retrieved from here
- The Country Music Foundation. (1994). Country: The Music and the Musicians. Excerpt taken from Tumbling Tumbleweeds: Gene Autry, Bob Wills and the Dream of the West by Green, D. Abbeville Press.
- The Encyclopedia of Country Music (edited by Kingsbury, P., McCall, M., Rumble, J.). (2012). Excerpt taken from Gene Autry’s biography by Smith, J.