Arizona musicians contributed significantly to the iconography of the “wild west.” During the 1920s and 1930s, “western fever” swept the nation with a fascination for cowboy lore. Movies and recordings featuring the work of Arizona artists helped satisfy the craving for stories of the open range.
Arizona’s ranching history added to the tradition of “cowboy music.” Before the birth of "country," rural string bands would sing homegrown folk songs. Arizona popularized this genre in the 1920s and 1930s with Rex Allen, the Arizona Wranglers, and Billie Maxwell, the first woman ever to record in the genre.
These musicians and more are showcased at the Musical Instrument Museum's "I Am Arizona Music" exhibition.
Billie Maxwell was the first woman to record country music, known at the time as “cowboy music.” She was the real deal, too, born in 1906 and raised near Springerville as the daughter of Curtis Maxwell, a talented fiddler who would entertain his community by playing western folk songs learned from his father. When Billie was young, Curtis formed a string band called the White Mountain Orchestra. The group would tour the surrounding communities on horseback, playing gigs at events in the area, usually community dances held on ranches. Billie joined her father’s band as a teenager, playing guitar beside her brother. She kept playing after she got married in 1929 at the age of 23.
In the 1910s and '20s, bands like Tin Pan Alley were popularizing western music throughout the country. Audiences were beginning to hunger for authentic music from locally known stars. The talent scout and recording pioneer Ralph Peer traveled the country in these decades, looking for local legends to record outside the studio. A few months after Billie’s marriage, the White Mountain Orchestra impressed the audience at an audition for field recording sessions by Victor and traveled to El Paso, Texas in 1929 for a recording session.
In El Paso, Peer asked Billie to sing after hearing her play several songs with the White Mountain Orchestra. After Billie sang “Billy Vanero,” Peer asked her to record solo. The songs Billie recorded with Peer—“Arizona Girl I Left Behind,” “Billy Venero, pt I,” “Billy Venero, pt II,” “Cowboy's Wife,” “Haunted Hunter” and “Where Your Sweetheart Waits For You”—were the first western-style songs ever recorded by a female. At that moment Billie Maxwell officially became the first recorded woman singer of cowboy music.
After the recording session, Billie continued to play with the White Mountain Orchestra as they toured parts of New Mexico and enjoyed a recurring gig in a saloon called the Smokehouse. However, Billie hung up her guitar after the birth of her first child. She never recorded again. Her surviving records are exceptionally rare, and exceptionally important.
The Phoenix New Times lists “Cowboy’s Wife” as the #2 song that defined Arizona. The song, recorded in a minor key, laments the challenges of a woman living on the frontier while embodying the selfless strength and grace required of a pioneer wife. Billie’s wistful tone and unpolished voice over a waltz-based melody make this a tune a haunting, rare, and crucial piece of American music history.
Listen to Billie’s song courtesy of the Phoenix New Times.
Singer and movie star Rex Allen brought pioneer sensibility to Hollywood. Allen gained fame as the Arizona Cowboy (the title of his first film) for his roles in 19 western movies released by Republic Pictures between 1950 and 1954. In a white Stetson hat, he, his beloved horse Koko, and a series of sidekicks shielded ranchers, orphans, and other unfortunates from greedy and scurrilous villains. The ‘Arizona Cowboy’ quickly became one of the top-ten box office draws of the day and a popular comic book character.
Born on a homestead 40 miles north of Willcox on December 31, 1920, Rex Allen was a true cowboy. He began playing guitar at 11 to support his father’s musical performances, later singing on his own in local venues. After graduating high school, he spent a short time on the Phoenix radio station KOY before he left home to ride on the rodeo circuit. An injury cut his rodeo career short, and he started singing on WTTM Radio in Trenton, New Jersey in 1943. He then joined the WLS-AM program National Barn Dance in Chicago, which led to a singing contract with Mercury Records. His first hit, the 1949 single “Afraid,” propelled him into cinema for his short but fruitful career making movies.
After the Silver Screen
Allen rode in to Hollywood at the end of the era of singing western films, and he is considered the last of the “singing cowboys.” But the smooth, expressive voice that brought Allen cinematic success also gained fame as a recording artist and narrator. After his stint on the silver screen, he starred in the television program, “Frontier Doctor,” aired between 1955-1956. He recorded original songs during and after his movie career. The 1953 release “Crying in the Chapel” became his biggest hit until “Don’t Go Near the Indians,” a ballad of a man who falls in love with a beautiful Indian maiden, made it into the Billboard Country Top Five in 1962.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Allen focused on his development as a film narrator and character actor. He earned the title “the Voice of the West” for his narration of many Walt Disney World of Color nature shows. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Allen recorded numerous advertising tracks, including famous campaigns for Purina Dog Chow and Ford. He wrote and sang the theme song for the sitcom “Best of the West.” He narrates the 1973 Hanna-Barbera classic movie, “Charlotte’s Web.”
Allen received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1983 was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame. He was the first to receive both the Rodeo Man of the Year and the Golden Boot award. In the 1980s, Allen’s son, Rex Allen, Jr, achieved his own country stardom.
Remembering Rex Allen
The Arizona Cowboy Museum and Rex Allen Hall of Fame opened in Willcox in 1989 to honor its hometown hero. Memorabilia from his careers in rodeo, radio, movies, and television fills the space in Historic Downtown Willcox, and a larger-than life statue stands across the street in Railroad Park. Allen’s horse, Koko, is buried at the foot of the statue, and Allen’s ashes were scattered at that location after his death in Tucson in 1999, two weeks before his 79th birthday.
Celebrate the memory of Rex Allen during Rex Allen days, a festival featuring rodeos, concerts, and parades held annually in Willcox in early October. Read more about Rex Allen Days.
No story of Rex Allen is complete without a chapter on the Arizona Wranglers. The Phoenix-based cowboy singing group the Arizona Wranglers helped popularize the singing western. The Wranglers were among the first groups to appear in the sound western, and the group itself featured several B-movie performers, including Glenn Strange (Rex Allen’s cousin best known for his role as bartender Sam Noonan on the CBS series Gunsmoke), Arkansas Johnny Luther, Jack Kirk, Jack Jones, Chuck Baldra and "Cactus Mack" McPeters.
Groups like the Wranglers and the Sons of the Pioneers, popular in the 1920s and 1930s, built a new genre and library of music with songs glorifying the “cowboy ethos” and stories of horses, cattle, “night herds,” tall timber, prairies and the open range.
The Wranglers started crooning on the Phoenix radio station KOY. Original member Glenn Strange joined the group after appearing at the rodeo in Prescott. By 1930, the Wranglers were singing cowboy songs in Hollywood. One such song was their 1931 hit, “The Strawberry Roan.” Originally penned by the cowboy poet Curley Fletcher, “The Strawberry Roan” captivates the imagination with the story of a bronc buster bested by spirited and unrideable horse.