Sons of the Pioneers

The Sons of the Pioneers were the most successful western harmony group of all time, enjoying a career longevity that began in the early 1930s and still continues today, with, of course the obvious personnel changes. They were formed originally as The Pioneer Trio because of Ohio-born Leonard Slye’s (later to be known as Roy Rogers), love of harmony singing and his desire to be part of a vocal group. The name change came about when a radio announcer introduced them as ‘The Sons of the Pioneers,’ because, he argued, they were too young to be pioneers. And the name stuck. Since those early days they have introduced such western classics as Tumbling Tumblweeds, Cool Water, Roomful Of Roses, Red River Valley, Teardrops In My Heart to the world and sold millions of records. First and foremost a vocal and instrumental group, their smooth harmonies and intricate arrangements have delighted generations of listeners, and inspired numerous performers.

Originally a guitarist-vocal trio when formed by Leonard Slye, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer in California in 1933, The Sons of the Pioneers built their following by extensive radio work. Slye met Bob Nolan (born Robert Clarence Nobles, April 1, 1908 in New Brunswick, Canada) when the latter joined The Rocky Mountaineers in 1931. Dismayed by the group’s lack of success, Nolan left to be replaced by Tim Spencer (born Vernon Spencer, July 13, 1908 in Webb City, Missouri), who had been working in a supermarket warehouse. Then both Slye and Spencer left, working together in short-lived groups like The International Cowboys and The O-Bar-O Cowboys, while also holding down regular day jobs. In early 1933, Slye convinced Spencer to join him and Bob Nolan in a new trio for which he knew he could obtain regular radio work. Called The Pioneer Trio, the group made its debut on KFWB radio. Their mix of singing and yodelling, coupled with their down-home humour soon gained them a large following. A fourth member was added early in 1934 in the form of fiddle-player Hugh Farr (born December 6, 1906 in Plano, Texas). The following year, the group started making syndicated radio shows through the Standard Radio Transcription Service, taking their music all over the US. That exposure led to a recording contract with Decca Records in the summer of 1934 and the release of several 78s over the next few years. One of their most popular was Tumbling Tumbleweeds, an original song penned by Bob Nolan. A brilliant poet with an inventive ear for melody and harmony, Nolan virtually invented the sound and style of western harmony singing and also wrote many of the group’s most popular songs. In 1935, the song was licensed for use as the title of a Gene Autry movie, that same year a fifth member, Hugh Farr’s brother Karl (born April 25, 1909 in Rochelle, Texas), who had earlier played with Hugh on the radio, was added to the group.

By this time The Sons Of The Pioneers were a nationally known group and had started appearing in movies, initially in short films and also providing the music for an Oswald The Rabbit cartoon. Spencer left the group in September of 1936 and was replaced by Lloyd Perryman (born January 29, 1917 in Ruth, Arkansas). A fan of The Pioneers as well as a veteran of several singing groups, he had already served as a fill-in Pioneer on occasion. Eventually, he was to become a key member of the group, doing most of the vocal arrangements, serving as the on stage spokesman, and handling the group’s business affairs, and would remain with them for forty-one years. It was the movies that led to the next major change in The Pioneers’ line-up. Leonard Slye, who had appeared in a few B-westerns under the name Dick Weston, was given a starring role in Under Western Skies, in 1938, when he adopted the name Roy Rogers. Due to his film success he left the group and embarked upon a solo career. His replacement was singer and comic Pat Brady, and at the same time, Tim Spencer returned to the line-up. The group was now recording for the ARC group, with their records released on the Okeh label. The 1938-1942 version of the group, consisting of Nolan, Spencer, Perryman, the Farrs and Brady, became what is often referred at as the ‘classic’ Pioneers line-up. The Second World War resulted in more personnel changes. In 1944 The Sons of the Pioneers were signed to RCA-Victor, an association that was to last for twenty-four years. For the first time, additional musicians were brought in on their recordings giving them a much fuller instrumental sound. During the late 1940s they enjoyed several country chart successes with No One To Cry To, Baby Doll, Cool Water, Cigareetes, Whusky And Wild, Wild Women, My Best To You, Teardrops In My Heart and Room Full Of Roses.

Interest in cowboy music went through a slump during the 1950s, and though the group continued recording and touring, they were no longer chart regulars. There were numerous line-up changes reflecting both the lack of commercial success and the ages of the various members. Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer were both elected to The Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1971. Five years later, The Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into The Country Music Hall of Fame. They continued to perform in concert, and recorded as well, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, by which time they had become regular performers in Branson, Missouri. None of the original line-up was involved, as all had passed away. Along with younger country music groups such as Riders in the Sky and Sons of the San Joaquin, the current line-up is a constant reminder of the legacy of the much-loved western group.

Recommended Listening

25 Favourite Cowboy Songs (Stetson 1988)
Country Music Hall Of Fame (MCA 1991)
Wagons West (Bear Family 1993)
Memories Of the Range (Bear Family 1999)
Songs Of the Prairie (Bear Family 1999)
RCA Country Legends (Sony Music 2004)
Under Western Skies (Varese Sarabande, 2005)
The Republic Years (Varese Sarabande, 2006)
Classic Cowboy Songs (Varese Sarabande, 2006)
Way Out There: The Complete Commercial Recordings 1934-1943 (Bear Family box set, 2009)