Gene Autry won't just save your ranch, he'll save your soul or at least your peace of mind.
That's the lesson longtime Rolling Stone music writer Holly George-Warren learned while researching "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry" (Oxford University Press, $28).
The 406-page hardcover touted as the first comprehensive biography of the self-made multimillionaire cowboy star, country music pioneer, California Angels owner and original "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" singer hit bookstores recently as a key component in this year's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Autry's Sept. 29 birth.
"Watching Gene Autry movies on video was the one thing I could do to keep my mind off all the bad things," said George-Warren, who moved to the Catskills from New York City after the disaster of 9/11.
"From the roof of my building I saw the first (tower) collapse, and I saw the second one hit and collapse, and I can't explain how horrific an experience it was."
To recover, "We came up to the Catskills where we had a cabin, and I did nothing but start watching these Gene Autry singing-cowboy movies, and it was so wonderful," said George-Warren, in the midst of her Autry research at the time.
George-Warren currently is busy promoting the book, which has received mostly ecstatic reviews. She'll be at several major Autry events this year, including Hollywood Bowl tribute concerts and the opening of the "Gene Autry and the Twentieth-Century West" centennial exhibition (June 22-Jan. 13) at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
George-Warren said she really enjoys attending gatherings of cowboy-movie fans. "Believe me, if you're trying to escape the whole horrific American Idolization of our entertainment these days, go to one of these festivals. It's so not mainstream, it's almost punk."
Fans of another famous movie cowboy also are celebrating a centennial this year: John Wayne was born 100 years ago May 26. But if Wayne is better remembered today and perhaps taken more seriously because of such critically validated adult Westerns as "The Searchers," Autry is arguably the more influential figure due to his status as one of the first multimedia superstars of the 20th Century.
Autry's singing cowboy persona may seem quaint, but he was an entertainment entrepreneur who pioneered the "synergy" that today's Internet-exploiting media strive to emulate. Autry sold his "brand" through cross-promotional movies, recordings, toys, signature guitars, radio shows, comic books, Western clothing, sheet music, personal appearances, rodeos (Autry's horse, Champion, also was a star) and, later, TV programs.
The beat goes on today via autry.com and the respected Autry National Center, home to the Museum of the American West and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian.
Although the Autry Westerns of the 1930s, '40s and '50s are rarely televised today, they remain surprisingly relevant, George-Warren said, in part because most of the stories are set in the modern era and are filled with what she called "populist ideas."
In "Rovin' Tumbleweeds" (1939), for example, Autry hosts a series of Farm Aid-style concerts to help the farmers and ranchers who lost their land in a flood; then he goes to Washington to fight the corrupt politicians who don't want to spend money to improve the dikes. Said George-Warren: "It's scarily, eerily like Katrina."
George-Warren met Autry 10 years ago, to interview the aged star for the New York Times. (Autry died the next year, at 91; he left an estate valued at $320 million.)
After Autry's death, the author was contacted by the star's estate to write the text for "How the West Was Worn," a coffee-table book for an exhibition of Western wear. The project was a success, and George-Warren won the estate's support to write the first authorized Autry biography.
"We made an agreement that they would provide me with all of his personal papers and documents and contracts, things which had never before been made available, but I wouldn't have to grant them editorial control," said George-Warren, a co-editor of "The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll." "I wanted to make sure it would be a legitimate biography."
The result is likely to remain the definitive portrait of the former Orvon Grover Autry, a poor Tioga, Texas, boy who learned to pick on a Sears Roebuck guitar and had his first huge hit in 1931 with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine."
Said George-Warren: "He made a huge impact on the future of country music, because when he started as a recording artist in 1929, the audience for country music, called 'hillbilly' back then, was pretty tiny and rural. Gene dressed his people up in Western motifs and developed this singing cowboy image and made it more cool. As his fans grew, so did the audience for country music.
"I think that's why a lot of people like Ringo Starr and Keith Richards and early rock 'n' roll guys not to mention rockabilly guys were huge fans of Gene Autry. He's a dude in a super-sharp black shirt on a horse, with a guitar, doing his thing."