There’s more than one reason why the name Rex Allen might ring a bell. For starters, there’s been at least one entertainer on the scene with that moniker since the 1940s. Rex Allen Sr. was a regular on WLS radio’s famed National Barn Dance who went on to become a recording artist, a narrator on many Disney films and one of the last of the great singing cowboy stars of the silver screen. His son Rex Allen Jr. took to the stage with his dad at age 6 and became a full-time professional at 20. Next year will mark his 50th anniversary in the business, and he’s celebrating it with his year-long, farewell Sunrise to Sunset Tour. He will continue to release product, including his long out-of-print run of albums on Warner Bros., which yielded him a hatful of country hits during the 1970s and beyond.
His 1975 signature song, “Can You Hear Those Pioneers,” affectionately pays tribute to the cowboy song legacy from which he came, earning Allen credit for resuscitating western music on commercial country radio. Having retained certain elements of the western sound in all his music―mainly, he says, through his penchant for using the harmony patterns developed by quintessential cowboy group The Sons of the Pioneers―Allen remains strongly associated with the cowboy subgenre of which he is a rightful heir. You might expect someone like Allen, a surviving representative of a largely bygone musical era, to be dogmatic, defensive and dismissive of most everything that’s come along since. However, while Allen is clearly as knowledgeable about western music as he is proud to carry the banner his dad held high, he’s actually a broadminded entertainer who sees music in surprisingly fluid terms.
His ongoing, self-released “Garage Songs” series of intimate, homemade albums―which will number nine volumes before year’s end―covers several decades’ worth of country, pop, folk, rock and more in the style he’s made his own, with seemingly no stylistic boundaries fencing him in. “I’m cutting songs that I think have relevance,” says Allen, whose planned 10th installment will be a cowboy-themed collection with a surprisingly contemporary twist. “The cowboy album is going to be really fun. It starts with my dad’s theme song from all of his films, which was ‘Arizona Cowboy.’ And it’s going to end with song by [a current western artist] named Junie Fisher.”
Wait a minute, now, pardner . . . a current western artist? We reckon you heard that right, and the man who said it doesn’t seem surprised in the least. Allen, it turns out, has a well-thought-out theory that largely explains why he doesn’t feel the need to stage a high-noon showdown for the honor of the fallen cowboy archetype: it ain’t dead.
“The cowboy era that everybody sings about in western music and has for a century now is basically a 50-year period in American history, that’s all it is,” explains Allen. “However, the genre has gone on and on and on. I think that what’s ironic about it is that current country artists today―today―still refer back to western music and the western lifestyle and the Americanism of the American cowboy,” says Allen, pointing out that Toby Keith’s latest single, “A Few More Cowboys,” is a particularly outspoken example.
“In my opinion, Garth Brooks . . . 50 per cent of his albums were western songs: ‘Beaches of Cheyenne,’ ‘Rodeo.’ His whole presentation is modernized western music,” Allen notes, “and it keeps going on. George Strait has done a lot of western tunes. Some of the greatest western albums in history are by Randy Travis. When you want to go back and look for American heritage, you find it in western music.” Allen has aspired to capture that spirit in co-written songs like “Ride Cowboy Ride”―one of the five most-recorded western songs in history―and his evergreen hit “Can You Hear Those Pioneers,” which namechecks the biggest stars and musical highlights of the genre.
Having spent his childhood in Los Angeles, orbiting his father’s sphere of Hollywood movies and singing cowboys, Allen is understandably passionate about the values encapsulated in those films, a body of cinematic features which he says numbers around 4,000. “The good guy wore a white hat, the bad guy wore a black hat; there was no grey area,” he begins. “You were either a good guy or a bad guy, and the bad guys always lost. . . . Now, in times like this, for example, when we’re all struggling to find and live with morality in the current world, the only place you can go back to is the old singing-cowboy films. That’s where it all is.”
At this point, Allen might sound like the classically dogmatic, backward-looking elder you might have been expecting―that is, if he were the only one who held that opinion. He leans in and regales his interviewer with an aside about a meeting with a programming executive from the Starz Encore cable and satellite network. The exec, says Allen with a grin, was mystified by the success of the Starz Encore Westerns channel, one that costs little to maintain and isn’t a priority for promotion. According to Allen’s account, more people tune in for old movie Westerns than for all the other Starz channels combined―not just older Americans, but 30-something couples and their young kids. Allen, of course, knew the answer to the executive’s quandary: “I told him, ‘The families are watching it for the morality.’ And he says, ‘Well, it’s just not popular in New York and Chicago and L.A.,” and I said, ‘Well, there’s a lot of other places in between.'”
It’s places like those where Rex Allen Jr. will be reconnecting with longtime fans as he rides into their towns, reminiscing about his many years of traveling “with every mile I drive. I’m going back and working places that I haven’t been in a long time and that mean a lot to me. I’ve still got―at the Hodag Festival, for example, which is in Wisconsin, I have fans up there that have been my fans for 40 years,” says Allen. “And they’ll all be there. It’s not like the old days, but we’ll all have a great time and sing the old songs, and that’s what it’s all about.”
If you happen to be there, and you’re listening closely enough, you might just be able to hear those pioneers.