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The Lively Arts

True Gene-ius

Happy birthday, Gene Booth — the original "Silver Dollar Cowboy."

Manda Clair Jost

 

 

The "Singing Cowboy" is a fading archetype of American entertainment that has no equal in any other culture, and could be said to be close to extinction. In the early 20th century, hugely popular artists such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Sons of the Pioneers and Tex Ritter spilled their smiles and their songs on recordings and on the silver screen with a clean-cut, heart-of-gold style that excluded almost every other country and western artist who emerged after the 1950s.

gene booth
Gene Booth (right) after a December 2012 performance, with brother Jimmie Booth by his side, as usual.

The Singing Cowboy is always the good guy, and therefore, usually wears the white hat. He is clean-shaven, respects women, adores children, fears the Lord, and may often save the day with that "aww, shucks" brand of humility that makes our modern action heroes seem shamefully arrogant. As the original singing cowboys began to slip into retirement and the "Sweet By-and-By," their archetype held fast. In the latter part of the 20th century we had Quick Draw McGraw, Twinkie the Kid, Laurence Fishburne as "Cowboy Curtis" on "Pee Wee's Playhouse," and Woody from Toy Story — all of whom, if they didn't always sing, unquestionably hailed from the same universe as Rogers and Autry, wherever that shimmering land might be.

Silver City residents have become increasingly aware that we have our own gently aging Singing Cowboy in our midst: a tall, soft-spoken man by the name of Gene Booth who celebrates his 70th birthday this month. Unlike the Hollywood cowboys who made it big on the silver screen, Booth appears to be the Real McCoy.

You see, there was always something a little too perfect about the original Singing Cowboys. They were always a bit too clean, too kind — a sort of Hollywood advertisement to encourage Americans to explore the not-so-wild West, where all would be welcomed with a glass of iced tea and protected by the vigilance of Sunday school crooners like Tex Ritter and Rex Allen. Indeed, the majority of the famous singing "cowboys" were contrived fabrications. "Roy Rogers" (born Leonard Slye) was in fact a kid from Cincinnati who grew up on a houseboat on the Ohio River and worked in his father's shoe factory. The two other original "Sons of the Pioneers," Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, hailed from Winnipeg and Missouri respectively, and, like Roy Rogers, didn't adopt the cowboy persona until later in life as entertainers. While Gene Autry and Tex Ritter were at least born into Western ranching families as children, Autry worked mainly as a telegraph operator and Ritter as a brainy college kid majoring in political science.

Did any of these men really grow up working any kind of cowboy life, encouraging "little dogies" to "get along" toward the "cool, clear water," "where the deer and the antelope play"? Perhaps Autry alone might have caught a glimpse of that life as a boy — but for the most part, these Singing Cowboys were of the type once parodied by Johnny Mercer in the famous song that goes, "I'm an old cowhand from the Rio Grande, and I play guitar in the cowboy band! I'm a cowboy who never saw a cow, never roped a steer ‘cause I don't know how, and I sure ain't fixing to start up now! Yippee-eye-yo-kai-yay!"

 

On the other hand, Elgie (Eu)Gene Booth — and that is his real name — was born into a ranching family near Lake Valley, NM, in 1943. While he sings and plays guitar much like any of the other Singing Cowboys (and appropriately wears the white hat), he really did grow up on a ranch in the Southwest, where he really did shoe horses and brand calves, picked and packed Hatch chile with his brother Jimmie, and really did play his guitar as a teenager while standing in the saddle astride his favorite horse named Coley.

"I learned how to yodel listening to Jimmie Rodgers records, and found out about Gene Autry and Roy Rogers from movies and comic books," Booth recalls. "I liked Rim of the Canyon [1949] with Gene Autry because we both grew up on ranches, so it felt like we were some kind of kin. We were in the same business."

When he became a recording artist in 1962, Booth was signed to New Mexico's now-defunct Western music label, Yucca Records, which was based out of Alamogordo. Yucca Records pressed several hundred vinyl releases from such artists as Bobby Fuller (of "I Fought the Law" fame) and Tiny Tim, while focusing primarily on a few dozen New Mexico Western artists who enjoyed mainly a regional audience

"At the age of 19 I started playing and singing in night spots," Booth recalls. Between 1962 and 1973, he recorded 10 vinyl singles for Yucca Records, and finally a full LP in 1974, "The Original Gene Booth" (Yucca YLP 109) — of which he currently owns but a single pristine, shrink-wrapped copy despite the fact that he possesses no functioning record player.

In his lifetime, Booth has written over 500 original songs. Another selection of his songs was released on vinyl around 1976 as a double album entitled, uproariously, "The Singing Mortician." That was a reference to Booth's short stint working as an undertaker in hospitals in Hatch and Ruidoso, where he would frequently "see the worst that could happen to men" (as chillingly revealed in the album liner notes). All together, Booth estimates that he sold about 100,000 records on the Yucca label, mostly peddled at gigs he played as a young man in New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and even "a little in ol' Mexico," as he says.

 

During those years he got to know many of the touring country legends: Faron Young, Lefty Frizzell, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, and even a young Johnny Cash. Booth says, "The majority of them became good friends. I would show them some songs they could use, and sometimes they would ask me to sing in their shows."

Booth's younger brother Jimmie recalls the day the two of them first met Cash in 1965: "That was before Johnny and June were married and before Johnny was busted for dope. Johnny had already kicked his boots off and was running around in his socks…. He was tall and skinny back in those days, kind of nervous and couldn't stay still…. I heard one of the Statler brothers ask him, ‘Are you going to Juarez, Mr. Cash?' and I heard him say ‘Hell, no.' Johnny is our 31st cousin."

 

 

 

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