The Lively Arts
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.
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  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."
Of all the country greats — among whom Booth himself has the talent to be counted — Marty Robbins was the one who seemed to take the greatest liking to Booth and his music. The two of them enjoyed a friendship that lasted 18 years, from 1964 until Robbins' passing in 1982. While Robbins politely explained that he already had "hundreds of songs just like Gene's" and therefore couldn't risk recording any of Booth's songs himself, he still acted frequently as an enthusiastic supporter. Robbins often called up radio stations specifically to request that they play a Gene Booth song or two.
One of Booth's originals from the Yucca label, "Time I Better Write," was about a man composing a letter to his family back home. "One of my fans, Brewster, had this relative in Vietnam who was a military disc jockey," Booth recalls. "He played the song ‘Time I Better Write' and the whole base wanted to hear more of it. He told me it was a number-one hit, and stayed number-one through the duration of the Vietnam War, which ended two or three months after sending that record."
Gene Booth’s 1964 publicity photo for Yucca Records,
at the age of 21.
On closer examination, however, it seems that Robbins was wrong about having "hundreds of songs like Gene's." Perusing the extraordinarily prolific discography of Gene Booth — most of which exists as low-fidelity home recordings — one is awestruck by the raw sincerity of his work. While a fair share of his songs were written about love interests and heartbreak (as any songwriter might do), conspicuously absent are the cinematic yarns about riding the range, gunfighting the bad guys, the Mexican señorita, and all the other marketable fodder that was the bread and butter of Hollywood cowboy repertoires.
Instead, Booth penned his own distinctively New Mexican songs such as "The Legend of the Kneeling Nun," "Mimbres Archaeologist," "Girl from the Moon" (a tall tale about falling in love with a female survivor of the Roswell crash) and "The Ballad of Sarah Rooke." The latter was probably the only song ever written that lauds a real-life historic heroine of our state, a switchboard operator from Folsom, NM, who lost her life in a 1908 flash flood while frantically telephoning everyone in the town that a wall of water was on its way (18 people died in that flood including Rooke, while hundreds were saved by her warnings).
Still other Booth songs show an uncommon respect for women in general, even very small girls — such as the heartbreaking song "Orphans' Home" on his Yucca debut, about two very young sisters in an orphanage who get separated by thoughtless adoptive parents. His local hit "Plastic Woman" mocks the "cold as ice" esthetic of cosmetic surgery. "Keeping Your Memory Sweet" is a father's song of love to his only child, a daughter, whom Booth lost custody of when his first marriage fell apart.
Why so many tender songs about real-life heroines, small girls and everyday women? "It just happened that way," Booth explains. "I had to write stories and favored girls over boys. [‘Orphan's Home'] was a true story about boys, but I changed it to girls ‘cause I thought it would be sadder." These are all very personal stories, but like Booth himself, they are real — more real than almost any tale that Rogers or Autry might croon on the silver screen, from a script and sheet music that someone else wrote.
And yes, there's that: Since 1993, Booth has been making movies, too (what Singing Cowboy worth his salt wouldn't star in his own movies?). But these aren't Singing Cowboy movies as you've ever seen them before. If you ever catch Booth performing at Diane's Parlor or the Buckhorn in Pinos Altos (the two venues you are most likely to spot him), for a mere $10 you can purchase one of his 15 self-produced movies burned to a recordable DVD with a sticky label created on a mechanical typewriter.
Pop it into a DVD player, and marvel at Booth's many original musical interludes woven between creative, if sometimes hard-to-follow, original storylines. These include not only good guys, bad guys and gunfights, but also monsters and witch doctors and the men of the entire Booth clan dressed in drag for lack of female actresses to cast. These movies are weird, no doubt, but they are also wonderful, while being one of the best ways to get your hands on a diverse selection of Booth's original songs, many of which have been recorded live only in these movies, with no standalone audio counterparts.
"I done it cause I wanted an outlet for my songs," Booth explains. "Songs and movie scripts are the same, only songs are shorter."
Today, Gene Booth lives modestly in Arenas Valley with his brother Jimmie, his nephew James, and a handful of other relatives. As always, they continue to keep horses, goats and some small animals — including two white ferrets, one of which is named Calamity Jane Booth (of course). On Sundays and Mondays, he puts on one of his custom tailored Western shirts, plus suspenders and tie both spangled with rhinestone butterflies and hummingbirds, and his trademark white hat, which sports an extremely heavy halo of antique silver dollars that Booth welded together himself. He packs up a large Gibson jumbo guitar, and he and his ever-supportive brother Jimmie head down to Diane's or the Buckhorn for a couple of Bud Lights, and an opportunity to perform to a Grant County audience that is finally beginning to appreciate how much of a gem Booth is.
When Booth performs, he is both a humble gentleman and an effective showman, frequently telling corny jokes in a thick rancher's drawl that simply cannot be faked, and singing with a nostalgic tenor tremolo and genuine yodeling that are both vanishing arts, often imitated but rarely delivered as convincingly as Booth does it. Late last year, a small group of recently converted fans printed up some Gene Booth T-shirts that show his 1964 Yucca publicity photo with the pun, "True Gene-ius."
If Booth is indeed the living legend that many locals now believe him to be, perhaps it can be attributed to the fact that he began playing guitar at the tender age of six — a genuine Gene Autry-branded child's guitar gifted to his sister by their mother. In a lifelong effort to pay tribute to the Hollywood cookie-cutter cowboys of yesteryear, Gene Booth somehow grew up to be the real thing.
Manda Clair Jost is a professor of natural sciences at Western New Mexico University
in Silver City, and a former US Fulbright Scholar.