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Roy Rogers

Happy Trails – 1999 (Rhino)

Reviewed by Lawrence Kay

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CDs by Roy Rogers

Country fans often dismiss Roy Rogers' music as faux-country, Hollywood hokum, though this lavish 3-CD set of big hits, rehearsal outtakes and broadcast transcriptions should show such snobbishness is beside the point. Sure, Rogers was Mr. Showbiz back in the 1940's and '50's, a one-man entertainment industry with dozens of movies, a weekly television show, a comic book and product endorsements galore, but he also had country roots.

This set reveals the artist's stylistic breadth and impressive depth of his mainstream pop sensibility. Rogers excelled at everything from corny cowboy ballads and yodeling to Tin Pan Alley Americana and outright pop balladry. During a schmaltzy version of "Pistol Packin' Mama," his orchestra bursts in with a full-on Tommy Dorsey-style swing arrangement. Likewise, partner Dale Evans alternated between a Jo Stafford-style fake-hick twang and gorgeous sotto voce Peggy Lee pop vocals. Rogers himself had a natural, easy delivery comparable to the suave sincerity of Bing Crosby, and he could croon or call a square dance with equal aplomb.

Of course, Rogers' musical success relied heavily on the masterful harmonies of the Sons of The Pioneers, who backed him on many of his best performances. Here, their instrumental chops are underscored by several jazzy fiddle-and-guitar tracks featuring Karl and Hugh Farr, whose version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" sounds like a Django Rinehardt/Stephanne Grappelli outtake. Other treats and surprises include tracks where Rogers took the reins on Pioneers classics such as "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water," which were usually showcases for the group's lead vocalist, Bob Nolan.

Most of all, this collection vividly re-conjures the cast of the Rogers ensemble. Even though the skits with Gabby Hayes and all the rest are blatant schtick, they're still vivid and heart-warming, perhaps even moreso since it's so obvious and plain. This was the height of show biz slick, but way back before all the morphs, quick edits and bells and whistles of today. The Roy Rogers show was a well-polished act whose prime directive was plain old entertainment and - even across five decades - they succeed remarkably well.