The Highwaymen meet Gene Autry (1994)

In 1994, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson spent four days together in a Los Angeles studio making what would be their third and final album as the Highwaymen. Among their repertoire of outlaw songs and road ballads, they launched into an old favorite: Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again.” These four icons of country music, born during the Great Depression, had grown up with Gene Autry as their hero. He was their Public Cowboy No. 1. “I saw him in the movies when I was five years old,” Johnny Cash wrote in 1977, “and haven’t stopped loving him and his kind of movieland dreams. More than that, I took part of Gene Autry home with me in my heart and sang it out in the cotton fields, songs like ‘Be Honest With Me,’ [and ‘The] Last Round-Up’ . . .” Serving as a road map out of rural poverty for Cash — and for so many other future artists — Gene Autry shone as the singing cowboy star whose radio programs, recordings, and movies in the 1930s and ’40s made him one of America’s most celebrated entertainers.

For Highwaymen producer Don Was, a visit one day from eighty-six-year-old Gene Autry to the sessions “was very revealing.” Over the course of their careers, according to Was, each of the Highwaymen had “adopted variations on the cowboy persona, and that’s the guy they got it from.” Captured in a 2006 documentary, American Revolutions: The Highwaymen, Cash, Nelson, Jennings, and Kristofferson — then in their fifties and sixties — “turned into little kids,” Was related. “It was as if John Lennon came to my session. . . . Gene Autry is just sitting there with four of the most intimidating tough guys ever, and they’re marshmallows next to him.” As children, each of the Highwaymen, like so many others, had gone to Gene Autry movies on Saturday afternoons, listened to his music on the radio, and learned to play guitar on a Gene Autry Roundup Guitar ordered from the Sears catalogue. They, just like millions of other Americans who were born between the 1920s and the 1940s, bought his records and went to see him at rodeos, city auditoriums, and county fairs. Again, in the words of the Man in Black, “Reflecting upon . . . the great people I have known, as an All-American image of goodness, justice, good over bad, nothing or no one comes closer than Gene Autry.”

Who was this man that exerted such an influence over Cash, his fellow Highwaymen, and countless others who experienced the Autry phenomenon from the thirties into the fifties? Born Orvon Grover Autry in 1907, he was a second-generation Texan. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents were among the frontierspeople who left the South after the Civil War and traveled west. Gene Autry embraced the tools of the twentieth century to make his way in the world — cutting phonograph records, broadcasting over the radio, appearing in motion pictures and, later, television — yet he found stardom by reinventing the saga of the cowboy and the West through his music and image. Growing up on the final vestiges of nineteenth-century pop culture — minstrel shows, dime novels, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West — he came of age during the heyday of vaudeville, whose stars Al Jolson, Gene Austin, and Will Rogers had profoundly influenced him. Gene Autry merged old sensibilities with new ideas to create a persona that bridged the gap between the two centuries. His ingenuity, ambition, and chameleonic artistry enabled him to develop further by adapting the sonics of yodeling bluesman Jimmie Rodgers and visuals of cowboy star Tom Mix.

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Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code

  1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage.
  2. He must never go back on his word or a trust confided in him.
  3. He must always tell the truth.
  4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.
  5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
  6. He must help people in distress.
  7. He must be a good worker.
  8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
  9. He must respect women, parents and his nation’s laws.
  10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

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