Douglas B. Green
Douglas B. Green, known professionally and affectionately as "Ranger Doug" of Riders in the Sky, has published many articles and books, including "Singing in the Saddle", 2002, and "Singing Cowboys plus CD", 2006. He has also published songbooks and a guitar instruction book, "Rhythm Guitar the Ranger Doug Way" with Suze Spencer Marshall, 2006. You are listening to him singing his own "Night Riding Song" as you read this page.
Bob Nolan wrote the liner notes to Riders in the Sky's first album, Three on the Trail. The original rough copy of this letter was kept for Bob's grandson, Calin Coburn.
On November 20, 1979, Mr. Green arranged a telephone interview with Bob Nolan. The resultant article was printed on page 88 of The Music City News, January / February, 1980. The entire interview is printed here with permission from Mr. Green.
The following essay is his introduction to his first songbook, "Ranger Doug - Songs of the Sage No. 1", 1997 (above), containing 25 of his own songs. The cover is a clever imitation of Bob Nolan's first songbook. The Riders in the Sky website, as well as being informational, is great fun to visit.
In Ranger Doug's own words:
How do you make a western songwriter? Darned if I know. Looking back it seems like as unlikely a career choice for me as any I could have dreamed up. I lived in the west as a kid, but haven't for almost 40 years. I can ride a horse and have dinked around with cattle and cowboys (thank you Ken Jones and Gary McMahan and Don Malone and Jim Patterson!) but I'm not much of a horseman and certainly no cowboy. I loved cowboy movies (especially Tex Ritter) and cowboy television shows (especially The Lone Ranger and Maverick) as a kid, but loved Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and Crusader Rabbit just as much.
But music, ah, music has always been a part of the fabric of my life. I've often said the first song I truly remember from the radio (I suppose it could have been a record) was Cool Water - the image of the old prospector and his mule, and the shimmering heat of the desert, and the teasing, taunting mirage were vivid and somehow horrifying, and the plangent, insistent call for water, water, cool water haunted me. Riders in the Sky came out in my youthful California years, and impressed me in the same way; nearly as a ghost story, vividly told. Green Grow the Lilacs is the other western song I remember from my earliest youth: my mother used to sing it to me a lot, if I recall. IN fact, she and her brothers Arvid and Hank used to sing together a lot, as kids, mostly the songs they heard on the National Barn Dance in Chicago, classic folk and country songs by people like Lulu Belle and Scotty, Patsy Montana, and the Prairie Ramblers.
They may have sung some after I was born but I don't recall it; I just recall music being an everyday part of growing up. Yet very little of it was western: those vivid examples aside, the music I recall absorbing as a kid was a mixture of show tunes (South Pacific in particular), light classics like Richard Rodgers' Victory At Sea, and the meatier classical composers. Occasionally some of the more melodic pop tunes of the early 1950s filtered through, usually those with a particular sweep of melody and idea, and incurable romantic, songs like Far Away Places, and Stranger in Paradise. I'm sure these all played a part, all shaped me somehow, prepared me for this unlikely career.
The dawn of rock broke over me as it did all the kids of my generation, though I found myself drawn again and again to the harmony groups: the Everly Brothers, the Chordettes, the Beach Boys, the Browns, and later when folk music swept the country I was attracted to Green Fields and Peter, Paul and Mary. Folk music was wonderfully accessible - my brother Jim and I quickly got ukes, then guitars, and began to play and sing. My brother, by the way, ended up with the lion's share of musical talent - these days he supports his passion for playing the cello with a part-time job as a radiologist. At any rate, it was guitars and harmony all through junior high and high school.
It's odd, in retrospect, that I didn't begin writing songs then; God knows I was singing enough of them! I won awards for poetry and creative writing, and played and sang a lot at home, and was in the glee club and the school musicals, but I never somehow put them together. I had a small gift for language, for putting sentences together in a pleasing manner, but being half-Scandinavian (Finnish, actually), I suppose I thought it was simply too presumptuous: I didn't want anybody to think I'd got the big head or anything, oh no. And besides, to be quite honest, a lot of things were far more important to me in high school, namely sports and my girlfriend.
College days at the University of Michigan got me into old-time country and bluegrass (forget sports; you don't think I could play football or track in the Big 10 Conference do you?) and bluegrass brought me to Nashville; then as now it was a town crawling with songwriters, yet I never considered myself one. I tried, of course, fitfully and rarely, but the results seemed trivial, inauthentic, and faintly embarrassing. Through a sheer stroke of luck I sang one of my earliest good original songs on a network TV special, Marjoe's Nashville (who remembers Marjoe?), but this exposure, and the bonus of what seemed like an awful lot of money at the time, didn't propel me headlong into a career as a songwriter. It seemed a happy fluke, a nice gift from the gods. Writing songs was not yet a calling.
If there was a turning point, it came in 1974, when I visited the first (and apparently last) Western Swing Festival that the irrepressible Guy Logsdon helped put on in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I loved western swing - and still do - and was surprised to find the Sons of the Pioneers on the bill. I recall thinking they were sure western, but didn't swing, and if anything I thought they were a little like a quaint relic, somewhat musty and faintly unhip.
There were just four of them that day - the stripped down version in those lean years for western music - Lloyd Perryman, Roy Lanham, Dale Warren and Rusty Richards, and the minute they hit the stage with Way Out There, The Timber Trail, When Pay Day Rolls Around and the rest, I was blown out of my chair. I was stunned, nearly breathless; here, amid unrelenting barroom ballads and dance tunes was music of such freshness, such force, such...integrity. It appealed to me as a poet, as a musician, and it flung me back into the seat of the theater in Costa Mesa where I spent so many hours as a kid, where I lost my brand new Indian feather headdress the day I got it. What a torrent of memories.
I determined that day to learn all I could about the Pioneers and this style of music, and went back to the Country Music Foundation, where I was working at the time, and immersed myself in the songs of Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, and the music of the classic Pioneers. I was aided and abetted by the walking encyclopedia of early country music, Bob Pinson, and I am forevermore grateful. I absorbed these songs like a sponge, and analyzed them as well, for by then I had some skills as a writer and a musician, and I could appreciate not only the stirring emotional appeal but the remarkable craftsmanship, both in lyrics and in music, that I found there.
I also found these writers were unfettered by the three and four chord mendacity of so many folk and country songs, and free of the desperate need for a commercial "hook" which made for the catchy but ephemeral hits of the day. These songs of the west were, like the west itself, adventurous musically and lyrically, and it was always an unexpected delight to find a vestige of Keats, for example, in Nolan's Waiting for the Sun to Say Good Morning.
In short, this was music that appealed to the head and the heart; I had at last found my métier, the true vehicle for expressing whatever creativity bubbled and churned within me. When Too Slim and Windy Bill Collins and I formed Riders in the Sky, it was just for fun, a platform from which to sing these classic songs in the classic style. After Woody joined us and it became clear this was going to become a real band and a real career, we knew we had to make our own mark in this style we loved. We did not aspire to become a museum piece, an example of living folklore, nor did we want to exists as a Sons of the pioneers imitation: after all, they had done this style as well as it could be done; as performers they had set impossible standards. We had to find our own way, within the tradition but separate and and distinct.
The most obvious way we've done that as a group, is, of course humor. But a more subtle way was to create our own body of material, songs that work within the tradition and we hope, add to it, but which are our own expressions. It was this need for songs with our own identity that set me (and Woody) into a songwriting frenzy; many of these songs were written in that first burst of energy as our Career begun: Blue Montana Skies, Riding Alone, Here Comes the Santa Fe and many others.
My early inspirations were, as ever cowboy songwriter and western music fan surely knows, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer. Their songwriting was everything I wanted mine to be: direct, powerful, virile, poetic, tender and sometimes humorous. It is imaginative and unfettered by the traditions and constraints which generally typified the other songs, even western songs, of their era. They were poets and great melodists as well. I tried to see the world through the eyes of Bob Nolan, but I have to admit I learned more of songwriting from Tim Spencer; both were craftsmen with enormous heart, and shaped the music we now sing beyond calculation.
In addition I learned a lot - by spending endless hours with the songs - from two lesser known Western greats: Ray Whitely and Andy Parker. Their work is diverse and intelligent; Ray Whitley had a directness of communication I admire enormously; Andy Parker's best songs were all so different, and each was wonderful in a different way, and purely western.
A third tier would include Stan Jones, Foy Willing, Johnny Bond, Cindy Walker, and of course Marty Robbins, who has that wonderful narrative gift I don't, so few do. And I can't, in retrospect, underestimate the influence of those brilliant composers of the big band era. Those years I spent playing in the little Dixieland band at Shakey's, playing the popular songs of the 1920s through the 1950s had a profound effect too, on my guitar playing as well as my composing - there are echoes of dozens of big band era songs, both well known and obscure, throughout my work; in fact, a particularly beautiful or intriguing chord passage was often enough to spark the beginnings of a song. Filtered through my experience, and my love of the music of the west, this chord progression or that series of notes became a western song. In fact, I'm still trying to write a song based on the last few notes of the second line of the introduction to Stardust.
The songs have come more slowly since that first incredible burst of energy, but they have come steadily, and have gained some little stature in the western music community. It has been profoundly gratifying, I assure you, to have these little creations, these little children, grow up and go out in the world and thrive, be sung by others, make a little money. It has been a time of great reflection to go back and recall the composition of many of them; there are tender memories, joyful memories, sorrowful memories involved with many, and looking back over 20 years of songwriting is astonishing in itself. It reminds me deeply, somberly, of one of Bob Nolan's late tunes, That Old Outlaw Time.
In compiling a song book, the little introductions were important to me. I recall the delight in discovering the little stories behind some of the classic songs: how Tumbling Tumbleweeds was originally written as Tumbling Leaves; how Ray Whitley's casual remark to his wife upon getting a call to do a movie - "Well, honey, looks like I'm back in the saddle again" - became the spark for one of the most popular western songs of all time; how Bob Nolan's haunting Song of the Bandit was inspired by Alfred Noyes' famous poem "The Highwayman." I promised myself if I was ever so lucky as to have my own song book published I'd tell the stories behind the songs, and here they are.
There are only 12 notes in the scale and a few thousand usable words; all of us presumptuous enough to write songs necessarily owe a lot to earlier songs, earlier writers. I've tried to give credit, when I can remember, to the author or song that inspired this phrase, that turn of melody, that set of chord changes. Sometimes the inspiration is obvious, when it's pointed out; sometimes it's so subtle I'm probably the only one who could hear it. Regardless, these are the best of the hundreds of western songs I've written, and their stories.
There is - and brother, this is a fact - not a lot of money to be made writing western songs. We who do it (and there are many fine writers out there today, more than ever really) do it because we love the style, because the wild integrity of the west and its music speak, for whatever reason, to our hearts. As I indicated back when I began this essay, I don't know why this music speaks so to me, but I do know that it does. These songs in the pages ahead are not only expressions of my own creativity; they are little prayers of gratitude, in a way, little thank yous to the men and women who inspired me and many others with their vision, their talent, and their love of the west. - Ranger Doug
One of the things I love best about Western music is that the lyrics are so visual, the legacy of the poets (Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, Stan Jones and the others) who transformed Western music from the earthy work songs and sentimental ballads to the lofty, poetic visions of the glory of the West that first grabbed my attention with both hands all those years ago, and hasn't let go yet. - Douglas B. Green
...Tim Spencer's Cowboy Country, which is a clever but undistinguished ditty, except for the release. When Lloyd Perryman soars up to "Let me sing my song to the [lonesome dogies]", I still get the chills. Great singing, great song writing. - Ranger Doug
GREEN: I guess the easiest way to start is to ask you how, after so long away from the studio, did you decide to record again?
NOLAN: Well, it was a thing where a very dear friend of mine asked me to do it and I turned him down at first but he kept at me with good labels and everything. And I finally gave in about six months later and we made a record. And it was one of the stipulations that this would be the last---I mean, I’m not going to follow up on it at all.
GREEN: Are you happy with the record? Pleased with the result?
NOLAN: Well, they seem to be happy with it. They’ve given me quite a broad choice of stuff to record by myself, see. They let me choose it and…
GREEN: I was about to ask if the material had been your choice.
NOLAN: Yes. Well, I didn’t like the fact that they specifically ordered Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water which have been sung so much by the Sons and myself. I didn’t want to do them over again, but they convinced me that that’s what the people would expect, you know, so I did them.
GREEN: Were you happy with the sound you got?
NOLAN: The sound? Yes. I loved the background music and the whole thing was very palatable to me.
GREEN: You mentioned “a friend” who talked you into the project a moment ago. Was that Snuff Garrett?
NOLAN: Yes, it was Snuff that did it, see. I’ve known Snuff for so damn long. When he came to me with it, I didn’t like the idea at the beginning because I had been out of the business for over twenty years but Snuff…[laughter]…he wouldn’t quit, dammit! First he brought the people with United Artists out here and they liked what they heard and said, “Hell, yes. We’ll do it.” But before they got the record out, why, United Artists was sold and I don’t know who the hell bought it though I know what the price was [laughter]. Eight million dollars! [Laughter]
So, finally, about six months later or maybe a little more, Snuff got Elektra – that’s a Warner Brothers affiliate I hear – to accept it and so far it’s been doing all right when you consider I’ve been out of the doggone business as long as I have. It’s still on the charts and been on for over ten weeks. I want it to go because Snuff has sunk so damn many dollars in it. The money was just flowing like mad. He got me everything I wanted. I wanted certain voices behind it since I couldn’t get the Pioneers. That was absolutely out of the category because they were under contract to another label.
GREEN: Would that have been your first choice, to have recorded with the current Sons of the Pioneers?
NOLAN: Oh, I would have loved to have the Sons. Yeah.
GREEN: If you’ll forgive me for saying so, I’ve listened to the record quite a bit and I’ve always felt that in many places you were overwhelmed by the too-dominant background voices.
NOLAN: Well, that was Snuff’s idea. He’s a funny guy. You should have heard the first recording of it. I had him put that down, pull the background down because he likes the big sound and gets so engrossed in that he forgets what he’s trying to sell, you know. He’s trying to sell a pioneer, you know, and he was forgetting that, see, and I had to tell him that he was defeating his own purpose.
GREEN: I know you’ve continued writing ever since you left the business – I wondered how you came to choose the two new songs presented on the album, of the many you’ve written in the intervening years.
NOLAN: Well, I was a little reticent to choose too many new ones because he wanted the old favorites, the things that I’d done, the things that are, shall we say, supposed to be my top tunes, like Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water and this type of stuff. Then he said, “Now give me some of your new stuff,” and I give him three and he wanted more. I said, “No.” I said, “The record won’t be versatile enough to please the people, see?” I said, “Let’s get some other writers in there and have a conglomerative deviation of songs.”
GREEN: I’m sorry to hear you say it will be your final statement – a great many people would love to hear more.
NOLAN: Well, it would have to be a very strong effort on their part to make me do it again because I retired thirty years ago and that was it.
GREEN: That seems like a natural way to approach one of the questions I wanted to ask about the old days: that is, why did you retire?
NOLAN: I think we’ve got a bad connection of something, I’m not hearing you very well.
GREEN: I’m sorry. I’ll try to speak up. I asked why you chose to retire from recording and performing.
NOLAN: Well, the reason I retired is that after I retired from the Sons of the Pioneers, Victor (whom we were under contract to at that time) wanted me to make some singles, see, but they didn’t do anything with them. You couldn’t go out and buy them. Why they did it I don’t know but that put an end to that.
GREEN: Were you so discouraged by that…?
NOLAN: No, it was just that they didn’t release them, see.
GREEN: And your reasons for leaving the group?
NOLAN: Well, mostly it was that the load was too damn much for me to carry. I was fronting the group and not getting any extra money for it, trying to keep them on their toes, you know. And we were doing an awful lot of traveling at the time and that’s a hard job. I was carrying the whole damn load and nobody else was paying any attention to it, see. So I more or less said, “Okay, you take it from here.”
GREEN: Do you mean that they left all the work of organizing up to you?
NOLAN: No, not organizing but fronting, see, which is one hell of a job. Most of our work at that time was personal appearances and I wasn’t getting any extra out of it. I was just getting my one-sixth and it was just too much for me.
GREEN: Did the fact that Tim Spencer had left just a couple of months earlier have any bearing on your decision?
NOLAN: Oh, yes. My God! Once I lost Tim, for God’s sake, I mean, he was the brains behind the whole damn thing, so I just lost interest. I just lost all heart in the whole thing when he left and he left for the same reason I did. There was just too many people dragging their feet, see, and not giving their utmost. We’d been used to people just contributing everything they could to the improvement of the act.
GREEN: And do you mean that some members were starting to just coast?
NOLAN: Yes. I used the term “dragging their feet”. [laughter] Of course, there’s only one of us…well, Roy is alive but he wasn’t with us then. There’s only one of them alive today and that’s going to hurt him if he ever reads it. [laughter] That he was dragging his feet! [laughter] Of course, it’s Hugh Farr.
GREEN: I know people have asked you thousands of times about your songwriting and I hope the question doesn’t bore you, but in studying the music it is impossible to fail to notice how extraordinarily different your cowboy songs were from the cowboy music which preceded them - that is, the sentimental ballad like When the Work’s all Done This Fall or the few pleasant and simple yodeling cowboy tunes Jimmie Rodgers recorded. Yours were entirely new, entirely different.
NOLAN: Yes, I broke all the rules. I didn’t stick strictly to 32 bars in the song. I went my own way. In other respects, I went for chromatic scales and stuff like that which was unheard of in country music at that time. And I hear that my Cool Water is still in the Library of Congress on top of the list of Americana West and replaced Home on the Range which was all, ah, shall we say pear-shaped chords and I deviated from this. And now Cool Water is the top tune of Americana West and it’s still there. And that’s good. I mean, I love it!
GREEN: These changes in song form were indeed radical at the time. What was your inspiration for such a breakthrough in both melody and lyric?
NOLAN: Well, I studied harmony construction when I was going to University of Arizona and I just wanted to use my knowledge of harmony construction. It was a little difficult to start with because even my own boys sometimes thought, “This is not good,” you know. [laughter] It took a little while but I had to go along with my own feelings in music.
GREEN: I can see that it would be very difficult to learn it, having no earlier style to base it on…
NOLAN: …than when they’re used to something, right. Just like trying to teach somebody that they’re probably trying to worship the wrong god or something… [ laughter]…you’ve got a job on your hands so you just don’t do it, you just ride along with them and let them come to it themselves, see.
GREEN: I’m often amazed at the harmonic complexity of many of your songs.
NOLAN: Yes, uh, yes. Have you heard Jim Nabors latest recording I See God?
NOLAN: I did a song on there for him and I mean it was the first time I ever deviated from the Bible teachings and more or less wrote from my own feelings, see, in the religious style. Because, you know, songs I have written in the religious vein are strictly…I mean, anybody can apply it to any religion - what I say in my songs - to theirs. I don’t try to make any waves at all but on this one I did deviate a little bit and I was surprised to see that Jim accepted it, because he is a dyed-in-the-wool Christian, you know. But he did a marvelous job on it. It’s a song that takes almost five minutes to sing and it’s got 76 bars in it and 312 words of lyric which is a job in itself. But he stayed with it until he got it down on record.
GREEN: Is it one of your newer songs?
NOLAN: Yes. I wrote it two years ago for him and it came out about a year ago. It’s called I SEE GOD and the title of the tune is The Relative Man. And I like the way he did it. He was scared to death of it, Jim was, because I threw the whole book at him of my knowledge of music. If you ever hear it, why you’ll know why he was so darn scared of it because he doesn’t read music, see, and I haven’t counted yet the harmonic changes in the whole song but it’s vast. And it’s hard to hold when you have that many harmonic changes in one song. He had to labor with it. It’s called The Relative Man.
GREEN: Another question. I’ve wondered, when the three of you first got together, how…
NOLAN: Roy and Tim and I. Well, everybody has a different date on that thing! I got together, I’m sure, in 1929 because I lost my job as a lifeguard in 1929 and was reaching out for anything I could hold onto! I answered an ad in the old, now-defunct Los Angels Examiner and this was the boy – Roy Rogers – that I met. He was 16 or 17 years old at the time and I was just 22 and only about a two-year man on the lifeguard course so I didn’t have much seniority. So I was among the first to be let out when the big thing hit in 1929. The stock market crashed.
GREEN: Fifty years ago last month.
GREEN: What I meant to ask was how, when the three of you got together and sat down….
NOLAN: Us three! Oh, it would be somewheres about 1932 when Tim had taken over my place, see. I don’t know. Tim was a rebel just like me and he figured that the people they were with at the time, that they weren’t going to go any place and so Tim says, “Let’s give Bob Nolan another try and see if he’ll come with us,” and Roy and Tim and myself started from there.
GREEN: What did you mean by “a rebel just like me”?
NOLAN: A rebel? Well, he didn’t play according to the book at all. Never did. Tim, I’m talking about. And I liked him for that. He broke all the rules as I was accustomed to doing, too.
GREEN: Musically or otherwise?
NOLAN: Musically and ethically. I mean, he wasn’t averse to buying our way into a situation, which was exactly what we did.
GREEN: Can you tell me the situation?
NOLAN: Yeah. We took cognizance of all the radio stations in and around this vicinity – the Los Angeles vicinity – and we found KFWB was partial to harmony singers and so we aimed at them specifically. When we decided to do this, our boarding house was right close to that studio and we ate lunch at the same place that KFWB’s staff was eating. And we became acquainted with who was who at KFWB and we talked to certain people and Harry Hall, who was the head engineer, I guess you’d call him. Electrical engineer who did all the mixing over there.
Tim approached him on getting us an audition. Well, first of all, we had to hit him for an audition and invited him up to our boarding house for lunch and then we took him up into our dormitory where we stayed and gave him an audition. He said, “I think my boss would like you guys,” and Tim said, “That’s all we want.” [laughter] And it cost us $150 – but it was a big help, too, because we had agreed on that before we started to…we felt it would be a new start in show business. We each put in a $50 bill.
When Tim spread those $50 bills in front of him…[laughter]…you haven’t heard this story, have you? I can’t think of anybody who has ever told it, the story of that audition. We had our program all mapped out for the audition so that it was all letter-perfect and geared to get the interest of whoever was listening and then hit them with outlandish stuff, see, that they’d never heard before. It was all original music which I or Tim had written, see. And you know what? We got into our second song. You’ve heard our rendition of Way Out There?
GREEN: Of course!
NOLAN: Well, that was our second song and, you know, we was looking up into the mixer’s room where the station manager was standing, listening to us, and in the middle of that song he turned his back and walked out. My God! All three of our hearts went right to the floor. We thought he didn’t like us, see. So Harry Hall, the engineer at that time, switched on the intercom down in the studio where we were and he said, “That’s all, boys,” and turned it off, see? Then about at the count of six, he turns it back on and says, “You’re hired!” [laughter] My God! It was just like a bomb! [laughter} And that was it. That’s the beginning of the whole thing. The guy didn’t even wait to hear the end of the song.
GREEN: When the three of you first got together, what were the musical sources that you drew from to create this new sound? Was it based on barbershop harmony, or gospel singing, or…
NOLAN: Oh, no. It was built around my…the things that I had studied in college – the construction of harmony.
GREEN: So, from the start, you determined that both your style and your songs would be original?
NOLAN: Yes. We wasn’t going to do anything that anybody else did at all.
GREEN: One thing that made me ask was the fact that later - on your numerous transcriptions - you did a lot of, oh, “Gay 90s” material like Little Annie Rooney and the like.
NOLAN: Oh, sure. We had to because there was an insatiable demand at that time for our type of singing – for harmony singing. And we were on at least an hour a day, every day of the year, and sometimes two hours. We had to have an awful lot of material and that’s where we beat everybody else to the top spot – because we had a repertoire at the time – after we had taken the job at KFWB – of at least three thousand songs!
GREEN: I doubt that any group in the country, then or now, could match that. Did you have a formula for working out the harmonies. That is, who would sing what?
NOLAN: O, sure. Actually it wasn’t specifically assigned to each of us, we just – well – I would take the lower register and Roy would take the lead, and Tim would take the top. Sometimes we were infringing on each other’s. Like, you would say, the tenor would be the high baritone and I would come up into the low tenor. We just felt the damn thing as we went along. It was a wonderful group to work with when it was young, when we were all working on it real hard. But in later years, as I say, a few of them began to drag their feet and the people who were working hard at it like Tim and I, we got disgusted with it and more or less said, “If that’s the way you want it, you have it. Do it by yourselves. [laughter] I don’t want no part of it.” And I know Tim didn’t, either.
GREEN: Specifically, in what ways was Hugh “dragging his feet”?
NOLAN: Oh, well, wouldn’t attend rehearsals for anything. Just thought they knew it all and the result was, well, especially the Farr Boys, they thought they were too good to attend rehearsals and ended up doing the same thing ten years after [laughter], ten years after they’d done it, see? This was a little bit tough to take because we was constantly getting new material and we couldn’t get them to attend rehearsals.
They were good musicians, of course. They were the very best at that time and people loved them but they just didn’t want to go ahead. They just wanted to sit on their butts and ride along, see? Well, that didn’t suit Tim at all so he quit and I quit shortly after.
GREEN: Were you still writing songs prolifically at that time?
NOLAN: Oh, yes. And I stayed with them with the recordings and everything and presented my new material to them and they liked it and recorded it.
GREEN: I suppose everybody who talks to you is interested in their own favorite songs of yours and their inspiration. I wanted to ask you about a couple of favorites of mine. One is Song of the Bandit.
NOLAN: Oh, yeah. You know, Marty Robbins said that is his favorite, too, and that it inspired him to write El Paso. I had read an old English poem called The Highwayman. Maybe you have, too, if you’ve studied English literature. I forget now who wrote it but it was very impressive to me so I turned it into a western atmosphere thing and it’s almost word for word.
GREEN: How about Song of the Prairie?
NOLAN: Ah. A lot of those things were just my imagination. There was no inspiration behind it. I just let my imagination….
GREEN: It’s an especially beautiful melody.
NOLAN: Well, that I always tried to do – wed both music and lyrics to each other.
GREEN: Have you ever tried to estimate how many songs you averaged writing in, say, a week or a month?
NOLAN: Oh, I don’t know. Back when I was writing for a living, I was writing all the time and I never kept track of how many I was writing. It was just what I was writing at the time and I was getting so engrossed with it I just didn’t keep track of it, see? It’s just like when I was a lifeguard on the beach – if you want to find out who is a good lifeguard and who isn’t, you don’t ask him how many people he’s saved because he doesn’t keep track of them. Ask him how many people he’s lost and, boy, he’ll tell you right now!
GREEN: Well, [laughter] I guess that’s one way of putting it. I had another question to ask; this time about your film career and that is that…well, I don’t know if you’ve kept up with all the film histories coming out but they’re extremely contradictory as to you…
NOLAN: Yeah. It’s just like if you’re going into the Old Testament. I swear to God You’ve never seen so many conflicting things in your whole life! [laughter]
GREEN: That’s quite true. One will say you desperately wanted to star in films, another will say you avoided it like the plague. Most agree, however, that you were or should have been a candidate for a series of your own.
NOLAN: Well, I mean…. I never wanted that responsibility. In fact, at the time when Harry Cohn – when we were working at Columbia – was going out to lunch and we was just coming back and he stopped his whole entourage and pointed a finger at me and said, “There’s my Golden Boy!” My God, it scared the bejeezus out of me! I didn’t want that kind of responsibility. So I went out and got drunk and stayed drunk for a week until he gave up on me! [laughter]
Flipped tape – some lost
…got the whole group together – I mean the original five of Roy and Tim and myself and the Farr Brothers – [decided] that if there was ever going to be a star, it would be Roy because at that time everybody all looked alike. William Boyd looked like Gene Autry, Gene Autry looked like William Boyd. [laughter] so we figured that’s the way we’d go.
GREEN: Several of the film histories have compared you to George O’Brien.
NOLAN: Oh. That was, I suppose, because of my physical construction. He was a tremendously constructed man!
GREEN: Yes. I’ve seen several of his movies with Ray Whitley, an old friend of yours.
NOLAN: Yeah. Ray worked with George, didn’t he?
GREEN: Yes. Well, I’ve taken a lot of your time for which I’m grateful. I guess I could ask questions all day.
NOLAN: Well, I’m the kind of guy that could go right along with you! [laughter]
GREEN: Fred Goodwin has a question for you – he wanted to know the inspiration behind Sky Ball Paint.
NOLAN: Yeah. Well, let’s see. Sky Ball Paint. That more or less came from Stuart Hamblen. He had a song called Ride an Old Paint and Lead an Old Dan and I just took the name Sky Ball Paint from that. That was my horse, so that’s why I wrote it! [laughter] but there was no inspiration. It was all fantasizing which most of my stuff is.
GREEN: I am constantly amazed that a lot of your great songs like Sky Ball Paint, or I Grab My Saddle Horn and Blow, or On the Rhythm Range have never been recorded by the Sons at all, commercially, and others like Song of the Prairie and Song of the Bandit only came out on albums many years after you’d left the group. Why weren’t more of your songs recorded?
NOLAN: Well, things like that, you see… The people in the recording companies, the people who were footing the bill, didn’t understand. There were certain things that I was writing about that they knew nothing about. They knew nothing about the desert and the plains that were a part of the cowboy’s life. And when they don’t understand it, they don’t like it.
GREEN: That’s a real shame. So many great tunes unrecorded. Doubtless, hundreds I’ve never heard.
NOLAN: Oh, there’d have to be. And I think a lot of them are lost; so many different music companies have bought my library and have never actually given a full account of the material. I know it’s well over 2,000 and the last company to buy my library was Chappell and I can’t get them to give me a list of the songs I have in my library because I’m sure they do not have my whole library. It’s been sold three times that I know of. But I can’t get them to do it and I tell them I want the list because I don’t think they have my whole library.
GREEN: I had the opportunity to see a transcript of the court case you had against Williamson Music on Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Actually, it is a well-known case studied by law students.
NOLAN: Yeah. And we still didn’t get what we wanted. I wanted the song back plus the money they owed me. What we were trying to prove was – if we could have proved fraud, why we would have gotten the song back but the judge wouldn’t allow the fraud. See, if we could have proved fraud, we could have gotten the money – which we did get – and the song also, so we could publish it with someone under a new contract. But I…. I don’t dwell on that. It’s all water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned. I don’t go back to the past too damn much. I sometimes go back to try to find out what happened at what time but I don’t live in the past at all. It repulses me no end to have people come up to me and say “Hey! I knew you when!” and take me back thirty or forty years. It’s very repulsive to me to start or even begin to live in the past.
GREEN: Obviously you don’t if you’re still writing new songs.
NOLAN: But they’re entirely different. If you know the record, the two songs, Old Home Town and Wandering – that’s more or less the style I’m writing now. I’ve taken the cowhide out of it because I’ve written too much about that.
GREEN: Thanks very much for your time. It meant a great deal to me.
NOLAN: OK. So long.
The song on this page is "Night Riding Song", composed and sung by Douglas B. (Ranger Doug) Green. It can be found on the album, "Songs of the Sage" WB9 46497-2, 1997.
Left: "Bob Nolan's Folio of Original Cowboy Classics No. 1" (American Music Inc, 1939)
Right: "Ranger Doug - Songs of the Sage" (Centerstream Publishing, 1997)
List of sheet music included in "Ranger Doug - Songs of the Sage" (Centerstream Publishing, 1997).
All Those Years
At the End of the Rainbow Trail
Blue Montana Skies
The Cowboy's A-B-C
The Cowboy's in Love
Down the Lullabye Trail
Heading for Texas
Here Comes the Santa Fe
How Does he Yodel?
I Always Do
The Line Rider
Lonely Yukon Stars
Night Riding Song
One Little Coyote
Ride with the Wind
Riding Home on Christmas Eve
Riding the Winds of the West
Side Meat's Christmas Goose
Someone's Got to Do It
That's How the Yodel was Born
Three on the Trail