The Sons of the Pioneers is reported to be the longest-continually-performing singing group in history. After 75 years of entertaining audiences, the band is still going strong in Branson, Missouri. The Sons of the Pioneers set the standard for groups specializing in cowboy songs and perhaps the greatest achievement of the western band is the quality of their work. The band is well known for its harmonies and brilliant arrangements. Favorites passing the test of time include “Cool Water,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and the well-known “Happy Trails” that ended each episode of the television show starring one of the founders of the group, Roy Rogers.
Rogers, born Leonard Slye, moved from Ohio to California in the spring of 1931 and worked numerous jobs until entering an amateur singing contest on a Los Angeles radio show called Midnight Frolics. He was asked to join a group called the Rocky Mountaineers and Slye played guitar, yodeled and sang with the group along with Bob Nolan originally from Tucson, Az. and later Tim Spencer from Webb City, Mo. Nolan quit the group after a few months, but Slye and Spencer continued singing with the group for a bit longer. The following year though, Slye and Spencer quit the Rocky Mountaineers and with another singer, Slumber Nichols, they formed a trio that never quite made it.
Slye and Spencer sang with various groups for about a year before Slye convinced Spencer and Nolan to join him once again. The trio called themselves the Pioneer Trio and made their debut on KFWB radio. The great harmony and mix of yodeling and singing garnered a large following within a few weeks. All three provided vocals and Nolan played the string bass and Slye the rhythm guitar. In early 1934 a fiddle player joined the group, Hugh Farr from Plano, Tx.
Though the group was still named the Pioneer Trio, on one particular broadcast, the announcer introduced them as “The Sons of the Pioneers” and when asked about the alternation of the group’s name he told them they were too young to be pioneers but could be sons of pioneers. The group liked the name, especially since they were no longer a trio, and from that point on, the group was called The Sons of the Pioneers.
That same year the group signed a recording contract with the Decca label, which is now part of MCA Records and their first commercial recording hit the air waves. Over the next two years, the group cut 32 songs with the Decca label. One of the songs cut at the very first session was “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” written by Nolan. Originally, the song was called “Tumbling Leaves,” but the boys changed the name to fit with their western image. The song became their theme song and was popular with other singers and bands across the country. In 1935, the song was used as the title of a Gene Autry western.
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In 1935 Farr’s brother, Karl was added to the group as a lead guitarist. The group began appearing in movies such as The Gallant Defender and in 1936 appeared in Song of the Saddle, Bing Crosby’s Rhythm of the Range, and Gene Autry’s The Big Show. In 1936 Spencer left the group and was replaced by Lloyd Perryman. Perryman later became a key member of the group and remained a member for 41 years, longer than any other member. In 1937, Columbia signed the group to work in the western films of Charles Starrett on a steady basis. The first film was The Old Wyoming Trail.
The movies led to a major change in the group. In 1938, Gene Autry got into a contractual dispute with the film studio and failed to report for his next movie. The studio placed him on suspension and looked for a replacement. Slye had appeared in a few small roles, auditioned for the part and got the role. He was given a new name for his first starring role: Roy Rogers. The film, Under Western Stars, was a hit but Rogers was forced to leave the band because it was under exclusive contract with Columbia Pictures. He was replaced by Pat Bradey, a singer and comedian who played bass for the group. Brady would later play a sidekick to Rogers in the Roy Rogers television show. The group appeared in 28 movies with Starrett between 1937 and 1941.
The classic lineup for the group consisted of Nolan, Spencer, Perryman, the Farr brothers and Brady as this was the version the audience was most familiar. Their contract with Columbia ended in 1941 at which time the group signed with Republic Pictures and appeared in Rogers’ movies.
World War II brought more change to the group. Perryman and Brady were drafted and replaced by Ken Carson and Slug Fisher. In 1944, they changed recording labels and signed with RCA Victor. With the signing brought more change. In previous recordings, the band had been self-contained, but RCA brought in additional backup, more instrumentation that included a small-scale orchestra. The group re-recorded several of their standard hits such as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and “Cool Water” and the fans approved. At this time the group also recorded more gospel material and some novelty songs as well as pop-oriented songs. During their time with the RCA label, they provided backup for other performers including Vaughn Monroe and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
After their stints in the military, Perryman and Brady rejoined the Pioneers. In 1949 the group recorded the western classic, Stan Jones’ “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” a song which later was a hit for Johnny Cash as well as others. While the end of Rogers’ B-westerns at Republic Pictures ended in 1948, the group sang in three of John Ford’s westerns: Wagon Master, Rio Grande, and The Searchers. But the late 40s were considered the golden years for the Sons of the Pioneers. They had many hits on the country singles chart, including “Cool Water, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and “Room Full of Roses.”
Ghost Riders in the Sky
Sung by the Sons of the Pioneers
In 1949 Spencer left the group and was replaced by Ken Curtis who later became famous as Festus, Marshall Matt Dillion’s sidekick on the television show Gunsmoke. Brady left to work with Rogers in his television show and was replaced by Fisher, who had filled in during Brady’s stint in the military. The biggest change happened when Nolan retired. He was the lead singer in many of the songs and had written many of their best known songs. Perryman stepped in to fill the leadership role.
Perryman added Tommy Doss. Although he had an excellent voice, there was a drop in the interest in cowboy songs and western music in general and the group’s record sales began to decline. RCA attempted to push the group into the pop oriented market, but this was not the genre for the Pioneers. It ended up costing them some of their country audience and the Pioneers ended up leaving the RCA label.
At the end of 1953, the group signed with Coral Records. Curtis and Fisher left the group to pursue acting careers and were replaced by Dale Warren and Deuce Spriggens. They didn’t do well at Coral Records and after one year, returned to RCA. RCA convinced Nolan and Curtis to record with the group and Brady came back to the studio to provide bass. Thus, there were essentially two Pioneer groups; one that recorded in the studio, and one that toured for live concerts.
Over the next few years the members of the group changed with Nolan retiring for good, Hugh Farr leaving because he didn’t feel his fiddle playing was appreciated by the others, and Karl dying of heart failure during one of their performances. Over the years 31 different musicians played with The Sons of the Pioneers. Today The Sons of the Pioneers are led by Luther Nallie who has been with the group for over 40 years. In 1976, the Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The copyright of the article After 75 Years, The Sons of the Pioneers Still Going Strong is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.