Columbian Article

Happy Trails

Vancouver woman traces her roots to Western music pioneers

By Amy McFall Prince Columbian staff writer
The Columbian, May 7, 2006

The tune was so clear in her memory that Suze Spencer could hear the notes, the keys, the rhythm. Only her recollection of the lyrics was a bit fuzzy when she contacted Elizabeth McDonald about six years ago to make her memory whole.

“Now the campfire flame is fading … see the embers fading too.”

McDonald, who researched classic western music and collected memorabilia of one of the genre’s most prolific songwriters, knew the song. The question was, how could Spencer Marshall know it?

The song, “Slumber Time on the Range,” was recorded for the 1938 film “Rio Grande” but cut from the final version. The song had never been released to the public.

“She wanted to check me out, find out who I was,” said Spencer Marshall, who is divorced but chooses to go by both her maiden and married last names.

The Vancouver musician and private instructor knew the song because she’d heard her grandparents and their friends sing it around the dinner table in the California home where she was raised. The Sons of the Pioneers, who had recorded the song, included those family and friends.

Spencer Marshall, 51, has spent the past 20 years researching music and saving money in hopes of one day re-awakening these songs that have a place not just in her own memory but in American history.

Late last year, she realized that dream by producing an album she titled Tall Boots: Rare Gems of America’s Western Music Pioneers. “This was who I was and where I came from. As I grew older, people had never heard of (The Sons of the Pioneers).

“It was heartbreaking for me,” she said. “The way I see it is that I’m bringing back a day when people used to sit around the table and play music together.”

Fate landed Spencer Marshall at that table.


Early 1930s: Leonard Slye, who later became known as Roy Rogers, worked with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer in musical groups including the Rocky Mountaineers, International Cowboys and O-Bar-O Cowboys.

1933 and 1934: Slye convinced Spencer and Nolan that the three should work together. They called themselves the Pioneer Trio and landed a regular gig on a radio program. Hugh Farr joined the group, which then changed its name to The Sons of the Pioneers. The group soon after received a record contract, and one of the first songs it recorded was Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” which later became the movie title and theme for a Gene Autry film.

Late 1930s: Group members came and went, but the band remained popular with audiences. Slye dropped out in 1938 to pursue a film career. Between 1937 and 1941, the group appeared in 28 Western movies. That version of the group, which became the most well known, included Nolan, Spencer, Lloyd Perryman, Hugh and Karl Farr, and Pat Brady.

1940s through today: New members kept coming into the group, keeping it going for eight decades. The Sons of the Pioneers still perform weekly shows in Branson, Mo.

At the age of 3, she was in a terrible car accident that left her comatose. She was sent to live with her grandparents who, as retirees, had more time and energy to help the small girl recover, something some weren’t even sure was possible.

While Spencer Marshall didn’t grow up around other children, her grandparents’ home was never dull. Friends and relatives were part of the daily routine. Women in work clothes sang over the stove, and men cradled guitars and fiddles while their voices mingled into one magnificent harmony. All of them were professional musicians at some point in their lives, but all Spencer Marshall knew was great music filled her home. A young child, she assumed her home life was as typical as any. She had no idea those men were once members of The Sons of the Pioneers.

Grandparents sang lullabies, and TV wasn’t missed in a home filled with instruments.

“All they ever did was play music together, and I grew up in the fold of that,” she said.

At 11, she moved back to eastern Oregon to live with her parents, but she never really left the music and the memories behind. It was when she hit her 20s and started her own family that she began thinking back to her own childhood. The memories were triggered in part by watching old black-and-white movies when her young children kept her up at night.

“I’d see these old movies, cowboy movies, and it would spark something,” she said. “I began to wonder.”

She wanted to know why her family had such an affinity for the songs sung in those old cowboy movies. She delved into her past, plucking songs from memory and tracing their roots.

The journey led her to author Ken Griffis, who wrote Hear My Song: The Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers, a book about the classic western music of the singing cowboy days. They spoke on the phone and, after hearing her genuine interest, he shipped her a copy of the book he wrote in the 1970s.

The book confirmed what Spencer Marshall was starting to figure out. The famous classic western group The Sons of the Pioneers’ founding members were some of those people she grew up listening to playing music and harmonizing in her grandparents’ home.

One member, Tim Spencer, was her grandfather’s first cousin. Another was Bob Nolan, a prolific western songwriter. The third was a man named Leonard Slye, whom Spencer Marshall remembers as “Uncle Lenny.”

That friendly man, she learned, was known to most of the world as Roy Rogers, a name he adopted when his acting career took off.

“I was starting to make the connections, but that just verified it. I only had snippets of it,” she said.

Griffis, who is 80 and grew up watching and listening to these artists, said while The Sons of the Pioneers “created a new form of American folk music,” the group didn’t set out to make a permanent mark on American music and film culture.

“It all came out of the Depression and the need for work,” he said.

Spencer and Rogers first met picking fruit for Del Monte in central California. Their families were part of the great migration West, coming from various states in the central part of the country, Spencer Marshall said.

“They were using their music to keep from starving, and it just caught on,” she said.

Eventually, movie studios began making more Western pictures and better technology made it easier to introduce the singing cowboys.

The Sons of the Pioneers and other groups began writing songs for these movies, which paved the way for singers such as Rogers to break into the film industry. “Western music is a part of the history of America. It really helped the movies to gain popularity,” Griffis said. “But western music lost a great deal of its appeal after the Western movies lost their appeal.”

Many songs were sold to the movie companies and never recorded elsewhere, Spencer Marshall said. While a few popular tunes can still be found, such as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Cool Water,” songs that never made it into a film vanished.

Spencer Marshall wanted to recover those songs to create a collection that represented all of the musicians’ talents.

With little record of these songs and before the advent of the Internet, Spencer Marshall found herself on a quest that, at times, seemed impossible. She had to dig deep into her memory to recall snippets of songs she’d heard as a child and hope that someone could help identify the tune.

That’s how she rediscovered that song Nolan wrote, “Slumber Time on the Range.”

McDonald, the researcher she called for help, shipped her video clips of many of the songs cut from films. Nearly all the video on a clip of “Slumber Time on the Range” was faded, but the audio was discernible.

She was enchanted by the voices, and seeing the faded faces reassured her that her memory was correct and her crusade not hardly in vain.

As she was piecing together the history, she realized what her family had lost artistically and financially. As the movies were condensed for TV and the songs completely cut out, there was no longer any record of their work. And with movie studios owning the rights, they couldn’t even re-record most of the songs.

“That was part of the sadness,” she said. “They thought that the songs would be there as long as the movie was out there.”

After finding several songs and tracing their history, Spencer Marshall faced another hurdle: tracking down copyrights and requesting permission to record the songs.

“This project took a long time to get going,” said Stacy Phillips, a friend of Spencer Marshall’s and a fellow musician and teacher. Phillips lives in New Haven, Conn., but the two frequently saw each other at music camps around the country. Phillips was one of more than a dozen musicians and vocalists Spencer Marshall hired to perform 23 songs for the album. “It wasn’t just a gig,” Phillips said. “This is absolutely rare stuff. It’s part of our history.”

The group of musicians that recorded the music, including Spencer Marshall, performed the songs in the spirit of The Sons of the Pioneers. Spencer Marshall was particular about the musicians she selected and kept studio time to a minimum because she wanted to capture spontaneity. The end result is a collection that respects the old and revives this American music through the eyes of today’s musicians, Phillips said.

“What I’m doing is preserving a music style and the family’s history,” Spencer Marshall said. “My grandparents did so much for me at a time when my life could have be ruined. They gave me all their joy, which was the music.”

Today she shares that same joy with her grandson, Clayton Marshall, whom she is raising. Much like her mother wasn’t so interested in her parents’ music, Spencer Marshall’s own children were never quite as intrigued. But Clayton, 9, loves it.

On a recent trip to visit Spencer Marshall’s mother in La Grande, Ore., Clayton sat in the back seat of the family car. The two soaked up the beautiful scenery along the Columbia River Gorge and sang those songs. It is her turn to share the music with another generation.