A big country requires big people to settle it... Big people with big stories... And the frontier of North America is just that kind of a place. It is a vast stretch of land of almost incomprehensible breadth, from the pine forests of Canada in the north to the rainforests of Mexico in the south, from the Mississippi River in the east to the rivers of the California Gold Rush in the west. Spanning three countries and the bulk of a whole continent, there is enough space there for every dream and every tall tale.
Like the tall tales it gives rise to, the Wild West is a diverse land that skirts the boundary between fiction and reality. The endless reaches of Great Plains and Painted Deserts, the big skies of Montana, the towering mesa and Rocky Mountains, and the depths of the Grand Canyon all seem like something out of a fantasy... As they did to the first Native Americans who crossed over from Asia in the twilight days of the Ice Age and the first European settlers who crossed over by riverboat, stagecoach and rail. Against this background played out some of the most dramatic conflicts of history, from the Northwest Mounted Police's March West to the Trail of Tears, Custer's Last Stand to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. And like that final confrontation between the Earp lawmen and the Clanton outlaws, those events and figures of history slowly and surely enter the realm of myth to the point where we may even forget that the likes of Davy Crockett, Sitting Bull, Calamity Jane, Sam Steele, Geronimo, and Wild Bill Hickok actually lived. Or that the likes of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Slue-Foot Sue didn't.
The West is a land of strange contradiction. Its mythic imagery of freedom came with the oppression of Indigenous peoples. Always seen as a land of opportunity and untamed exploration, the settlers came by Conestoga wagon only to be followed by the steel of the railway. And the more tamed the West became, the more the legends grew. Where would John Henry be without the tracks to test his strength against, or the steam hammer to contest? Some of the biggest legends have come out of the most settled period, whether Lone Ranger on the radio, Zorro in the dime novels, or Roy Rogers on the silver screen.
Roy Rogers, like his predecessor and chief competitor Gene Autry, blurred the lines between myth and historical reality. Regardless of the setting, time, occupation, or any other consideration, Roy Rogers was the character. Trigger was the horse. Gabby was the sidekick. Dale Evans, at least, got to play different people.
How much was the character and how much was the man will probably always be a mystery for as long as anyone thinks about it. It probably didn't bother Leonard Slye much. Slye was born in Cincinnati in 1911 and lived both in the city and on the farm for a good part of his youth. After both he and his father tired of working in an urban shoe factory, the family moved out to California in 1930. In 1933 Slye joined up with Tim Spencer and Canadian singer Bob Nolan and to form the Western music group The Sons of the Pioneers. Though largely subsumed into Country music today, Western music has a distinctive history and sound. The handiest rule of thumb is that Country music comes from east of the Mississippi while Western comes from that vast, wide country to the west. The two genres have different geographic and ethic origins, and vastly different styles when one's ear is tuned to them. One quick way to tell Western music is the relative absence of a twangy accent, slide-guitar, and Bluegrass influence, opting for a cleaner acoustic guitar sound, harmonious vocals, and lyrical content reflective of cowboy poetry. In the next three years, Hugh and Karl Farr, and Lloyd Perryman joined up. Pat Brady was brought in to replace Slye when he went off to a new career in the flickers.
The Sons of the Pioneers were introduced to film in 1935. As a back-up cowboy to Gene Autry, Slye performed both under his name and as "Dick Weston." When Autry went AWOL from the studio in 1938, Slye was thrust into the spotlight of the film Under the Western Stars in his new identity as Roy Rogers. His stock and trade were the hour-long b-movie Westerns that preceded a-list movies in theatres, in the day when a dime bought you an entire afternoon of cartoons, newsreels, a b-movie, and the a-list feature.
As Roy Rogers, his popularity skyrocketed. Having control over the licencing of his likeness and silken voice, it is anecdotally stated that no other name of the time was as well-known - or marketable - save for Walt Disney. Rogers also proves an interesting, and dare one say "postmodern," character in piecing together the romantic construction of the Wild West and its intersections with identity and Hollywood. Thankfully, with so many of his multitude of films being in the public domain, the Internet Archive allows Rogers to be continually, perpetually accessible.