Rock & Roll Books
Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry
by Holly George-Warren
Oxford University Press, 406 pp., $28
During the first half of the 20th century, there was no bigger entertainer in America than Gene Autry. 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, and among its commemorations is Public Cowboy No. 1. Crafting the first comprehensive biography of the singing cowboy's life, Americana expert Holly George-Warren spent years digging into the facts of his daily life. The basic details remain. Autry was a pioneer in radio, recording, film, television, and live performance, and the nice-guy image he projected, beloved by children of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, was genuine. He was ambitious, hardworking, kind, and generous. He was also an alcoholic and frequently cheated on his wife of 48 years. Unfortunately, some of Autry's life is untraceable, leading George-Warren to conjecture, which, especially in his early days, is strikingly overdone. This is especially true concerning his relationship with country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers. The book's beginning, until Autry arrives in, and lights up, Hollywood, is a tough, unconvincing grind. Then, George-Warren stops in the Sixties when Autry quit entertaining, devoting three pages to the last three decades of his life. The subject has potential, and anyone with an interest in the development of the entertainment industry might find something of interest here, but Public Cowboy No. 1 is too deeply flawed to recommend.