Leonia, NJ, November 26, 2006
I have been a Sons of the Pioneer fan since 1956 when a record dealer in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York sold me "25 Favorite Cowboy Songs" because he didn't have the Roy Rogers album I wanted. It remains the Pioneer album I would select to take to a desert island! Since that time my taste in music has expanded to embrace the great American songbook and its principal artists, but my love for the Sons of the Pioneers has remained with me always. Through good times and bad, fortune or failure, this music has run through my life like a little red thread. The beautiful harmonies, gorgeous instrumentation and original melodies and lyrics continue to transport a city kid into the wide desert, sunlit hills and rolling canyons. Most of all, it is that virile, richly textured blend of voices with each of the voices weaving in and out of the harmony that makes it so exhilarating to me.
I spent the next 10 years combing the Times Square area for Pioneer 78s. I managed to find many treasures from their golden era because, at that time, they couldn't be found anywhere else. This was before the anthology type LP. I also remember how thrilled I was in the 60s to regularly find a new Pioneer album in the stores. And I shall never forget when I saw Roy and the Pioneers at Madison Square Garden in September, 1958. My only regret is that I did not try to greet them after the show because Lloyd Perryman and the Farr Brothers were still with them then.
I had an unforgettable afternoon one day of September, 1979 when I got to meet Ken Carson! It all happened after someone suggested I look him up in the New Rochelle phone book. I had been told he was living in that town. I took a chance and as soon as he answered the phone I recognized that beautiful high tenor voice as his. He graciously invited me out to his home on 18 John Alden Road. He and his wife Gretchen couldn't have been nicer. Ken told me about all the Pioneers and Gretchen spoke about how friendly all the wives were, too. I told him how much I admired "25 Favorite Cowboy Songs", an album of transcriptions in which he played a prominent role. I still believe many of their standards have their most straightforward and appealing interpretations there. I also gave him my copy of the Pioneers' album "Lure of the West". I kept in touch with this gentle, warm man for the rest of his life. I sent him several tapes and I spoke to him often. I remember when I sent him Roy's last album, the "Tribute" album, he said he thought Roy sounded as good as ever! I still treasure all of Ken's cards and notes.
My feelings for Bob have grown deeper and deeper over the years. How could anyone not admire this man for his craftsmanship, his reverence toward nature and his great humanity? This is all the more so after one reads all the tributes from people like Doc Denning and Ken Carson. In my case, however, I am also drawn to him because I, too, have a need for privacy and solitude. I can fully understand his need for introspection and he was to be respected for it. Here was a man who stood for ecumenism, brotherhood and global preservation. He not only enriched our lives with his music but he also taught us how to live with dignity and compassion. Of all the classic Pioneers, Bob was the one I would have most liked to know.
I had another piece of good luck around 25 years ago when I saw a letter to a Sons of the Pioneer journal from a fellow in Leonia, New Jersey! I couldn't believe that amongst 200 readers fully 2 came from the same small town. The other fellow is my friend O.J. Sikes, a legend among the preservers of this kind of music. More than anyone else in the world, O.J. has been the keeper of the flame of American western music. After we met we had a great time sharing recordings, transcriptions and videos. It was O.J. who led me to the glorious Bear Family package "Wagons West", a collection of classic RCA Sons of the Pioneer recordings. To hear these tracks in succession is to be given a string of pearls on a shimmering necklace. Each song is a masterpiece; not just the big production numbers like "Blue Prairie" and "Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma" but the smaller ones like "You'll Never Miss The Water Till The Well Runs Dry" and "The Letter Marked Unclaimed " as well. Indeed, as someone once observed, if the listener simply allows his ear to wander to the beautiful fiddle, guitar and bass in these latter tunes, it may never return to the vocal at all!
Let me take this opportunity to also salute another preserver of this music, Jimmie Willhelm of Burnet, Texas. Long before I heard of O.J., CDs and boxed sets, Jimmie filled all my needs for western music. He is another terrific fellow who deserves great recognition for his efforts to keep our music alive.
Every Sons of the Pioneer fan has his favorite trio. Mine is Bob Nolan, Lloyd Perryman and Ken Curtis. To paraphrase Elizabeth McDonald, here you have 2 gorgeous tenors linked with Bob's distinctive Pioneer baritone. I would put their "Riders in the Sky", "Song of the Prodigal", "The Restless Gun" and "How Great Thou Art" up against the work of any of the other trios. I wish they would have done even more work than they did do.