To a large extent, the distinctly American strand of country music known as western or cowboy music owes its existence to this influential group formed in 1933 as the Pioneer Trio by a young Ohio singer with a heroic tenor voice. That singer was Leonard Franklin Slye, who would eventually become far better known when he went to Hollywood and took the stage name Roy Rogers.
Slye started the trio with singers Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, who soon were joined by fiddler Hugh Farr and his guitarist brother, Karl Farr. The quintet changed its name to the Sons of the Pioneers and specialized in playing folk tunes of the American West arranged with vibrant three-part vocal harmonies and sterling instrumental accompaniment that was the equal of the finest jazz ensembles.
Slye, in his pre-Roy Rogers days, also was an excellent yodeler, and helped popularize that element, which became an indispensible facet of the western music genre.
Nolan and Spencer moved things forward by writing original songs to supplement folk standards such as “The Old Chisholm Trail” and “Red River Valley,” contributing future western classics “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Cool Water” and numerous others. After Slye left in 1937 to focus on his burgeoning movie career, in which he was Gene Autry’s chief competition for the honor of America’s favorite singing cowboy, the lineup remained relatively stable until Nolan and Spencer retired in 1949.
Others took their place, and subsequent editions of the Sons have kept the original group’s tradition alive for new generations yearning to hear their tales of life on the lone prairie. The Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980.