As we enter the holiday season, I thought it might be worthwhile to remember one of the true female pioneers of country music.
The recently departed Kitty Wells may have had the first number one single for a solo female country artist, and she undoubtedly deserved her crown as the “Queen of Country Music,” but she was not the first country female to sell a million copies of a single release. That honor belongs to Patsy Montana, who in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, recorded a song that sold well over a million copies in “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” A steady seller for years, the song even became a top ten pop hit in 1936 (there were no country charts until January 1944).
Patsy Montana was born with the name Ruby Rebecca Blevins on October 30, 1908, in Hot Springs, Arkansas (there is some controversy about the year of birth) the only girl of eleven children born to Augustus Blevins and Amanda Meeks. Growing up with 10 brothers, Montana inevitably grew up a tomboy, but a tomboy with musical inclinations. Later famous for her yodeling abilities, she listened to her parents’ Jimmie Rodgers records, learned and absorbed his yodels, and also learned to play the fiddle.
A year after graduating from high school in 1928, Montana moved to Los Angeles and began music studies at the University of the West (later the UCLA). In addition to the “highbrow” music taught in college, she associated with hillbilly musicians and after winning first place in a singing contest, performed on radio station KTMR as Rubye Blevins, “the Yodeling Cowgirl from San Antone.”
Eventually Montana came to the attention of future gospel great Stuart Hamblen, who invited her to sing for more money on a rival radio station. She joined Lorraine McIntire and Ruthy DeMondrum as the Montana Cowgirls. This is the point at which the name change to Patsy Montana occurred, given to her by Hamblen upon learning that she was of Irish descent, and not wanting a “Ruthie” and a “Rubye” in the same group.
In the summer of 1932, she returned home for a vacation, and received a week’s booking on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Following these performances, Jimmie Davis (future two-time Governor of Louisiana and also a future Country Music Hall of Fame member) called her and invited her to travel to New York to record. Initially skeptical, she changed her mind when one of her brothers advised her that Davis was an important Victor recording artist. During the next two years, Montana sang backup for Davis on some recordings and recorded her first single, “When the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming.” She eventually returned to California and rejoined the Montana Cowgirls. When the group dissolved in 1933, she returned home to Arkansas.
Montana stayed home only briefly, as her brothers Kenneth and Claude decided to enter a huge watermelon into competition at the Chicago World’s Fair. She tagged along and upon arrival she sought out Dolly Good of the Girls of the Golden West, who tipped her off to a band looking for a new lead singer. She auditioned and began an eight-year relationship with the (soon to be named) Prairie Ramblers. During this period, Montana and the band would record dozens of songs and make hundreds of personal appearances. Although based in Chicago at WLS’s National Barn Dance, the band also performed for a year on WOR in New York. In 1934 she married Paul Rose, an organizer of the traveling portion of the WLS program. With Rose, she would have two daughters: Beverly and Judy.
Although record sales during this period plunged precipitously, the American Record Company (ARC) decided to record Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers in New York during August of 1935. They recorded “Nobody’s Darling but Mine,” which became one of the biggest hits of the decade. Future Columbia A&R director “Uncle” Art Satherly, suggested that she record a song she had written titled “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” The rest is history. While not a hit right out of the box, the recording slowly built momentum eventually becoming an intrinsic part of the American culture. The song, a paean of love and independence, is still loved and performed to this day.
While Montana never again had another huge hit recording, she stayed busy as an entertainer for another 60 years, appearing in a Gene Autry movie in 1939, recording with groups such as the Sons of the Pioneers and the Light Crust Doughboys, and hosting an ABC network radio show in 1946-47, Wake Up and Smile (which featured her trademark greeting, “Hi, pardner! It’s Patsy Montana,” accompanied by the thunder of horses’ hooves). She continued to make personal appearances and occasionally recorded new material. She became an influence on many cowgirl wannabes and an idol to many female singers during the ensuing years. Montana received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1970. Her signature song “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” has been recorded many times in recent years, most notably by Suzy Bogguss in 1988 and by Montana herself, during her last recording sessions in 1995. In fact the song is played over the end credits of John Sayles’s 1996 film Lone Star, which was released just weeks after Montana’s death.
Patsy Montana passed away on May 3, 1996 in San Jacinto, CA and was elected that same year into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her autobiography The Cowboy’s Sweetheart was published posthumously.
Most singles of Patsy Montana’s materials were issued on fragile 78 rpm records. The American Record Company later was purchased (absorbed) into the Columbia family of labels. Columbia issued several albums of her material over the years. The most recent Columbia vinyl reissue was part of the Columbia Historic Edition series in 1984, which has Montana on lead vocal for four songs and the various Prairie Ramblers on lead for the other eight songs. Various other albums of her music were issued by European labels – you may be able to find these online.
CD / Digital
In 2001, Collectors’ Choice Music issued a fine collection The Best of Patsy Montana that included 24 of Patsy’s recordings from the period 1935-40. This CD is out of print but can be found with a little effort
King has issued a twelve song collection, Cowboy’s Sweetheart, that is of uncertain origins although I would guess these to be late 1950s recordings since the CD includes “16 Pounds,” which is an answer song to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “16 Tons.” The CD includes a remake of “Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” This CD is current available from Amazon and The Ernest Tubb Record Shop.
Montana’s last recording was done for Rounder/Flying Fish in 1995. Also titled Cowboy’s Sweetheart, this excellent collection finds Patsy in good voice and features an outstanding group of folk/bluegrass musicians (Cathy Fink, Pete Kennedy, Marcy Marxer, Mike Stein and Ralph Gordon) accompanying her. The version of “Cowboy’s Sweetheart” contained on this CD is excellent, if rather different from the original recording. It too is out of print.
There was also a CD available on the British ASV label. It has 25 tracks with considerable overlap with the Collectors Choice CD. The ASV label is defunct but vendors that sell used CDs sometimes have their product available.
Amazon has some digital tracks available for sale on its website. The site lists 116 tracks, but some of the tracks listed are karaoke tracks or tributes by other artists and there are multiple listings for some of the song titles – I would guess that about forty different song titles are represented as digital downloads by Patsy Montana.
The Ernest Tubb Record shop has copies of Patsy’s autobiography The Cowboy’s Sweetheart available.