North America’s longest running band will ride into Cranbrook to start off an anticipated tour of B.C. next month.
The Sons of the Pioneers will celebrate an historic 85th anniversary with a concert at the Key City Theatre Monday, Oct. 7.
Founded in 1934, the Sons of the Pioneers are one of the earliest Western singing groups, popularizing Western Swing and cowboy musical culture. Renowned for their musicianship and songwriting, the group has over the years set the template for distinctive Western vocal harmonies.
Sons of the Pioneers was founded by Canadian Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, and one Leonard Slye, who would change his name to Roy Rogers and go on to a legendary Hollywood career, along with the Sons.
Since 1933, through many changes in membership, the Sons of the Pioneers have remained one of the longest-surviving country music vocal groups. In fact, Roy Rogers’ son — Dusty Rogers, is a member of the group today, and its front man.
The group’s “Trail Boss,” Tommy Nallie, spoke to the Townsman about the upcoming tour. As Trail Boss, Nallie serves as “curator” of the famous Pioneer sound.
“We love coming to Canada” Nallie said. “The fans are always so great. We were in British Columbia in 2017, it went over great.”
Country music has its roots in the 1920s, a sound that came out the musical melting pot of the United States, and a multitude of influences can be heard in the Pioneers’ style.
“When the Pioneers first started there was some swing, there some jazz, a little mixture of everything in there,” Nallie said. “Musicians who listen to our songs always comment ‘they’re not your everyday songs, there’s very well written words and music, there’s very nice arrangements, nice chords. It’s not the old three-chord country stuff that you hear.
“If you go back and listen to the real early stuff when the Pioneers first started, you could hear country, Jazz, everything in there really. The musicians had studied a lot of different types of music.
“They even did a Hawaiian album in 1959.”
Western swing is a music with many depths and layers. The Pioneers’ harmonies, iconic yodelling and musicianship conjure up poetic images of the West, with classics like “Cool Water,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
Nallie talked about the unique vocal sound of the group, and its endurance over the decades.
“You know, when Lloyd Perryman joined the group in 1936, he started arranging, and that’s where the sound developed. And through the years, the members have come and gone, and we’ve never wanted to change that. We still to this day use the same arrangements. That’s why when people hear it, they come up and say this is the first time I’ve got to see the Sons of the Pioneers, but it sounds the same when I was a kid, and listened to it on the radio or on record.”
That’s the ongoing goal, Nallie said.
“The guys we got in the group now — we all sing — but the guys who do the basic trio
Ken Lattimore tenor, John Fullerton does the baritone, and Roy Rogers Jr. — Dusty — who joined the group last year, he sings a part. He’s got a powerful voice — he really sounds good.”
The Pioneers’ 85-year history reflects a group of individuals over the decades that have been committed to the group’s sound and legacy.
“I’ve been around quite a while, and got to learn from the others, and that’s what I want to do,” Nallie said. “I want to keep it going, and someday when someone takes over from me, what they learn from me, and that’s why it keeps going. That’s why we’re in our 85th year.
“And it’s been continuous. It’s never stopped and re-started. As one guy passes away or retires, there’s one who wants to take over and can do the job. And that means a lot. That you want to be here.”
Nallie himself is a Texan, but the group resides in Branson, Missouri, a legendary music town not far from Nashville.
“It’s so exciting to be on the road,” Nallie said. “After a week or two you feel like being at home again.
“But you never get tired of the songs. People ask me, ‘do you ever get tired of playing ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds?’ You know what? When we play ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ people’s faces light up. How can you ever get tired of that?”
The group is eager to come north of the border, to Canada, which shares so much of the culture they celebrate.
“We say that we celebrate the legacy of the West,” Nallie said. “Not only the American West but the Canadian West. Both countries have cowboys, both countries settled the West with that pioneer spirit.”