This nine-CD set is a lot more Gene Autry than any casual fan would want to hear, but it is not without its considerable rewards and surprises, and might well convert casual fans into serious listeners. All of Autry's surviving recordings, more than 200 of them, from October of 1929 until November of 1933, are included, and comprise a vast range of sounds and styles. What you get is a good, close musical look at Autry's early evolution from a Jimmie Rodgers admirer and soundalike artist with a serious bent toward blues into the unique figure that Autry ultimately became as a country & western singer; the evolution of his sound from raw, relatively unskilled recording -- almost like field recordings -- to the beginning of a sophisticated studio sound; and of his accompaniment, from his own guitar and perhaps a partner and collaborator to backing by a relatively smooth professional coterie of players.
The first set opens with a pair of hillbilly-style ballads, "My Dreaming of You" and "My Alabama Home," cut by Autry with his mentor Jimmy Long (with Frankie Marvin providing the yodel accompaniment) in October of 1929 for Victor, which sound amazingly good and offer some surprisingly complex playing on the guitar behind the harmony singing. A little later in the month, Autry was back in the studio solo cutting a mix of ballads and blues numbers that showed up very briefly on the QRS label before it disappeared. These sides, which feature him yodeling as well, represent the more familiar side of Autry's music, and there are little surprises throughout, such as his superb, extended guitar break on "My Oklahoma Home." "I'll Be Thinking of You Little Girl" is a yodel ballad with another excellent performance by Autry on guitar, backed by an uncredited steel player. These sides haven't held up nearly as well in terms of sources as the material off of the major labels represented in Autry's early output, but they are listenable despite some considerable noise, and the producers have done a great job of making them accessible to modern ears -- the notable exception on this disc is the Autry original "Yodelin' Gene," which apparently only exists in a source with serious gauges; it's been cleaned up as much as possible but still suffers from some speed variations. The next track, though, Autry's rendition of "Blue Yodel No. 5," more than makes up for those sonic deficiencies; there's still noise, but one can actually hear the action on the guitar in the Jimmie Rodgers song, and just hearing the young Autry emulating his idol is a special joy to any listener attuned to this music. Released by Columbia as a budget-priced disc backed by the bluesy Frank Luther/Carson Robison-authored "Left My Gal in the Mountains," it became one of Autry's first big hits. The joy -- or the drawback -- of this first disc is that it contains multiple versions of several songs, not from the same sessions but from recording sessions for rival labels spaced weeks and months apart, but this gives you an opportunity to hear Autry's style and approach evolve as he shifted from working in a duo to a solo act, with different accompaniments, so that you hear him redo "My Dreaming of You," "My Alabama Home," and "Stay Away from My Chicken House."
By disc two, Autry had become not only comfortable but totally professional working with the microphone, and the quality of his recordings improved immeasurably -- his control of his vocal dynamics made him seem an almost larger-than-life presence in a very subtle way on these sides, even as the simplicity of his songs and the sentiments behind them beguiles the listener on another level; and he was so good and confident on his guitar that he was, by this point, meshing beautifully and seamlessly with whatever accompaniment -- steel guitar, string band -- that he was working with. The sheer number of recordings on these sides in so short a time was also an integral part of Autry's success; early in his career, he wasn't signed exclusively to any label, and as the Great Depression took hold of the country and wiped out a lot of recording careers, he found his sales and the demand for his recordings only growing, and he took full advantage of this situation by recording for as many budget labels as he possibly could -- his records might have only been selling for 10 or 15 cents each, versus 75 cents for full-priced 78s, but they were selling in ever-rising numbers. Also featured here are Autry's first sides for ARC (the American Record Corporation), which became one of the more important of his many recording relationships in a career covering five decades. The highlight of the side, with all of these important moments and gems, is his slight rendition of Jimmie Rodgers' "My Rough and Rowdy Ways."
Disc three starts off with more Jimmie Rodgers material and, indeed, may mark the high-point of Autry's work in that vein, in the most beautiful homage that "The Singing Brakeman" ever received in his lifetime. Autry seems to rise to the occasion here, getting into some serious guitar flourishes and showing a command of the microphone more appropriate to a seasoned veteran than to a still-fresh-faced boy from Oklahoma in his first year of recording. Disc four opens with perhaps the most unusual record of Autry's early career, "The Death of Mother Jones," a tribute to labor activist Mary Harris Jones. It stands apart from the blues numbers that follow and speaks volumes about Autry's range and also his personal view of the world in the brutal labor environment of the early '30s; there are two versions here, both of which were released and one of which -- the more interesting of the two in terms of livelier accompaniment -- is in somewhat rougher shape. The rest of the cuts here show the rawer, bluesier side of Autry's output with superb originals such as "Bear Cat Papa Blues" and "High Steppin' Mama." By this time, except for the occasional Jimmie Rodgers, Frank Marvin, or Jimmie Davis song, most of Autry's repertory was comprised of originals. Disc five is fascinating for showing Autry's evolving versions of songs, including "I'm a Truthful Fellow," that he would approach in more advanced versions in later sessions -- this is the first disc on which you get newly discovered masters, including two complete takes of "Valley in the Hills."
Disc six takes you to the peak of Autry's early career when he seemed to find the perfect balance between blues and ballads; there's real virtuosity in his playing and warmth and range in his singing. It starts off with "Rheumatism Blues" and "I'm Atlanta Bound" (the latter featuring Roy Smeck, no less, on steel guitar, which he makes sound like a mandolin), before shifting gears with "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine," which became his signature tune for the remainder of his career, and you get another version of "My Alabama Home." Disc seven starts with more of those sessions featuring Smeck, but soon Autry began working with less distinctive accompaniment, and changed direction, away from blues and away from the influence of Jimmie Rodgers -- this is the disc on which Gene Autry the cowboy singer starts to emerge. The difference at first is relatively subtle, but midway through this disc the songs turn more sentimental and also more commercial, in the sense that they're more "produced" and less spontaneous, with smoother accompaniment.
Disc nine closes out the set with Autry sessions from 1933, as his own persona began to coalesce around the cowboy and rural songs in his own voice, without the influence of Rodgers in evidence at all. The box is handsomely put together and comes complete with a large, profusely illustrated hardcover book containing not only a full sessionography but also a substantial essay by scholar Packy Smith and supporting essays totalling 100 pages. That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine is, to be sure, a lot of Gene Autry, but it tells you something about how much music the man had to offer even in those earliest days of his career, before the movie and radio contracts, at a time when he still needed his railroad employee pass to make the trips from Oklahoma to New York to do these recordings. By the time the last of the recordings has played, you're at the point where Autry was poised to become the multimedia country music giant in the manner he was known for the next six decades. Producer Art Satherly was masterminding the direction of his recordings, and even Smiley Burnette (who would become Autry's most visible associate thanks to the movies) had entered his orbit. This box explains and delineates the events between Autry's beginnings and how he got to the place at which he became a pop culture institution. It's a story worth telling and a story worth hearing, albeit over a period of weeks for maximum effect and absorption as it is a lot of music, all of it good and much of it great.