Likeable country artist Curley Fletcher wouldn't find much distinction in his nickname, as country and bluegrass music seems to be littered with players named Curly, almost like strands of hair on the floor of a barbershop. But in writing the classic cowboy ballad "The Strawberry Roan" -- actually, it is a horse ballad, the cowboy in the story is a secondary character -- Fletcher definitely does stand out from the crowd, having come up with something just about every songwriter would like to. The song has remained a popular choice as a cover song as different generations of country & western come and go, meaning it is something of a classic item and a sure-fire crowd pleaser each time in a live show setting. The song was written by Fletcher in 1915 and it wasn't his first song about a roan, nor his last. "Ridge Running Roan" is another of his aroan-ymous numbers, and is known as the comic sister to the sentimental roan of strawberry. He wrote on other subjects, as well, like other kinds of horses, for instance. There is "Flying Outlaw Mustang," still an exciting topic for a hot country gal such as Lacy J. Dalton at the close of the 20th century. The songwriter himself certainly experienced the perks that go with having written such well-accepted material in a popular genre. Decades after "The Strawberry Roan" was written, Fletcher was knee-deep in the Hollywood lifestyle that swirled around the popular cowboy or Western movie. Consider this archive news item about a historic hotel: "The Kittie Lee Inn was built in 1924 and was considered to be the height of luxury. During Hollywood's heyday of filming movies in the High Sierra, almost all of the great stars stayed here at one time or another: Will Rogers, Randolph Scott, Hopalong Cassidy, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Curley Fletcher, and Pat O'Brien are just a few of the names found in the old guest register...." Well, well, well, look at the company our friend Fletcher was keeping. Not bad for a guy who sounded like he spent most of his time with horses, judging from his lyrics. Apparently he spent a lot of time falling off them as well in his early days as a rodeo rider, resulting in a period of his life where he was hardly living it up with movie stars. It was 1931 when he first approached a pair of Los Angeles music publishers and songwriters, Nat Vincent and Fred Howard, nicknamed the Happy Chappies, about publishing his poem "The Strawberry Roan" as a song. In an interview years later, Vincent recalled the cowboy singer as being practically destitute, crippled from horse riding mishaps and pleading for a couple of hundred bucks to get by. Besides the multitude of cover versions, "The Strawberry Roan" is often reprinted in its original form as a poem in Western anthologies such as The Big Roundup. Fletcher's creations come across beautifully with or without music and this is part of an argument establishing much credit to this songwriter for lending dignity to so many cowpoke-orientated performances simply through the strength of his material. "The singer not the song" is something of a truism when it comes to the relation between singers and songwriters, but in the delicately kitschy world of cowboy music one can't value too highly a really well-written verse and the imagery it contains. The writings of Fletcher initially helped give sustenance to the entire Roy Rogers and Gene Autry crowd, but from there was also the equivalent of a full chili pot for many other brands of country & western rustlers. The oh-so-sincere, windswept style of country singers such as Jim Ringer, Mary McCaslin, or Michael Martin Murphey have all found "The Strawberry Roan" a defining part of the repertoire and indeed, easier to sit through than their original material. One of the great country singer storytellers, Marty Robbins, made regular use of Fletcher's songs, as have honky tonk artists such as Dick Curless. The '60s folk revival crowd even got in the act, with -- surprise, surprise -- recording artists such as Alan Lomax and Ed McCurdy trying to claim authorship of the song. In the area of cover versions that rank highest for obscurity as well as brilliance, the Fletcher recordings by Native American folksinger Pete LaFarge are worth checking out.
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