Popularizing Western Music
Oklahoma historians Paul F. Lambert and Bob Blackburn wrote the following passage that appears in their book You Know We Belong to the Land.
In 1925 rancher Billy McGinty sponsored the performance of a cowboy string band on radio station KFRU in Bristow in what proved to be America’s first radio broadcast of such a band. The band consisted of working cowboys who happened to be good musicians. They played songs such as “Ride ’Em Cowboy” and “Who Stuck the Gum in Grandpa’s Whiskers?”
The performance was well received and other broadcasts and performances followed. McGinty was not inclined to manage the band, however, so he asked Oklahoma pioneer and Stillwater businessman Otto Gray to assume that role.
Gray aggressively marketed the band, arranging radio and stage appearances in Oklahoma and surrounding states and refining the professionalism of the band’s performances and appearance. In 1926, they gave what is believed to have been the first ever commercial performance on KVOO Radio in Tulsa. Gray became a popular announcer.
By 1928 Otto Gray’s Cowboy Band was travelling in a Cadillac bus with a massive set of longhorns for a hood ornament. Gray and his son also performed rope tricks during performances, and Gray’s wife was the female vocalist.
By 1931 the band was touring the United States in nine vehicles, recording for a variety of labels, and performing live on numerous radio stations. In 1931, they were the first Western band to appear on the cover of Billboard magazine. Gray appeared on the cover again in 1934. He retired from the music business in 1936 and the group disbanded.
But Gray and his band had popularized rural Western music in a manner that would lead to the commercialization of cowboy music and major changes in the music industry. They blazed the trail for subsequent singing cowboys, including Oklahoman Gene Autry, who also performed on Tulsa’s KVOO Radio before taking cowboy music to Hollywood and gaining international fame.