May 25, 2008
It’s always tricky to measure an artist’s impact by just looking at the record sales. But any way you slice it, selling a million copies of a record during the height of the Great Depression is an impressive feat, one that the great Patsy Montana achieved back in 1935.
She was born Ruby Blevins and grew up in Hope, Arkansas, future childhood home of President Bill Clinton. As a teenager, she became quite good at playing both guitar and fiddle, and when her older brother was headed to California, she went with him. She studied violin at what is now UCLA, and got involved with the local hillbilly music scene. In 1931, she won a talent contest singing a Jimmy Rodgers yodeling tune, which earned her a spot as the “Yodeling Cowgirl from San Antone” on KTMR radio in Los Angeles.
She then hooked up with cowboy star Montie Montana, which led her to change her stage name to Patsy Montana. Along with another female vocalist, they formed the Montana Cowgirls trio. The act became popular very quickly. Anxious to share her fame with the folks back home, she performed for a week in Louisiana, where she was heard by Victor Records artist Jimmie Davis. He invited her to sing and play fiddle on his records. The label liked what they heard, and had her record her first solo record in 1932, “Where the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming.”
She went with her brothers to Chicago’s World Fair in 1933, where auditions were being held for a female vocalist addition to the Kentucky Ramblers. She was hired on the spot, and they incorporated Montana’s Western flair, taking on the altered moniker Patsy Montana & the Prairie Ramblers. In 1935, despite record sales being in the dumps due to the Depression, ARC Records took a chance on the act. When they went into the studio, they recorded “Nobody’s Darling But Mine,” which became a big hit, along with another song that would feature Patsy on lead and become a monster.
She wrote “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” because she needed a fast little number to sing. That fast little number sold a million copies, sending shockwaves through the music industry. It was the first big hit by a solo female artist, and it established an image that Montana would embrace for the rest of her life.
Over the next five years, more sassy cowgirl numbers solidified her persona, including “Ridin’ Old Paint,” “The She-Buckaroo” and “Swing Time Cowgirl.” She appeared in the 1940 Gene Autry film Colorado Sunset, and hosted her own network radio show, Wake Up and Smile, in the mid-forties. She was billed as “Patsy Montana, the Girl with the Million-Dollar Smile” on the radio show Louisiana Hayride.
But it was “Cowboy’s Sweetheart” that remained, by far, her biggest legacy, the inevitable closing number for the more than 7,000 live performances she gave during six decades of touring. The song was covered by everyone from Patti Page and Bonnie Owens to Suzy Bogguss and LeAnn Rimes. Because of that song, she will always be the first female country star who actually sold records. In 1996 she passed away, just months before her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She was only the fourth female solo artist to receive that honor, after Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn.
- “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” 1935
- “Ridin’ Old Paint,” 1935
- “The She-Buckaroo,” 1936
- “A Rip-Snortin’ Two-Gun Gal,” 1939
- “Swing Time Cowgirl,” 1940
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1996