In the 1930s, many country musicians doubled as western film and radio stars. These singing and yodeling cowboys and cowgirls represented the romanticized music and culture of the American Southwest, just as the Dust Bowl migration brought western folk traditions to California. Among the most versatile and influential performers of that era was the first woman guitarist with a million-selling country song, Patsy Montana.
Born Ruby Blevins in 1909 near Hot Springs, Arkansas, the future Patsy Montana studied violin at UCLA before catching her big break. In 1931—when live radio was arguably more important to launching music careers than concerts or hit records—she won a talent contest in which the first prize was a coveted spot on the Hollywood Breakfast Club radio program. A few years later, influential Chicago radio show the National Barn Dance paired Patsy Montana with Kentucky string band, the Prairie Ramblers. The artists became National Barn Dance regulars , and the Ramblers went on to back Montana on her best-known recordings.
Patsy’s hit, performed in Gene Autry’s Colorado Sunset
In 1935, Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers recorded the groundbreaking hit “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” for the Vocalion imprint, though as a self-penned hit in a genre that even now is often dominated by interpreters of others’ compositions, its musical and cultural importance extends beyond any sales figures. Furthermore, the song’s title is misleading; Patsy Montana wasn’t pining to be a damsel in distress, untied from the railroad tracks by a strong male lead. Instead, she longed for the same adventures as the storied cowboy.
For the rear cover of the 1984 Columbia Historic Edition LP of Patsy Montana’s best-known recordings with the Prairie Ramblers, the Tennessean’s Robert K. Dermann examined the singing cowgirl persona through a socio-political lens. “The singing cowgirl came along at a time when a huge number of women had to enter the workforce alongside their husbands,” he wrote. “Patsy’s western fantasies of male-female equality coincided with women’s emergence from the kitchen.”
Patsy Montana parted ways with the Prairie Ramblers around the dawn of World War II. That didn’t slow down her career, which lasted until her death in 1996. Along the way, she rode side-by-side with cowboys and outlaws, just like the characters in her songs. Career highlights include an appearance in Gene Autry’s 1939 film Colorado Sunset and underrated 1964 album At the Matador Room, featuring a then-unknown Waylon Jennings on lead guitar.
“He Taught Me to Yodel,” 1964
Like the western heroes she emulated, Patsy Montana was a true pioneer. She paved the way for generations of women in country music, from Kitty Wells to Kacey Musgraves, to achieve stardom while boldly challenging the status quo.