Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson 

“Gary Sprague–The Singing Cowboy”

A Western icon, front and center in the minds of millions around the globe, is that of “The Silver Screen Cowboy.” Not many years ago, you could see the hero on TV, in a white hat doing what was right while protecting the weak and innocent. The good guy so prevalent back then was likely a “singing cowboy.” When not fighting outlaws and protecting the innocent, he would make you feel good with a song.

Probably the two who come to mind, when thinking of singing cowboys, are Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. There were many others, however, who were also popular at different times. Even John Wayne himself gave it a whirl as “Singing Sandy” early in his career.

In modern times guys like Rogers, Autry, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter, and others have largely been forgotten. What a shame. These guys were heroes on the big and small screen to a couple generations of Americans. During the peak of the singing cowboy era (the 1940s and early ‘50s) these guys were as big as Depp, Travolta, and Banderas are today. Well, as they say, “Gone but not forgotten.”

You’ll be happy to know there are still singing cowboys out there, riding the trails forged by the great ones from the past. One such man is Gary Sprague, unofficially dubbed, “The Arizona Singing Cowboy.”

When you first see him, you are immediately taken back to the days of the silver screen cowboy. Dressed in period clothing with authentic six shooters and guitar, and riding on his trusty horse, Dusty, Gary reminds you of the heroes of yesteryear.

He looks the part, can walk the walk, and talk the talk. He sings volumes of old-time cowboy favorites, recites cowboy poetry by the pages, and tells campfire stories like nobody’s business. Gary is talented with a guitar and his booming voice will keep the attention of any crowd, even in large outdoor areas.

He has become one of the most highly sought-after entertainers in the world of cowboy entertainment. As a matter of fact, his sole source of income for the last couple decades has been that of a cowboy entertainer, portraying the old-time singing cowboy. Thousands of folk witness his shows each year. He is as genuine a singing cowboy as there ever was. What most don’t know, however, is that Gary’s calling in life came via an unlikely journey.

Gary was born during the 1950s in . . . of all places . . . upstate New York! He grew up the son of a carpenter. Once an adult, he was your typical eight-to-five employee working for corporate America — an everyday Joe from the East Coast. That is the box the world would have put him in, but Gary thought different.

He had always enjoyed music and played in a band for many years. He even tried making a living as a musician during his early twenties, but you know how life goes for most: get married, get a job, bills start arriving — settle into a “normal” life. That was Gary Sprague’s story until his late thirties.

However, he always had an affection for music and entertaining. He loved animals and spent a good deal of time around them when younger. He also enjoyed watching his silver screen heroes, the singing cowboys, and their portrayal of the great American West. So, at the age of thirty-seven, Gary had a long talk with his wife

. . . quit his job, “pulled up stakes,” and moved West!

Talk about a change of lifestyle. One day he’s an average guy from upstate New York, and the next he’s living in Arizona with no job and no real plan (or some thought). Gary, however, did have a plan: to play cowboy music.

In the beginning, he taught himself the words and chords to ninety different songs. He worked hard at being a musician, and his first break came in the form of a night gig at a famous Western steakhouse/lounge in the Scottsdale, Arizona area. He played country music there, but wondered about the true cowboy music.

As he worked hard to hone his craft and become a better entertainer, he thought, “Where had all the cowboys gone?” Obviously Gene and Roy had retired long ago, but was there anyone like them anymore? All he saw were modern-day country singers and you can see them anywhere, even in New York! This was supposed to be the West! Gary began to notice a difference between country music and cowboy/western music.

He talked with colleagues about entertaining from a horse and met with resistance (not to mention a few giggles). They said, “Nobody does that kind of thing anymore.” Not to be deterred, Gary borrowed a horse and sang in a parade a-horseback. The people who loaned him the horse thought that, since the horse was not all that well-behaved, he would give up and forget all of this nonsense about entertaining like that. Yet, just the opposite happened. He loved it! And, after a while, he had the horse acting much better as well. So good in fact, the people who owned the horse, now wanted him back to use for themselves.

After that, Gary decided he needed a horse of his own, and the rest, as they say, is history. His act evolved. He loved watching his singing cowboy heroes while growing up, and he now followed in their foot steps. Before you know it, he was outfitted with a big hat, wore chaps, gun belt, boots and spurs, and had a handkerchief around his neck when he went to work. Talk about a cool job, it was just like being a kid again!

He learned more old-time songs, recited poetry, and told cowboy stories. He worked hard at portraying the almost forgotten singing cowboy. He studied Old West history for countless hours, he made it his business to know all about “real”cowboys and “reel” cowboys. One makes a living loosely portraying the other so he found out all he could about both.

Hard work paid off. One thing led to another and word got around about this “singing cowboy” feller. Gary was invited to play many famous Old West haunts. He also became a regular fixture in Old Town Scottsdale during the tourist season. Since the town touts itself as the West’s most Western town, there ought to be at least one cowboy there for the tourist to see! LOL!

He has played countless corporate events and parties, and even rode out to center ice to sing the “anthem” during a national hockey tournament game. Although Gary has been dubbed “Arizona’s Singing Cowboy” for quite some time now; he also has been featured on numerous shows and profiled in magazines and books nationwide!

Gary has become quite a master of his craft, and that is not by chance. He works diligently at it. Not only does he work hard on new material and keeping his act authentic, but he has gotten pretty darned good with his horsemanship. His latest horse, Dusty, was trained entirely by Gary himself. Dusty is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill horse either. In order to be in show business, he has to be able to go indoors as well as out, be around hundreds of people, and stay gentle enough that little kids and unsuspecting adults (who walk all around him petting him from every angle) are safe while doing so.

Also, Dusty has to do something very unnatural for a horse: That is stand very still, in one spot, for long periods of time while this guy sits up top, strums a guitar, sings loudly, talks a lot, and moves around into different positions. All this while in front of large crowds, performing. Dusty also knows several show business tricks such as rearing, counting, fetch and saying yes and no. Dusty started doing this when he was only three! Gary says he just shows ‘em what he wants and is patient and gentle about doing it. (Sounds simple enough, but very few horses can do it.)

Besides working hard to keep his act authentic, he also lives the lifestyle of a true cowboy. He has attended branding events, worked cattle, logged thousands of hours in the saddle, trained his own horses and looks like a cowboy, but more than that, he is a cowboy at heart. He is the kind of guy, true to his word, always trying to do the right thing and personifies the hero attitude of yesterday. He lends a helping hand when he can, believes in God and country, and is one hundred percent true to his best friend and partner, his wife of almost forty years, Peggy.

Not only did he follow in the footsteps of the original pioneers and “go West” in mid-life to experience change and become a Westerner, but Peggy has been right there beside him, supporting and promoting him the whole way. If Gary’s move from East to West, learning the trade of a cowboy and western musician doesn’t sound like a pioneer story from a hundred-plus years ago, then what would?

As with most true Westerners, Gary is passionate about what he believes in. For him, one way to perpetuate “the code of the West” is by educating children. He loves to work with children, making several appearances each year to entertain and educate them at elementary and preschools. He has developed a special act to help inform youngsters about the cowboy way of life.

Gary also makes appearances to entertain the elderly who have no other way of seeing his act. His visits to nursing homes are well-received by folk there and it helps them go back to a time when people like Gary were their heroes on screen. He is especially proud of this work with the young and old, as it is kind of a “community service” he does.

While entertaining tourists and corporate crowds, he also gives the public a glimpse of the Silver Screen Cowboy from days gone by. He does as much to promote the image of the Old West to non-Western folk as anyone.

Gary is not awed or afraid of the unknown. He embraces life with a big smile on his face. If he had listened to people back in New York telling him, “Moving out West to become a singer is nothing more than a pipe dream . . .” he never would have succeeded. Now, he is a prime example of a real-life cowboy hero . . . just like Gene and Roy!