30x185 spacer

Memories of the Sons of the Pioneers and a lifetime with fiddle in hand

Thursday, 13 June 2019. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Memories of the Sons of the Pioneers and a lifetime with fiddle in hand

Roy Warhurst still plays a mean fiddle. The background portrait, by Calgary artist Harley Brown, was the cover of his 1971 solo album Country Feelin’. 
Photo by Shannon Robison

Memories of the Sons of the Pioneers and a lifetime with fiddle in hand

By Shannon Robison

Roy Warhurst was just a young lad when an uncle left a fiddle in his care, lighting a spark that ignited a lifelong passion for music.

Uncle Jack taught Roy a few scales on the adult-sized instrument. From there, the six-year-old taught himself to make the fiddle sing and was soon playing along with tunes on the radio.

Over the airwaves he was inspired by the Sons of the Pioneers and their songs about cowboy life.

Eighty years later, after a musical career that took him around the world and included playing with the group he idolized as a boy, Roy looks forward to seeing the latest rendition of the Sons of the Pioneers play this Saturday and reflects on a lifetime with a fiddle tucked under his chin.

Before the Pioneers

Roy developed his talent playing at community gatherings and with a variety of musicians in Saskatchewan and later in British Columbia after his family moved to Whalley (Surrey area).

The boy with his ear to the radio who learned by copying the music of others, had become a young man leading the way with his own style and catching the attention of many in the industry.

One was Marc Wald, accordion player with the Rhythm Pals.

Roy was invited to play with the group on one of their shows when he was only 14 years old. From there he became a regular player with them and with a variety of other artists on CKNW Radio programs.

When the Rhythm Pals left on tour, Roy formed the Fraser River Boys. The group of teenage musicians were featured on a half-hour radio show every weekend and were very popular in the region.

Over the next few years Roy led another group, called the Saddle Pals, and worked as a studio musician.

Fiddling competitions took him as far as the World Open Fiddling Championships, where he placed third as a 17-year-old.

A call from CBC Calgary in 1952 led to Roy replacing Al Cherney as fiddler for Vic Siebert and the Sons of the Saddle.

This gig included regular TV performances on the series Saddle Songs and lasted seven years, with work in Calgary and later in Winnipeg when the show was picked up nationally.

In 1954, Sons of the Saddle opened for the Sons of the Pioneers and Roy established a relationship of mutual respect with Pioneers fiddler Hugh Farr and with the rest of the band.

“He was certainly the best fiddle player of his time, and maybe of all time,” Roy says of Hugh. “He was a wonderful player and the original group was very good.”

In 1958 he formed Roy Warhust and His Western Swing Band. They recorded an album, backed up many stars of the Grand Ole Opry and were regulars on CHCT-TV Calgary.

Roy also began recruiting talent and producing TV shows, and was a successful studio musician and record producer. He played across the country and around the world, appearing on many shows, including The Irish Rovers Show and The Tommy Hunter Show.

He recorded with many artists and is proud to have made three records with Ian Tyson, including the award-winning Cowboyography, released in 1987.

Roy also recorded his own solo album, Country Feelin’, in 1971. The cover art is a beautiful portrait of the man and his fiddle that is a centrepiece on the living room wall of the Pincher Creek home he shares with his wife, Lynne.

Roy scouted entertainment for the Calgary Stampede for 30 years and reconnected with the Sons of the Pioneers when he arranged for them to play the 1988 Stampede.

With the Pioneers

Lloyd Perryman asked Roy to join the Sons of the Pioneers in 1964 when Hugh Farr left the band, but the timing wasn’t right.

After reviving their relationship in 1988, the Pioneers asked again. He didn’t sign on but, instead, Roy went with them to Tucson, Ariz., to produce an album.

In 1994, Roy and Lynne moved to Branson and he accepted the offer to play with the legendary group that had shaped his early musicality. 

“The Pioneers were regarded as THE group as far as western music was concerned during the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” Roy says. “They were the ultimate.”

Roy says he and principal writer Bob Nolan (who founded the group with Roy Rogers and Tim Spencer) were the only Canadians invited to be members of the band and notes that Bob was an incredible writer.

“He was a very quiet individual, a great singer and more than likely the greatest composer of western classic music of all time,” he says.

While the group has gone through “scads of people” in its 85-year history, Roy says the music was tight in his time because all six players were committed to every performance and to “paying respect to the original guys.”

At that time the band sold out big arenas everywhere they toured.

In a performance viewed by over 20 million people worldwide, Roy took the stage of the Grand Ole Opry with the Sons of the Pioneers — a dream for any musician. 

Coincidentally, the band has been invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry again this year.

While Roy was more at home in the studio, he was confident onstage because he was well practised. “It takes a certain amount of hambone, but you really can’t think about it because it’s overwhelming,” he says.

It was a tough way to make a living, with the group typically playing about 200 shows a year.

“First of all you have to love it,” Roy says. “None of the original Pioneers read music and yet they rented this little house in L.A. and sat there for over a year just practising.”

The music sounded so good because the men worked hard at creating beautiful harmonies to enhance the storytelling lyrics and musical arrangements.

Roy says the musicians and writers were also taken advantage of at times.

“They’d end up selling the rights to the songs to whoever was producing the music for $8 to $10 and that was it. They were exploited like most people in the movie and publishing businesses.”

Beyond the Pioneers

While Roy was involved with the music industry most of his life, he never put himself in the position where he was solely dependent on it.

“It’s very unstable and I was really lucky,” he says. “I seemed to land on my feet.”

There were always side gigs and business investments completely unrelated to music — sometimes it was tough to keep up with things but he managed to connect with the right people at the right times.

After two family deaths, Roy realized he was too far away from those who mattered most. In 1997 it was time to retire and come back to Canada after five years in Branson.

He and Lynne have made their home in Pincher Creek for about 10 years. They enjoy the community, their neighbours and their cranky dog.

Roy could boast of his numerous awards won, multiple hall of fame inductions, spectacular places he’s been and famous people he’s known, but he doesn’t.

He is humble about his talent and his contribution to western music.

At the end of the day, two awards are most meaningful to him.

In 1995, Roy received the Western Heritage Wrangler Award, for excellence in western music, from the National Cowboy Music Hall of Fame in Oklahoma.

This recognition came from his role as fiddle player and record producer for the Sons of the Pioneers, and only one other Canadian has been presented this prestigious award.

As it should, the bronze wrangler statue sits grandly in the sunroom of the Warhurst home.

The Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Association presented Roy with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 in recognition and appreciation of his outstanding contribution to old-time fiddling.

This is the other accolade he holds close to his heart.

“Roy’s humble nature, incredible musical talent and genuine integrity as a person have made him truly respected by all,” said Randy Jones, president of the Alberta Society of Fiddlers, at the awards ceremony held in Morinville, Alta.

Roy cried during his acceptance speech as he thanked the association for its tribute. He also showed the appreciative audience that he hasn't lost his chops.

Calvin Vollrath nominated Roy for the lifetime achievement award. "With Roy being so involved in the country music scene for so many years, most of the fiddlers in the fiddle scene hadn't met Roy or even seen him, but Roy's accomplishments are many and he so deserved this award."

Calvin had heard Roy's name in country music circles when he was starting out. "We all played his famous compositions."

A fiddler himself, Calvin wrote a catchy piece called “Roy Warhurst Breakdown” and told Roy it was simply “because I was thinking about you.”

"It was through the CGM event that I got to meet Roy, and what a fine gentleman he is," says Calvin. "As I compose music as well, I wanted to gift Roy with a tune in thanks for his inspiration and dedication to a lifelong musical career."

“Back Forty Rip-Off” and “Blackfoot Jam” are a few songs you can find on YouTube as recorded by Al Cherney and written by Roy Warhurst. Roy’s music has been played and recorded by many.

If you’re interested in looking further back, search Sons of the Saddle on YouTube and you can see Roy in action many years ago.

His personality shines just as brightly now, even though his dance moves may not be as quick. His quick grin is as wide and his eyes have the same mischievous twinkle.

Roy’s expertise on the fiddle brought colourful highlights to the music of the Sons of the Pioneers and all other groups he played with. His blue eyes light up when he recounts a lifetime of memories with a bow in his hand.

Perspectives change over time and, with a lifetime in the music business behind him, he's not sure he would choose to do it again.

“You know, we get so strung out over nothing. What’s important?” he asks.

“To me it’s kids, happiness, those that you’re close to and personal peace of mind. I don’t worry anymore about who’s playing what and where and all the hype.”

There is a small group of players he likes to get together with to make music, but between time, distance and age, those sessions have become few and far between.

“It’s nice to see old friends and appreciate how much talent they have and what kind of people they are and forget about the BS of the music business.”

He jokes that he only plays now when he gets threatened.

The musician, composer, media personality, director, producer, businessman, husband, father and grandfather is happy with his quiet life with Lynne in Pincher Creek.

If you’re lucky you might catch him rosining up his bow on occasion to take in a local jam session, but Roy is quite content to enjoy the music of others now.

This weekend Roy and Lynne will hear the Sons of the Pioneers play their 85th anniversary show in Lethbridge — the first time they’ve seen the band perform in about 25 years.

It is a group much different than the original members he first met 60 years ago, but the heart of the music will be beat as strongly as they sing of cool water, tumbling tumbleweeds and a home on the range.

Roy looks forward to hearing this next generation of the Sons of the Pioneers pay tribute to their predecessors and the amazing writers who created music that has passed the test of time.

From the six-year-old teaching himself to fiddle on an isolated homestead near Arborfield, Sask., to the master player with walls and shelves filled with awards bearing testament to his talent and to his service in the worldwide music industry, lies the story of a man who is modest when speaking of his achievements that shaped western music.

While his fiddle may not see as much playing time as it once did, a new generation of musicians is listening to his style, his tone and his technique, and incorporating it into their own unique way of playing.

Through up-and-coming fiddlers, Roy’s music will continue to delight and inspire players and audiences for years to come.

20190530 Roy Warhurst 1

The inset of this fiddle body is a photo of Roy Warhurst with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans when the couple made their last appearance with the Sons of the Pioneers in 1994.   

20190612 Roy Rogers Roy Warhurst

Roy Rogers, left, and Roy Warhurst circa 1991.   

Photo courtesy of Roy Warhurst

20190612 Roy Warhurst Sons of Pioneers 2

Roy Warhurst as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers in the mid ’90s. In back are Luther Nallie, left, Dale Warren and Sonny Spencer. In front are Gary LeMaster, Roy Warhurst and John Nallie.   

Photo courtesy of Roy Warhurst

 20190530 Roy Warhurst 8small

Roy Warhurst show the Western Heritage Wrangler Award – one that holds deep meaning to him. 

Photo by Shannon Robison

Roy Warhurst LAA 3

Roy Warhurst accepts a lifetime achievement award from Graham Sheppard, then president of the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Association, in 2016.

Photo by Robert Stein

20170104 1
Every now and then you might catch Roy out and about with his fiddle. This shot was taken Dec. 31, 2016 at a Pincher Creek venue.

Photo by Shannon Robison

2019 SOTP

Watch for Roy on upright bass and then playing a fiddle solo in this video of the Sons of the Saddle from 1957. Enjoy!