Sons of the Pioneers leader Bob Nolan is generally regarded as one of the finest Western songwriters of all time, penning classics of the genre like "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water." Nolan was born Robert Clarence Nobles on April 1, 1908, in the Canadian town of Point Hatfield, New Brunswick. His father served in the United States Army during World War I, and later changed his name to Nolan and retired to Arizona; Bob lived with his aunts in Boston, and at 14 moved west to join his father. He attended the University of Arizona, studying music and poetry, and in 1927 left school to ride the rails and work on his singing and songwriting.
He settled in Los Angeles in 1929, where he initially worked as a lifeguard while trying to get a singing career off the ground. In 1931, he joined a group called the Rocky Mountaineers, which also included singer Leonard Slye and fiddler Bob Nichols. Frustrated over the group's lack of success, Nolan departed after just a few months and took a job as a caddy at a Bel Air golf course; nonetheless, he had forged a productive working relationship with Slye. Slye, in turn, left the Rocky Mountaineers in 1932 along with Nolan's replacement, Tim Spencer, to form a short-lived group; the following year, Slye convinced both Spencer and Nolan to return to music, and they reconvened as the Pioneer Trio, with Nolan singing tenor and playing the bass. Their name was soon changed to the Sons of the Pioneers, in order to reflect their actual age.
Nolan had continued to work on his songwriting, and the Sons of the Pioneers soon began performing his originals on a nationally syndicated radio show. "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" became their signature song and a country & western standard, and it was one of the first songs the group recorded when it signed with Decca in 1934. Other Nolan-penned classics from the era included "Way Out There," "There's a Roundup in the Sky," "One More Ride," and "Cool Water," the latter of which would have remained the group's signature song were it not for "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds."
Their top-notch repertoire and appealing harmony singing quickly made them stars, and they appeared in their first full-length Western movie, The Old Homestead, in 1935. After supporting the likes of Bing Crosby and Gene Autry onscreen, the group signed an exclusive agreement to appear in Charles Starrett's Westerns in late 1937 (it lasted until 1941). In 1938, Leonard Slye won an audition to star in his own film, and took the name Roy Rogers; he was a smash success and left to concentrate on his own career, leaving Nolan the undisputed leader of the Sons of the Pioneers.
Nolan continued to write some of the group's biggest hits, and contributed songs like "Echoes from the Hills," "I Follow the Stream," "Chant of the Wanderer," "At the Rainbow's End," and "The Touch of God," among others. In 1941, the Sons of the Pioneers' contract with Starrett and Columbia Pictures was up, and they left to join up with Roy Rogers at Republic, appearing as his musical sidekicks in numerous films through 1948, ending with Nighttime in Nevada. As leader of the group and Rogers' longtime friend, Nolan was often featured in prominent, dialogue-heavy supporting roles, but never pursued movie stardom of his own.
In 1944, Nolan switched the group's label to RCA Victor, where their recording career enjoyed a renaissance, thanks in part to fuller, more contemporary arrangements. The group remained quite popular up through the late '40s, but Nolan -- always an introvert by nature -- decided to leave in 1949, wanting more time to himself and less on the road. He did continue to write songs, and even rejoined the group from 1955-1958, though only as a studio vocalist. He was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971 (as was old bandmate Tim Spencer), and the Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976. Nolan recorded a solo album, The Sound of a Pioneer, in 1979, which spotlighted some of his past successes. He died of a heart attack on June 16, 1980. ~ Steve Huey