Wagons West is a deceptively fine account of the Sons of the Pioneers' music, from what were not only their years of greatest popularity -- 1945 through 1954 -- but also the period in which they started to make full use of recording technology. From 1935 onward, when the Farr brothers came aboard, the group could always function as a self-contained unit, and their 1930s recordings and radio transcriptions are in a class by themselves in that regard; what you heard on the records was what you got in concert. But after signing to RCA in 1945, the group -- by now a sextet, including founders Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer -- availed itself of a range of session players who included guitarist Perry Botkin, steel guitarist Charles Richard Roberts, bassist (and future official group member) Deuce Spriggins, and Rex Dalton Call on violin, to augment Hugh Farr's fiddle and Karl Farr's guitar on tracks like "The Timber Trail" and "Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima" (the latter a topical number that works as a Western tune). And for their next session in January of 1946, they added piano and drums to their studio complement for songs like "You're Getting Tired of Me" and "You'll Be Sorry When I'm Gone" (both authored by Fred Rose). These sides and the ones that followed made concessions to popular taste that, in a way, anticipated the development of the "countrypolitan" sound in Nashville (though the Pioneers recorded in Hollywood or Chicago), but never lost sight of the group's core sound. What's more, the latter was better than ever -- from March of 1946 onward, Lloyd Perryman, who was an essential part of the Pioneers' classic prewar lineup, was back in the fold, and they were at greater than full strength with Nolan, Spencer, the Farrs, Ken Carson, and Shug Fisher (or Pat Brady) making them a septet. Thus, the version of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" here, from March 1946, may not have the lean, stripped-down beauty of the group's classic 1930s recording, but it has a surprisingly tasteful, ornate beauty, even with three violinists working behind Hugh Farr, and the presence of a saxophone on "Out California Way" doesn't hurt a bit, on a cut that's as much Western swing (complete with a bluesy Karl Farr acoustic guitar solo) as it is cowboy music. Plus, anyone who wants more of Farr's solo work need only wait for the delightful break on "Grievin' My Heart Out for You," the next song up from the same session, which also spotlights Hugh's fiddle.
The 115 songs are far more diverse than the box's title or the group's image would lead one to expect, comprised in equal parts of traditional country, gospel, cowboy songs, topical songs (including the controversial "Old Man Atom"), movie songs (most notably from John Ford's Wagon Master), and elements of swing and blues, all sung in multi-part harmonies and no two songs alike enough to let a listener anticipate the breaks and solos. They occasionally go over the line into pop music, but the group never gets lost, even on "Baby, I Ain't Gonna Cry No More," with its 30-man backing orchestra. Some of the most interesting material here is also some of the most improbable, such as the gospel/topical "What This Country Needs," which incorporates some solid country blues elements within its quasi-"political" sermon. And it ought to be reassuring to potential purchasers that the sound quality is consistent throughout; the whole set sounds very good, and there's no huge jump up in quality from the 1945-1947 sides, which were recorded on wax masters before magnetic tape became available, and those from 1948-1952, dating from after the advent of tape recording. It's all in excellent condition on the listening end, and oddly enough, there are signs of more minor distortion repaired in some of the later sides. The set is topped off with a handsomely illustrated booklet typical of Bear Family's output, which gives complete session and release information on every song and covers the Sons of the Pioneers' complete history, from before the beginning into the last of the sessions represented here, and beyond. In addition to their RCA sides, the set encompasses their return to the Coral Records label in 1954, which yielded, among other songs, "River of No Return," from the Marilyn Monroe/Robert Mitchum movie of that name.