Patsy Montana was the first woman in country music to have a million-selling single -- 1935's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" -- and was a mainstay on the National Barn Dance on Chicago radio station WLS for many years. She might also have been country music's first female session musician. In the '30s and '40s she was the sweetheart of many a movie cowpoke, appearing in numerous western films, and her success encouraged the traditionally male-oriented country music business to welcome and respect the scores of female performers that followed her.
Patsy Montana was born Ruby Blevins in Hot Springs, AR, the 11th child and first daughter of a farmer, and she attended schools in President Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope. She was influenced early on by the music of Jimmie Rodgers, and as a child she learned to yodel and play organ, guitar, and violin. Dropping out of the University of Western Louisiana, she moved to California around 1930 with her older brother and his wife. Montana won a talent contest there and began appearing on a local radio station as "Rubye Blevins, the Yodeling Cowgirl from San Antone" (she thought the added "e" brought sophistication to her image). Appearing on station KMIC with western-music star Stuart Hamblen, she joined with two other female singers to form a group called the Montana Cowgirls. The presence of champion yodeler Monty Montana on the show inspired her to take Montana as her own last name, and Hamblen suggested the first name of Patsy because one of the other singers in the group was named Ruthie -- the names Ruby and Ruthie sounded too similar on the radio.
In 1932 she returned to Arkansas for a visit and performed briefly on Shreveport, LA, radio station KWKH. Those performances caught the attention of Shreveport recording star, Jimmie Davis, who would go on to record "You Are My Sunshine" but at the time was in the midst of a series of often risqué blue-yodel recordings for the Victor label. Montana backed Davis on several recordings and then was given the chance to make a few of her own; her debut record, released in 1933, included "When the Flowers of Montana Are Blooming."
In 1933, Montana headed for Chicago to see the Century of Progress World's Fair and to audition at WLS. She got acquainted with a string band called the Kentucky Ramblers and signed on as the group's vocalist as it changed its name to the Prairie Ramblers to fit the increasingly cowboy-oriented programming at WLS. Soon she was a regular on the National Barn Dance, the variety show that at the time was the Grand Ole Opry's biggest competitor and helped launch the careers of various western film stars. Despite her experience with the raunchy Davis, Montana had to leave the room when the Prairie Ramblers recorded some off-color numbers of their own under the name the Sweet Violet Boys. But she was at the microphone in 1935 to record the peppy polka-rhythm "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," which married the new dance energy of country music to a perfect set of Hollywood cowboy (or cowgirl) images. Recorded in New York on the ARC label, it became her signature song, but it was not her only hit; others included "Rodeo Sweetheart," "Montana Plains," and "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Dream." In 1939, she made her full-length feature film debut with Gene Autry in Colorado Sunset.
Montana moved to the Decca label in 1941, releasing a dozen singles during the war years. After a stint on the ABC radio network as leader of a program called Wake Up and Smile in 1946 and 1947, she returned to Arkansas to live on a farm with her husband, Paul Rose, and their two children, appearing on the radio daily in Hot Springs and many Saturdays on the Louisiana Hayride. Later she and her husband moved back to California. Over the years, Montana remained active in the music industry, appearing on many country music shows and continuing to record. In 1964, she cut a live album at the Matador Room in Safford, AZ; among her backing musicians was a young guitarist named Waylon Jennings. In the '80s and '90s, she recorded albums (several of them gospel) for a number of independent labels before her death on May 3, 1996. ~ Sandra Brennan and James Manheim