Smiley Burnett and the Musical Saw

   Gene Autry on guitar with Smiley Burnett on accordion

Gene Autry was one of the most popular movie cowboys of all time, and one of the reasons for his success was his friendly sidekick, Smiley Burnett. Smiley was born Lester Alvin Burnett in 1911, and he died in 1967. Autry and Burnett met in 1933 when Autry was looking for an accordion player, and they spent many years together, starring in over 64 movies together. Smiley Burnett could play over 100 instruments, and supposedly his first paying job as a musician was a job playing the musical saw for $3, at the tender age of 9. He wrote the beautiful song “Ridin’ Down The Canyon,” a song that has been recorded by Willie Nelson, The Sons Of The Pioneers, Gene Autry, Leon Russell, Jo Stafford, and many others. He invented an instrument called the Jassackaphone, a sort of portable organ, and opened a chain of restaurants called “The Checkered Shirt.” He also appeared as a train engineer on the television show “Petticoat Junction” in the 1960s. Smiley Burnett was a songwriter, an inventor, restaurateur, and movie and radio actor, who made people happy for many years.

Smiley in his checkered shirt in a scene from Blazing Across The Pecos

You can see Smiley play the saw briefly at about 8:20. He made this serial, Undersea Kingdom, when he was working with Republic Pictures. Most of his work in 1936 was with Gene Autry in musical westerns, but this series is an exception.

Smiley Burnett wrote this song and more than 400 others. The song was voted one of the top 100 Western songs of all time, by the Western Writers of America.

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Rowena Southard, your blog hostess, is a musical saw enthusiast who lives in California. She loves all kinds of music and has a special fondness for unusual instruments.