Bob Nolan’s most famous song was a metaphor for his life. Tumbling Tumbleweeds was all about the spirit of Nolan: drifting down new roads where “the cares of the past are behind.” And it remains a central irony of his life that the song, written in 1932, made money for almost everyone else who recorded it but little for him.
An insular man who disliked the noise of public attention, he was content with the peace of an isolated setting wherever he could find it – he would spend months in a cabin at Big Bear Lake, cradled within the hills of the San Bernardino National Forest in California. Sometimes, he would go for long drives down the Pacific Coast Highway. Yet he was unable to shake the public stage. Quite simply, Nolan’s talent might have given him the freedom and independence to tumble along but his rambling always led to a well-acclaimed entertainment trail.
For years he was a key member of the Sons of the Pioneers band with the famous cowboy singer (and later actor), Roy Rogers. Nolan’s songs became Western standards. One of those was Cool Water, later inducted into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in the United States. He appeared in more than 90 movies, sometimes acting in prominent roles up front and, at other times, with his voice singing in the background.
His silver screen years, in the 1930s and 1940s, included appearances with B- movie Western star Charles Starrett (The Durango Kid), with Gene Autry, Dick Foran and Roy Rogers. During the Sons of the Pioneers’ run with Starrett, Nolan wrote all the songs in 13 movies. By the time the group joined Roy Rogers in a series of Republic Pictures movies in the 1940s, Nolan was leading the band.
Bob Nolan was born Clarence Robert Nobles in Winnipeg in 1908. His parents separated about seven years later – after shuttling across Canada in search of work – and Clarence ended up with his father’s parents on their New Brunswick homestead. His father disappeared for a time, joining the U.S. Army under the name Harry Nolan, and later settling in Arizona. He asked his sister to bring his two sons to Boston. At that point, Clarence Robert Nobles became Bob Nolan.
Shortly after, he moved to Tucson to be with his father and fell in love with the desert of the southwest. He rode the rails for adventure and struggled for jobs in the Depression. His crossings of America on freight trains led to a song, Way out There, which carries the rhythm of a train. He married and fathered a daughter but seldom saw the child – a regret he later wrote into one of his songs.
In 1932, the would-be songwriter answered an ad for a yodeler and was hired by Leonard Slye (Roy Rogers) to sing in a group called The Rocky Mountaineers. It was about this time, he composed a song called Tumbling Leaves, which later became known as Tumbling Tumbleweeds.
Slye persuaded Nolan, who had left the Mountaineers, to join a new group. They picked up radio dates and later their own program. By 1934, with new members, they became The Sons of the Pioneers and recorded for Decca Records and made hundreds of Standard Radio Transcriptions. Nolan’s songs began to achieve national prominence. Even so, money was tight. They received $600 each for the Standard Transcriptions but no royalties.
The movies flickered with the prospect of new income. The Sons of the Pioneers appeared with Autry and later with Starrett. Nolan, a handsome man, fell into acting but never did like his stage work. He considered his movie songs of lesser quality. Nolan stayed with Rogers and the Pioneers until 1949. Then, he disappeared from the limelight for almost three decades. For much of the time, he lived in relative isolation, up at Big Bear Lake. He had remarried and met his daughter but his personal life was financially soured when his agent absconded with much of his savings.
In 1979, he made his last LP, almost a retrospective, with new and old songs. A year later, he died of a heart attack. His ashes were scattered in the southwest desert he loved so much. His name and his music, however, had been honoured in several places. He won entry into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the 1941 recording of Cool Water by the Sons of the Pioneers, took a Grammy Award in 1986. The Sons of the Pioneers have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.