KFTI's Western to be honored

The Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame will induct Johnny Western for his contributions to western music.

BY BOB CURTRIGHT

The Wichita Eagle


Johnny Western never thought about being inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Sure, he performed nearly 40 years with Johnny Cash and is internationally known as the singer and composer of the catchy theme from "Have Gun, Will Travel."

And he'll soon be the first western performer to sing three times at New York's Carnegie Hall.

"I just figured I never had a chance at the Hall of Fame because I was born in Minnesota and not Kansas," Western said.

But after 18 years as a fixture at Wichita's country radio station KFDI (now renamed KFTI on the AM side), Western, 69, will be one of five Kansans inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend during the annual three-day Cowboy Symposium in Dodge City.

"I'm flattered, I'm honored, I'm humbled. It's totally unexpected," Western said.

"I guess I've traveled around and talked up Wichita and Kansas enough for me to be considered more Kansan than anything else."

Western is the only entertainer among this year's inductees. The other four are in the categories of rancher/cattleman, historic cowboy, rodeo cowboy and working cowboy.

All will be honored at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Boot Hill Museum. The event will be taped by cable's Western Channel for airing later.

"Johnny's contributions to western music are immense," said Beverlee Brannigan, operations manager for KFTI. "He is deserving of this honor, and we are so proud of him."

Western began singing on the radio at age 13, then moved to California at 19 to break into show business. At 20, he was hired by Gene Autry as his lead singer and personal guitarist during Autry's last two years of touring.

"He was my whole reason for being in the business. I saw one of Gene Autry's movies when I was 5 and never got over it," Western said.

"I couldn't believe it. Who gets to work for your hero?"

When Autry stopped performing, Western dabbled in movies sporadically from 1957 to 1963.

But Johnny Cash also hired him in 1958 to emcee his shows and to be his opening act. Western performed on more than 70 of Cash's songs and five of his albums.

"When Johnny died, I was just a couple of months shy of being on the road with him for 40 years," he said.

Western still makes frequent concert appearances around the country besides his on-air work from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

He'll be back at Carnegie Hall on June 11 with his "Tribute to the Great American Cowboy" for the second year in a row -- and for his record-setting third appearance.

"I never expected to be there even once, but I went with Johnny Cash in 1962. You can imagine, he was hotter than a pistol then. I sang the only western song," he recalled.

That song, naturally, was his "Ballad of Paladin."

This year, Western will again emcee and perform with the Prairie Rose Wranglers. Special guests are Riders in the Sky and Roy Rogers Jr.

"Last year was a complete sellout. They were even scalping tickets in front of the theater," Western said of the 2,800-seat hall. About 500 were filled by Kansans who made the trek to New York.

"I didn't know it until afterward, but we had celebrities in the audience who even had to pay their way in," Western said.

Among them, he said, were former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rush Limbaugh.

"This year's show will be all western music and presentation, not country," Western said.

"We were so successful last year that they signed us up again before we ever left the building."

NOW YOU KNOW JOHNNY WESTERN

Age: 69

Occupation: 18 years as deejay on Wichita country radio KFDI 101.3-FM and KFTI 1070-AM

Claims to fame: Composer and singer of the theme from the TV show "Have Gun, Will Travel"; sang for almost 40 years with Johnny Cash

Recent honors: Will be inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame on Sunday in Dodge City