Being asked to perform the theme song from one of his all-time favorite Westerns was humbling.
Being asked to sing in front of fans who loved “Gunsmoke,” actors who were on the set and the family of the show’s late star was downright intimidating.
But Gary Lee Tolley, a King George County resident who has made records in Nashville, put on his cowboy hat and got through the “daunting” experience.
He was in Dodge City, Kan., last month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the TV series, which ran from 1955 to 1975.
“All the attendees were great fans of the show, and it was a real thrill to see them enjoying the moment. The applause at the end of the song was fantastic,” Tolley wrote in an email about his performance.
He was especially touched to hear from family members of James Arness, the tall actor who towered over TV sets—and the bad guys—as his character, Marshal Matt Dillon, kept law and order in the rough-and-tumble town of the Old West.
“The Arness family thanked me for the song, and some of the actors told me that they had not heard the lyrics before,” Tolley said
During the drama’s 635 episodes, the words to theme song were never sung.
Finding them was a challenge for Tolley, a singer and songwriter who made music his second career after he retired from the Army in 1996. He’s produced five albums, and his release, “Thanks A Lot,” won the 2015 “Classic Country CD of the Year” award.
As Tolley searched for lyrics of the “Gunsmoke” song, he found two different versions and sheet music for an orchestra. He made his own arrangement for instruments more suited to a cowboy tune, recorded it in Nashville and added the vocals at a studio in Fredericksburg.
One of the people planning the anniversary event had heard one of Tolley’s songs, a Civil War ballad, on satellite radio and asked if he’d perform in Dodge City.
Tolley said he was so grateful for the chance to be part of the event, all he wanted as payment was to have his expenses covered.
“Gunsmoke” was a part of his childhood. Tolley won’t give his age, but said that as he grew up, the TV series became part of his “landscape.”
It was one time during the week, in addition to dinners, when the whole family sat down together.
“My father would make sure he was in his chair, ready to watch the show when it came on,” Tolley said. “I knew all the characters and they were like an extended part of the family.”
The two-day anniversary included panel discussions, a rodeo and lots of time for fans to get autographs from some of show’s actors.
Those attending including Burt Reynolds, who played the “half-breed” blacksmith Quint Asper, along with Buck Taylor, Bruce Boxleitner, Jim Byrnes, Lane Bradbury, Jess Walton, Roger Ewing, Michael Dante, and Roberta Shore.
The reunion reminded Tolley of his childhood and growing up, wanting to be a cowboy.
“It was a great time to be a kid,” he said, and “Gunsmoke” fit the family values of the time. “The good guy always won, and the bad guy always lost.”