Lester Alvin Burnett (March 18, 1911 – February 16, 1967), better known as Smiley Burnette, was a popular American country music performer and a comedic actor in Western films and on radio and TV, playing sidekick to Gene Autry and other B-movie cowboys. He was also a prolific singer-songwriter who could play as many as 100 musical instruments, some simultaneously. His career, beginning in 1934, spanned four decades, including a regular role on CBS-TV’s Petticoat Junction in the 1960s.
Lester A. Burnett (he added the final “e” later in life) was born in Summum, Illinois, on March 18, 1911, and grew up in Ravenwood, Missouri. He began singing as a child and learned to play a wide variety of instruments by ear, yet never learned to read or write music. In his teens he worked in vaudeville and, starting in 1929, at the state’s first commercial radio station, WDZ-AM in Tuscola, Illinois.
Burnette came by his nickname while creating a character for a WDZ children’s program. He was reading Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” at the time, which included a character named Jim Smiley. He named the radio character Mr. Smiley and soon adopted the moniker as his own, dropping the title.
Burnette wrote more than 400 songs and sang a significant number of them on screen. His Western classic, “Ridin’ Down the Canyon (To Watch the Sun Go Down),” was later recorded by Willie Nelson, Riders in the Sky, and Johnnie Lee Wills. Other compositions included “On the Strings of My Lonesome Guitar” (Jimmy Wakely’s theme song in the 1940s), “Fetch Me Down My Trusty .45,” “Ridin’ All Day,” and “It’s Indian Summer” as well as “The Wind Sings a Cowboy Song,” “The Old Covered Wagon,” and “Western Lullaby.” He also composed musical scores for such films as The Painted Stallion and Waterfront Lady. His songs were recorded by a wide range of singers, including Bing Crosby, Ferlin Husky, and Leon Russell. His performance of “Steamboat Bill” appeared on The Billboard’s country chart in 1939.