Orvon Grover Autry was born September 29, 1907 near Tioga in Grayson County in north Texas, the grandson of a Methodist preacher. His parents, Delbert Autry and Elnora Ozment, moved in the 1920s to Ravia in Johnston County in southern Oklahoma. He worked on his father's ranch while at school. After leaving high school in 1925, Autry worked as a telegrapher for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway. His talent at singing and playing guitar led to performing at local dances.
In 1932 he married Ina May Spivey (who died in 1980), who was the niece of Jimmy Long. In 1981 he married Jacqueline Ellam, who had been his banker. He had no children by either marriage.
Autry, was raised into Freemasonry in 1927 at Catoosa Lodge No. 185, Catoosa Oklahoma. He later became a 33rd degree Master Mason, as recorded on his headstone.
From 1940 to 1956, Autry had a huge hit with a weekly show on CBS Radio, Gene Autry's Melody Ranch. His horse, Champion, also had a CBS-TV and Mutual radio series, The Adventures of Champion. In response to his many young radio listeners aspiring to emulate him, Autry created the Cowboy Code, or Ten Cowboy Commandments. These tenets promoting an ethical, moral, and patriotic lifestyle that appealed to youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, which developed similar doctrines. The Cowboy Code consisted of rules that were "a natural progression of Gene's philosophies going back to his first Melody Ranch programs—and early pictures."According to the code:
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
- He must always tell the truth.
- He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
- He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- He must help people in distress.
- He must be a good worker.
- He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
- He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
Beginning in 1950, he produced and starred in his own television show on CBS and made several appearances on ABC-TV's Jubilee USA in the late 1950s. In 1995 Autry costarred with Charlton Heston, Mickey Rooney, Deborah Winters and Peter Graves in the Warren Chaney docudrama, America: A Call to Greatness.
Autry retired from show business in 1964, having made almost 100 films up to 1955 and over 600 records. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969 and to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. After retiring, he invested widely and in real estate, radio, and television, including the purchase from dying Republic Pictures the rights for films he had made for the company.
In 1952 Autry bought the old Monogram Ranch in Placerita Canyon (Newhall-Santa Clarita, California,) and renamed it Melody Ranch. Numerous "B" Westerns and TV shows were shot there during Autry's ownership, including the initial years of Gunsmoke with James Arness. Melody Ranch burned down in 1962, dashing Autry's plans to turn it into a museum. According to a published story by Autry the fire caused him to turn his attention to Griffith Park, where he would build his Museum of Western Heritage (now known as the Autry National Center). Melody Ranch came back to life after 1991, when it was purchased by the Veluzat family and rebuilt. It survives as a movie location today as well as the home of the City of Santa Clarita's annual Cowboy Festival, where Autry's legacy takes center stage.
Included for many years on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans, he slipped to their "near miss" category in 1995 with an estimated net worth of $320 million. Gene Autry died of lymphoma on October 2, 1998, aged 91 at his home in Studio City, California and is interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. His death came fewer than three months after the death of another celebrated cowboy of the silver screen, radio, and TV, Roy Rogers.