What I want to do is perform what makes me feel best," explains Red Steagall, "and hope there's enough people who like it to make me a living."
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Red Steagall is achieving his pragmatic/artistic goals in a big way. On the occasion of his third release for Warner Western, Dear Mama, I'm A Cowboy, Red agrees that so far, "it's working beautifully." Red has spent nearly four decades in and around the music business. He is a hit songwriter, western swing singer and Official Cowboy Poet of Texas. He just held his first Red Steagall Cowboy Celebration in Houston in June (patterned after Fort Worth's Red Steagall's Cowboy Gathering, now in it's seventh year) and the syndicated Red Steagall's Cowboy Corner airs on over 120 radio stations nationwide. To cap it all off, he still spends a lot of time on horseback.
Red grew up in the Texas panhandle in the isolated "little bitty town" of Sanford -- population: about 100 people. "They had dance halls in Amarillo," he points out, "but that was 50 miles away, so it might as well have been the other side of the earth." Although he names Bob Wills, Hank Thompson and Tex Ritter as primary influences professionally, his earliest personal influences were the cowboy songs he heard growing up. "The people I knew in my childhood, who were cowboys or had cowboys, knew those songs," he says. "I learned my first full song when I was three -- 'When The Work's All Done This Fall.' In high school I got exposed to western swing. The only radio station we could get that played any kind of country music was a station in Dumas, Texas, and I believe the deejay's name was Cactus Smith. He had a show from 2:30 to 3:30 every afternoon called Tumbleweed Temples, and about all he played was western swing. So I didn't know there was anything else."
But poetry -- particularly the cowboy variety -- was an equally significant force. "Nobody that's living really influenced what I do," he muses, "but I've always loved Robert W. Service and the way he told stories. Banjo Patterson was an Australian poet; he wrote 'The Man From Snowy River,' 'Waltzing Mathilda,' and 'The Pub With No Beer.' He told a story in a rhyming sequence that I liked -- same with Service. I've always loved poetry; I've read it since I was just a child."
In 1991, the Texas State Legislature proclaimed Steagall the first (and only) "Official Cowboy Poet of Texas," an honor that Red views as a "tremendous responsibility, to represent all of the wonderful poets in our state. I don't know how to express what an honor it is, it's very humbling. I'm very proud of it."
The long road to that citation saw Steagall attending college while playing rodeo dances on weekends; selling agricultural chemicals and fumigating grain barns while singing cowboy songs on the early '60s folk circuit ("for $20 a night -- thought I was stealin' 'em blind"); and eventually forming a publishing company with future mogul Jimmy Bowen. "In 1963, I packed up a U-Haul trailer and put it behind my '64 SuperSport Impala convertible and moved to Hollywood," he laughs. "I had some friends who'd been in show business and were starting to make some noise out there -- Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier, who were part of Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids. In '65, Don and I wrote a song called 'Here We Go Again,' which was recorded by Ray Charles; that was the turning point in my professional career. It was recorded by lots of folks, including Dean Martin, Nancy Sinatra, Bobby Goldsboro, Frankie Lane and Glenn Campbell." Red finally cut his own record in 1969 and had his first of many hits a year later, "Party Dolls and Wine."
Of his latest project, Dear Mama, I'm A Cowboy, he says, "There's really no overall theme. It started out with one song, and then it just kind of took on a life of it's own. I called on a lot of different co-writers, which I don't normally do; I just wanted somebody else's input into this project. Steve Gibson and I are very close. He started working on my albums in '74, playing guitar. When I was looking for a producer I thought of Steve, and we've done three albums now. We were using most of the guys who work with me anyhow, so we just added a couple of people to the mix -- no pun intended -- and did it here in Fort Worth at Eagle Audio, where we have real good recording capabilities."
Red stresses, "The kind of music we're doing is a lyric-oriented music. You don't want anything to cover up the lyrics -- which can happen with a lot of the sounds in country music today, where they completely cover up the vocals with a more rock and roll approach."
Asked about the message behind those lyrics and what he'd like people to get from his poems, Red Steagall states: "The cowboy is not the hard-drinking, hard-fighting, devil-may-care person that Hollywood makes him out to be. The cowboy is someone who makes his living on horseback, who makes his living with the land, and is very dedicated to his way of life. He is strongly convicted about his belief in God, is a dedicated family man, and is honest, hard-working, and believes a day's pay is worth a day's work. I spend a lot of time with those people, and they're exactly the same folks who've been working that land for generations. And they're just as fiercely protective of it today as they were 100 years ago."
It's the environment in which Steagall seems content and utterly at home. "I am," he nods. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
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