& Free Trip to Margaritaville
Yes, he is a famous singer, songwriter, actor, producer, radio personality, TV host, and philanthropist. He is also a gentleman…a cowboy…a humble man who is as comfortable outdoors as he is in the fanciest gatherings Los Angeles and Nashville have to offer. He makes others comfortable in his presence…from U.S. Presidents to small-town publishers. We visited Mr. Steagall on his 75-acre ranch in north Texas, a place he describes as “not big enough to make a living on, and too big to keep.” I am proud to have visited with this American treasure and delighted to share that conversation with you.
First things first…I understand you had Covid. How are you doing?
I’m back pretty close to where I was before. The main problem has been short-term memory – it’s not that I forget things, I just can’t recall them! I don’t have the stamina I had, but that’s coming back.
For readers who may not know you, how would you describe yourself?Well, that’s a tough question. Mother always taught me if you talk about yourself, you’re bragging, and bragging is not gentlemanly. I like to think I live the best kind of life the Lord wants me to live. I’ve grown up a very spiritual person and still am. I love the outdoors. I love people. I love the lifestyle I lead, and I am happy. I’m confident with who I am.
Tell us a little about your childhood and growing up.
My family is from Montague County, up towards Bowie, for four generations on both sides. When I was three, there weren’t any jobs left in Montague County, and Daddy moved to the oilfield. I grew up on that riverbed on the south side of the Canadian River in a little town called Sanford. I loved to hunt arrowheads and fossils, track coons, and run coyotes with a one-eyed greyhound. I would run coons at night with coon dogs. I lived outdoors. If we didn’t have a football game on Friday afternoon at Phillips High School, I would disappear, and Mother would see me Sunday night.
That old river is about a mile wide there, and the bluffs are about 300 feet high. I remember sitting on those big rocks on that bluff and letting my imagination run wild. One day I would be going up the trail with Charlie Goodnight, and the next day I would be fighting the white eyes with Quanah. I could see those teepees as if they were absolutely there.
You write that way. Readers are able to envision themselves there when reading your writing. That is a gift.
Well, thank you. I think that time period in my life greatly influenced what I write and the way I see life today. That was a time when your parents would say, “Quit daydreaming and get your mind on what you need to do.” But daydreaming is what creates activity in artistic endeavors. If you can’t see something in your mind and present it the way you see it, it’s not artistic–you’re just repeating what someone else has done. I’m glad to say I was a daydreamer.
So you are a cowboy, a poet, musician, producer, an actor, a TV and radio personality. You are truly a jack of all trades.
Master of none, I reckon (chuckling). I’ve had a very interesting life. I can’t imagine changing one thing that would make it better. It might make it different, but it wouldn’t make it better.
If you had to prioritize, are there any of those things you like most of all?
That’s a pretty tough question, because I really enjoy what I do and what I have done. I love being a writer, both a poet and a songwriter. I love to perform. I really enjoy the medium of television. I’ve been in radio for 27 years with Cowboy Corner, so I like that a lot!
How often do you do that?
I do four shows a month at one time, but I go out in the field to get the interviews. I might be gone sometimes for a week or ten days doing interviews in a particular locality where I know there are people who either have an interest or are part of the western lifestyle. It might be an actor, a singer, a historian, a cowboy, might be a ranch owner. It’s somebody who has a vested interest in the preservation and perpetuation of the western lifestyle.
Why is it so important to you to make sure people understand and hold on to that western history and cowboy culture?
There are three things we primarily love and preserve: the history, the traditions, and the set of values. The values that evolved in an agrarian society are very important to us all getting along, and those came from two sources. First of all, from the Good Book. We learned ‘em sitting on the front row at a regular church meeting, or we were taught at home by our parents that this is a set of values that we need to live by. This is what makes you a good person.
Second, in an agrarian society, there was a time we had to depend on other people for survival, because we were way out in the wilderness by ourselves. It might be ten miles to the next neighbor. We depended on each other, and if you’re going to depend on somebody and need them to depend on you, then you’ve got to be the right person. I’ve said a jillion times, and I’ll continue to say–the most important things any of us can live by are honesty, integrity, loyalty, work ethic, dedication to family, conviction about our belief in God, and practicing common decency and respect for our fellow man every day we live. What makes this a harmonious society is adhering to that set of values. This is not anything I came up with. These are the things my mother taught me and things I have found in over eight decades I have lived. If you don’t practice these things, you create an adverse attitude towards yourself and whatever you are trying to accomplish. I think that’s the most important thing. In the western lifestyle, especially in the big ranches, we still experience that set of values, and it is purity. It is used every day. It’s not something somebody talks about; it’s something they DO every day. So, it’s not gone; it’s just that, when we moved to the cities, we became a “me” society instead of a “we” society.
Tell us how you went from an agriculture degree at West Texas State University to producing music in Hollywood? That seems like a pretty good jump!
(Chuckling). Well, I’ve thought about that a lot! I spent four years of my life studying agriculture. I wanted to be a large animal vet, so pre-vet was the first direction I went, but when I was 15, I lost the use of my left shoulder to polio. I had use of my hand, but no use of the arm, so I couldn’t be a large animal vet–and I didn’t want to work on dogs and cats. I did end up getting an appointment to vet school, but by the time I got a bachelor’s degree, I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I wanted to get a job. I wanted to own a car. I had never owned a car until then. I worked day and night to put myself through college. I didn’t think it was anybody else’s responsibility but mine. So, I worked at it, and I’m proud of that degree. I’m proud of the effort it took to accomplish one of my goals.
After polio, I used the mandolin to regain the strength in the fingers of my left hand, because it was just like spaghetti. I had no use of them at all. I would practice for days on end, strengthening each finger so it wouldn’t mute the strings when I played. I went from there to a guitar. When I went off to college, had a little band and really liked it. I don’t know that I thought about a career in the music business, but I knew it was something I really liked.
I got a degree in agriculture and spent five years in agricultural chemistry after college. I had some friends who were superstars in the 50s, Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids. They really invented Rockabilly Music. They had seven records in a row that reached #1 in the national charts and sold a million copies. Buddy got drafted into the Korean War, Jimmy Bowen went to Hollywood, and Don Lanier came back to Amarillo. Don and I had grown up together, so we were old friends. They and Buddy Holly and a group called The Teen Kings from Plainview all went to Norman Petty’s studio and cut records, and they were kind of our heroes. So, I kinda changed my mind about writing songs and being a singer. When Jimmy started having some success in Hollywood as a producer, Donnie went out to help him and be part of what he was doing. They called me and asked me if I would come to Hollywood. I was with the ag division of Shamrock Oil and Gas Corporation, had a good job, and could have stayed there the rest of my life and retired at 65; but I was single and had just bought me a new car, so I hooked a 5×7 U-Haul trailer behind it and went to California.
It was a culture shock. I kept seeing opportunities I could be involved in. Donnie and I wrote a song I got Ray Charles to record in ’66 called Here We Go Again. To date, it has been recorded 63 times by different artists. So, it’s almost been a career all its own. By the time ’69 rolled around and I started recording, I’d had 60 of my songs recorded by other people. So, I was doing pretty good as a songwriter. I’d had three #1 country records by other artists. I started recording, but I stayed in the music publishing business, still am, because that was how I made my living…plugging songs.
In January 1969, the record I had recorded for Capitol went into the top 10. It was called Party Dolls and Wine. I’ve had 26 records in a row in the national charts, and I’ve had them all over the world…met people in all walks of life. I like to say that I’ve lived six lifetimes, and I believe it–because I’ve done EVERYTHING that I wanted to do.
The thing that has been important to me in later years is how did I use that agricultural degree in what I’m doing now? The answer is, I write about those people. I write about the farmers and ranchers; I write about people who love the image of the West, the values, tradition and heritage that evolves from that; and I find that even today, in my television show, my radio show, and my concerts, the people that really like what I do are still of an agricultural background–maybe not their generation, but their parents’ or their grandparents’ generation – something that they learned to love. I didn’t forsake that degree. It all ties together.
Not counting all the songs you’ve written for others, what has been the biggest hit you recorded?
Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music, and the one next to that was a western swing version of Somewhere My Love in 1973.
Other than your biggest hit, what is your personal favorite?
That’s a tough question. I don’t know that I have a favorite. Some of the records I am most proud of didn’t make the top 10, but I love storyline songs. I love the things that I am writing now and have been for the last 30 years – the cowboy songs. I love to tell cowboy stories.
Let’s shift just a little bit. In addition to your own celebrity, there are others you have had a hand in helping. One was a little redhead singing the national anthem at a rodeo?
Reba (McEntire) is probably the only person I have really had any influence in their career.
Glenn Sutton and I loved trains, and we wanted to ride a train and write songs. On a lark, I wrote the president of Rock Island Railways, asking if we could ride a caboose; he wrote back and agreed. We flew into Amarillo, got on that train, and wound up in Memphis. We couldn’t write, because we couldn’t stay awake! The sound and the rhythm of that train put us to sleep. We would sit in those little bay windows on either side, watching what was going by, and it would just put us to sleep. We only wrote one song on that trip, I’m Not Your Kind of Girl.
Reba just blew me away when I heard her sing that night at the National Finals in December 1974. Her mother brought her up to the Justin® room where we were picking and singing, and she sat down beside me and started singing harmony. She just blew me away because she had perfect tone and total control. I had been wondering what I was going to do about a demo for that song Glenn and I wrote, so I said, “Why don’t you come to Nashville, and we’ll cut a demo and see what we can get done?” Her mother brought her in January, and we cut that song and one other. We pitched that demo all over Nashville for months, and nobody wanted another girl singer. At the time, girls didn’t sell records, and they didn’t sell tickets. If a girl was really going to sell and reach another level, they had to be coupled with a guy. That’s the reason you had so many acts like Johnny and June, George and Tammy, and Conway and Loretta. Reba changed all that.
A guy who was working for me in the publishing company had taken the demo over to Mercury for Glenn Keener to listen to the songs. Glenn wasn’t interested in the songs, but he heard something in Reba’s voice he didn’t hear often that made him want to sign her. We finally got her a contract with Mercury in October. Reba did things for girl singers that nobody had ever done before. She made the difference for the next girl singer coming down the line, including Dolly. Her shows were different; they weren’t just standing there singing in front of a microphone. The other thing she did was television. In my day, the only way you knew what a singer looked like was to buy a ticket and go to a concert. You could see Reba on television, and there was a way for the public to fall in love with her. I am really proud of her for doing that.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I’m living with the love of my life and the only person I have ever wanted to live with. My wife Gail and I have been married 44 years. Our assistant Debbie Bowman has been working for us for 44 years. I don’t get by with anything because I’ve had “two wives” for 44 years.
A typical day depends on whether or not we’ve got a pandemic going on! Prior to the pandemic, I was on the road 200-220 days a year doing different things. I do quite a few charity events. I can’t do as many as I used to, but I have two or three this year. I’m proud to do those. I spend more time right now in this office than I ever have before, and when things are opening up, I won’t be here then! I love to travel, I love to play for people in different walks of life, to try to convince them the cowboy way of life is the best.
Speaking of that, I love your poem “The Fence Me and Shorty Built.”
I spent five summers on my uncle’s farm in northwestern Iowa. I learned more in those five summers than I have in the rest of my life put together. He taught me how to do things RIGHT. He trained me to make sure you do it right the first time, so you don’t have to do it again. And that’s where that poem came from. (See Creative Corner on pg. 56) I remember, we were driving down the road once, and he looked at a neighbor’s field and said to himself, “I’d give anything in the world if he would make those boys plow those rows straight.” I heard him and said, “What difference does it make, Uncle Floyd? The corn’s in the ground; it’s going to grow anyhow.” He turned around to me, and I will never forget that look. He said, “It makes a difference to ME. I’m a farmer. This is what I do, and I want to be the best at what I do.”
Uncle Floyd also knew I loved John Deere tractors, and I loved to read, so he bought me a book on John Deere. There is one line in that book that stuck in my mind, and it does to this day. In 1856, John Deere said, “I will never put my name on a product that is not as good as the best in me.” I’ve never forgotten that.
It’s pretty hard to be that critical of yourself. When you’re writing a storyline song or poem, and you have a line you really like, but it doesn’t quite fit…you can’t get married to it. You can either store it somewhere or throw it away, but if it doesn’t fit, don’t use it! It’s a matter of discipline and being proud of what you do. When you finish a product, like finishing a fence, you turn around and look back down that fence line and say, “That’s a good job. I’m proud of that.”
This fall will mark the 30th Annual Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering and Western Swing Festival in Fort Worth. How did it start?
The ones that kicked all this off were a group of folklorists in Utah. It was Hal Cannon’s idea, and Hal is a great-great-grandson of Brigham Young. They decided the place to do it was in Elko, Nevada because of the big ranches out there, where they could get a lot of cowboys and people who were artistically inclined together, and it was very successful. A group of us here decided we needed to have one in Fort Worth, because we had the perfect location for it at The Stockyards. It began as a function of the Texas A&M Extension Service. There were four of us that started it 31 years ago: Jalynn Burkett, John South, Don Edwards, and me. The first year, we had 11 inches of rain that weekend, but we had enough sponsor dollars to bail us out, so we never lost a dime. Three years later, Jalynn and John both retired, so we converted it to a private venture. It’s been very successful.
There are a hug variety of different activities from chuck wagon camps to dances to poetry and shopping…it looks like a lot of fun!
(FOR SIDEBAR – SCHEDULE INFO AT REDSTEAGALLCOWBOYGATHERING.COM. OCT 22-24, 2021- sending April an image that might work)
We do have a good time. People come from all over the United States. We’ve also had groups from France and several from England come.
What is up next for you?
I’m very proud to have been the honorary chairman for 23 years for the Round-up for Rehab for the West Texas Rehabilitation Center. I’ll spend a lot of time out there this fall, then do their telethon in January.
In November, I’ll save about three weeks to work on filming television shows for next year. I like to have them done before the first of the year. That way, if I need a show, I don’t have to worry about the weather and getting locked in somewhere when I need to be somewhere else.
What’s the most important lesson you think you’ve learned?
Buck Ramsey and I went to college together and were dear friends. In his poem Anthem, he wrote, “…we are what we do, and not the stuff we lay claim to.” That’s an important one.
Another comes from poet Edgar A. Guest who wrote, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day…” I think about that all the time. How does that look? What if a young kid is watching me or listening to me…how are they going to take that? Will it start ‘em down the wrong trail, or is there a way I could stop them?
After I had polio, I was devastated, because all I wanted to do was play football for the Phillips Blackhawks, then go to Texas A&M and play for Coach Bryant. Mother said, “Here’s a verse out of this poem I want you to read.” It was also from Edgar A. Guest.
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin…
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
When I get into a situation that’s uncomfortable, I try to think, “Are you doing the best you can do? Is that the best way to go for you? Are you willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to reach the goal you are trying to achieve by going in that direction, or do you need to abandon that trail and find the one that might be a little rockier or a little bit steeper, but is the right one?”
I’m not preaching to anyone. That’s just the way I live and the things that have influenced me, and most of them are very simple.
A simple philosophy…a powerful life…an influence and example to more than he will ever know. Thank you, Mr. Steagall. It was an honor.