Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Russell “Red” Steagall is a poet, actor, musician, and stage performer. In 2006 he was named the Texas Poet Laureate, the first cowboy poet to receive this honor. He lives near Fort Worth.
April is National Poetry Month, and for each issue in April Lone Star Literary Life will feature a Texas poet. Our interviewees are a diverse bunch, ranging as wide as the state itself. Next week, we’ll be talking with Karla K. Morton of Fort Worth. When Morton was named Texas Poet Laureate in 2010, it had been fourteen years since the state had had a female poet laureate.
Before the month is out, we’ll be talking with a new poet on the Texas literary scene, Chen Chen, a graduate student in creative writing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He has been featured on PBS News Hour and at Out.com.
We’ll also talk with poet and professor William Wenthe, who also lives in Lubbock, where he has taught at Texas Tech since 1992. Wenthe’s first book of poetry was published twenty-two years ago; his most recent was published in 2016 by LSU Press.
Today we’re honored to feature Red Steagall, cowboy poet, radio and TV host, entertainer, actor, and 2006 Texas Poet Laureate.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Red, thank you for being interviewed by Lone Star Lit for our special Poetry Month feature. But long before you were the Texas poet laureate, a nationally syndicated radio host on more than 170 stations in 43 states, a television personality, a record executive, a recording artist, and a film producer, you were growing up in small-town Texas in the middle of the twentieth century. What was that like?
RED STEAGALL: I actually grew up in Sanford, Texas. My folks lived in the little town of Forestburg. I was born in Gainesville and when I was three, Daddy moved to the oil fields in the Panhandle. There weren’t any jobs in Montague County. I spent my childhood in the Canadian River bottoms trapping coyotes and bobcats and hunting arrowheads. I still love the outdoors so I spend as much time as I can now on the large ranches working cattle and sleeping in a tent. I didn’t know that we really didn’t have anything. I just knew that I had an idyllic childhood. The only real big bump in the road was when I contracted polio my senior year in high school. That ended my football career and I started to learn to play a stringed instrument. I didn’t know it then, but I know now that that moment in time set the course for my future.
You attended what is now West Texas A&M in Canyon and received a degree in agronomy, and then headed out to Hollywood to write songs. Can you tell us a little bit about that part of your life?
I have a degree in animal science and agronomy from West Texas A&M University and after graduation I spent five years in the world of agricultural chemistry. In 1965 some friends of mine were “hitting it big” in Hollywood. They called and said they needed some help. So I headed to California, where I sold industrial chemicals for a few months, then Don Lanier and I wrote a hit song for Ray Charles called “Here We Go Again” and Jimmy Bowen and I started a publishing company. I had a fabulous life in Hollywood even though I missed Texas every day. I grew up in the industry with some of the greatest entertainers in the world, and the ones who are still alive are my very best friends. I started recording in 1968 and have toured the world as an entertainer since then. I still do approximately twenty performance dates per year. The rest of my time is spent producing “Cowboy Corner,” my radio show, and “Somewhere West of Wall Street,” my weekly television show.
What was your first “big break,” and how did it happen?
I suppose that my first big break as a songwriter was “Here We Go Again.” I have had close to two hundred of my songs recorded by myself or other people. So it’s been a great life as a songwriter. I got my first record contract with Dot Records and my first chart record was “Alabama Woman.” I then went to Capitol Records and then back to Dot Records and then MCA Records and Elektra Records. I had twenty-six records in a row in the national charts.
I find it interesting that you say you resisted writing poetry for a long time because it wasn’t commercial, and your livelihood depended upon commercial writing. How did you come to writing poetry, then?
By 1985 the world of country music had changed drastically, and as we like to say, “sad songs and waltzes quit selling that year.” I took a trip to Elko, Nevada in January of 1985 to the first annual cowboy poetry gathering and discovered that this was really where my heart was. I love to play western swing music and then I realized that the people who dance to my western swing music are the same people who like cowboy music and cowboy poetry.
At that moment I changed my professional direction and started writing poetry. I had never allowed myself to write poetry before even [though] a lot of my songs were storyline songs. I felt that I needed to use all of my creative energies to write songs that I could get someone else to record or that would keep my recording career alive. For the next five years I wrote nothing but poetry. It was as though those poems had been bottled up in the back of my mind all of my life. I found it to be the greatest creative discipline that I had ever experienced.
Can you tell us about your first book of poetry? How did it come about?
My first book of poetry was published by TCU Press. I put the manuscript together and took the idea to TCU, Judy Alter accepted the idea, and Ride for the Brand was released in 1993. Since then I have published four other books.
In 2006 you were named poet laureate of Texas. For our readers who don’t know, what are the official duties of the Texas Poet Laureate?
One of the great treasures of my life happened in 2006 when I was named poet laureate of Texas. The poet laureate has no official duties. In 1991 I was selected as the “Official Cowboy Poet of Texas” by the state legislature. I am tremendously proud of both honors. Poetry has become the major creative force in my world. I still write a few songs from time to time, but the poetry has carried me to another level of creative satisfaction.
What are the differences in your creative processes for writing songs and writing poems?
I write only on inspiration and most times when I find an idea and paint a picture in my mind, the subject matter normally dictates whether it wants to be a song or a poem. A lot of poems can make good songs, but few songs can make good poems.
How long have you been involved in cowboy poetry events? Why, do you suppose, these events are so popular?
I went to the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, and attended for twenty-three out of twenty-five years. That event changed life for a whole group of folks, me included. It gave to the world an appreciation and understanding for an art form that is uniquely American. It preserves the image, the heritage, traditions, and set of values of the American cowboy. I am so proud that a group of folklorists in Utah decided to find a group of cowboys who still write stories about their lifestyle and the way they live it. It’s been an unbelievable experience!! Several cowboy poetry gatherings were started after that first year in Elko, and several of them are still in existence. One that’s very important to me is the annual event in Alpine called the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
You have a radio show and now a new TV show, and the 27th Annual Red Steagall Gathering is already gearing up for this fall. Can you tell us some about these initiatives?
Twenty-three years ago, some friends and I were able to syndicate a radio show called “Cowboy Corner” in 164 markets in 34 states. We are still on the air with approximately 155 markets. Nine years ago, I started a television show on RFD-TV called “In the Bunkhouse with Red Steagall,” It was a cowboy variety show. We were on the air for four years. It seemed that my audience wanted to hear more of my interviews than anything else except the song of inspiration. Five years ago, I changed the format to a mini-documentary about people, places, and events that have changed the world and continue to influence our beloved western way of life. That show is called “Red Steagall Is Somewhere West of Wall Street.” RFD-TV is available in 54,000,000 homes. Our show airs on Monday nights at 9:30 pm EST.
Twenty-eight years ago, a group of friends gathered in the Cowtown Coliseum to discuss the possibility of a cowboy poetry gathering in the historic Stockyards of Fort Worth. We threw our hats into the wind and set out on a journey that has been really rewarding. We call it “The Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering and Western Swing Festival.”
Visitors come from all over the world to experience a few days of the real West. Our gathering is different from others; whereas we have cowboy poetry and music presentations, we also have a chuck wagon camp where you can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of a chuck wagon camp and a large trade show where you can buy anything your heart desires or your mind can imagine as long as it’s western. In the old Cowtown Coliseum we have a ranch rodeo, a cow dog trial, and a team roping. At night, we have a western swing dance with some of the greatest swing musicians in the state of Texas.
The main thing that we are all proud is our youth programs. We have a youth poetry contest, a youth fiddling contest, and youth cooking contest. We award college scholarships to the winners of the poetry and fiddle competitions. All of us are so proud that a large number of our awardees have used these scholarships to reach a level of education that might not have been possible otherwise.
April, as most of our readers know, is National Poetry Month. What role does poetry play in your life today?
Poetry is a rhythmic art form that stirs the soul when read or listened to. I am so proud that I took the time to find the world of poetry. I am proud that the Lord allows me to express to the world how I see the heritage, traditions, and values of the cowboy way of life and help to preserve the image of our agricultural community for future generations.
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The Fence That Me and Shorty Built
Reprinted by permission of the author
We'd picked up all the fencing tools
And staples off the road.
An extra roll of “bob” wire
Was the last thing left to load.
I drew a sleeve across my face
To wipe away the dirt.
The young man who was helping me
Was tuckin' in his shirt.
I turned around to him and said,
"This fence is finally done,
With five new strands of bob wire
Shinin' proudly in the sun.
The wire is runnin' straight and tight
With every post in line.
The kinda job you're proud of,
One that stands the test of time."
The kid was not impressed at all,
He stared off into space.
Reminded me of years ago,
Another time and place.
I called myself a cowboy,
I was full of buck and bawl.
I didn't think my hands would fit
Post augers and a maul.
They sent me out with Shorty
And the ranch fence building crew.
Well, I was quite insulted
And before the day was through,
I let him know that I’m a cowboy.
“This ain’t what I do.
I ain’t no dadgummed nester,
I hired out to buckaroo.”
He said, “We'll talk about that son,
When we get in tonight.
Right now you pick them augers up.
It’s either that or fight.”
Boy, I was diggin’ post holes
Faster than a Georgia mole.
But if a rock got in my way
I simply moved the hole.
So when the cowboys set the posts,
The line went in and out.
Old Shorty's face got fiery red
And I can hear him shout,
“Nobody but a fool would build
A fence that isn’t straight.
I got no use for someone who ain’t
Pullin’ his own weight.”
I thought for sure he’d hit me;
Glad he didn’t have a gun.
I looked around to find a place
Where I could duck and run.
But Shorty walked up to me
Just as calm as he could be.
Said, “Son, I need to talk to you,
Let’s find ourselves a tree.”
He rolled a Bull Durham cigarette
As we sat on the ground.
He took himself a puff or two
Then slowly looked around.
“Son, I ain’t much on schoolin’,
Didn't get too far with that.
But there’s a lot of learnin’
Hidden underneath this hat.
I got it all the hard way,
Every bump and bruise and fall.
Now some of it was easy,
But then most weren’t fun a’tall.
But one thing that I always got
From every job I’ve done,
Is do the best I can each day
And try to make it fun.
I know that bustin’ through them rocks
Ain’t what you like to do.
By gettin’ mad you’ve made it tough
On me and all the crew.
Now you hired on to cowboy
And you think you’ve got the stuff.
You told him you’re a good hand
And the boss has called your bluff.
So how’s that gonna make you look
When he comes ridin’ through,
And he asks me who dug these holes
And I say it was you.
Now we could let it go like this
And take the easy route.
But doin’ things the easy way
Ain’t what it’s all about.
The boss expects a job well done,
From every man he’s hired.
He’ll let you slide by once or twice,
Then one day you’ll get fired.
If you’re not proud of what you do,
You won’t amount to much.
You'll bounce around from job to job
Just slightly out of touch.
Come mornin’ let's re-dig those holes
And get that fence in line.
And you and I will save two jobs,
Those bein’ yours and mine.
And someday you'll come ridin’ through
And look across this land,
And see a fence that’s laid out straight
And know you had a hand
In something that’s withstood the years.
Then proud and free from guilt,
You’ll smile and say, “Boys that’s the fence
That me and Shorty built.’”
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