Red Steagall is regarded just as much for his songwriting as for his genuine cowboy ways. In fact, he holds a post unlike any other, recognized as the Official Cowboy Poet of Texas since 1991.
In 2007, Steagall was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame, an elite group of the troubadours whose voices keep Texas' unique heritage alive. This year, Steagall returns to the Hall of Fame as master of ceremonies for the 2013 Awards Show on March 3. Ahead of the 8th annual event, CultureMap caught up with the Cowboy Poet to discuss his music roots and the magic of the Texas songwriter.
CultureMap: How do you define Texas music?
Red Steagall: Texas music to me is a unique art form all its own because it comes from several different sources. And the Texan who is writing any particular piece of music has a background that influences the emotion of both lyrics and music.
CM: Who epitomizes the Texas songwriter to you?
RS: Willie Nelson will always be recognized as one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. His use of the English language, married to a musical presentation, is incomparable. I also think that Larry Gatlin portrays the roots of his upbringing and the true feeling of his heart and soul in his compositions. I could name a long list of people from Texas who have made a dramatic contribution to America's music.
"Jim [Reeves] always told me, 'Never be happy with a line unless it's absolutely the best you can do. Never be afraid to throw one away.'"
CM: What is it about Texas that gives it such rich music and songwriting history?
RS: Our diverse backgrounds influence our songwriters and their music just like they influence everything else that we do. In my estimation, our music comes from these sources:
1) Our English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestors brought us the old world folk tunes that influenced not only our cowboy songs, but other aspects of our folk music. 2) Our German settlers in the infancy of our Republic brought us our old world ballroom dances. 3) Our Latino neighbors to the south continue to bring us a lively, beautiful and exciting form of music as well as influence our language, our clothing and the food we eat. 4) The gospel sounds of the Negro south have greatly influenced the music that all of us write.
When you combine all of these musical forces and boil it down into one small pot, you have Texas music and we're proud of it.
CM: Do you have a favorite moment, or era, from Texas music?
RS: There are two eras in Texas music that influenced my entire career. First of all, when western swing was king it was a grand time. I still get a big thrill watching folks circle the dance floor. When I was very young, my dad sang cowboy songs to me. The images that those songs created in my mind are still there.
"I get homesick very easily and the line that keeps going through my head is from Johnny Gimble's great song: 'I wish I was sittin' right under the X in Texas.'"'"
CM: Who influenced you as a budding performer? Who influences you now?
RS: I was influenced very early by the western swing sounds of Bob Wills and Hank Thompson. As I started to write and think about a career in the music industry, the two people who helped me the most were Tex Ritter and Jim Reeves. Tex was my sounding board. He gave me ideas about what I needed to do to educate myself in order to recognize and seize the opportunities that would move my story forward.
Jim Reeves would always listen to my songs. He would send me a note simple stating "Red, these aren't quite right, but keep writing." He made me more critical of what I was trying to accomplish. Jim always told me, "Never be happy with a line unless it's absolutely the best you can do. Never be afraid to throw one away." Even today I remember and utilize the lessons that I learned from these two grand gentlemen.
CM: What’s your favorite line from Texas music? Or about Texas music?
RS: As I travel all over the world, I get homesick very easily and the line that keeps going through my head is from Johnny Gimble's great song: "I wish I was sittin' right under the X in Texas.”