Few Texas legends are as loved as Coach Darrell K Royal. And few have loved Texas songwriters as much as "Coach." In addition to leading the University of Texas Longhorns to three National Championships during his 20 seasons, Royal often led the applause at Austin’s live music venues. Off the field, Coach Royal had an undeniable kinship with Texas songwriters.
“We’d all sit around in what we call a red light pickin’ party. Everybody would sit on the floor and pass the guitar around,” Coach’s long-time friend, singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin explains.
“If you were making too much noise, Darrell would turn the red light on and if you didn’t shut up he’d very kindly ask you to leave because he respected the songwriters and thought if somebody had the good grace to sit down and sing for free, the people who were also sitting in that room for free ought to shut up and listen. All of the songwriters had the utmost respect for Darrell.”
At this Sunday’s Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association Hall of Fame Awards Show at ACL Live, the man who loved to watch people pass a guitar almost as much as he loved to watch his Longhorns pass for a touchdown, will be honored during a special "in memoriam" segment of the show.
Larry Gatlin, a Hall of Fame member, will perform in Coach’s honor. Gatlin has a very special appreciation of Coach. “He was one of my dearest friends in the world. He saved my life 30 years ago. He took me to a treatment center. I was heavily addicted to cocaine and vodka and he didn’t send me to treatment — he took me.”
Gatlin met the Texas hero through a mutual friend, songwriter Red Lane. “Red, as casually as you’d say ‘Hey, you wanna go get a cheeseburger?’ said ‘Hey you wanna play golf with Darrell Royal?’" Gatlin responded, "‘Hell yeah I wanna play golf with Darrell Royal! I’m a Texan! Are you kidding me!’ Ten minutes into the relationship, we knew that we were gonna be good friends.”
Gatlin says Coach’s love for country music, which started as a boy in Oklahoma listening to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, only grew during his time in Texas — in large part because of his close friendship with Willie Nelson. “I don’t know how they met, but they used to do weird things together. I mean they played chess for heaven’s sake, and Darrell just loved Willie’s songs.”
Texas songwriter and Hall of Fame member Bruce Robison says Coach's appreciation for a good song helped bring attention to songwriters. “He simply loved the music. When I got into the Hall of Fame, Coach Royal was there and I got him to sign the back of my plaque because he was part of that group that I think legitimized Texas songwriters.”
In addition to hookin' 'em on the football field, Coach Royal knew the value of hookin' 'em with a good lyric. “Coach Darrell Royal had a very unique ear for songs,” Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association Board Member Bill Schneider confirms. “He seemed to focus much more on the lyrics than the melody and his everyday language was filled with lyrics to songs.”
“We are told that Coach Royal had this love, respect and appreciation for the words to songs since he was young, and, as he got older and enjoyed a larger stage, he took every opportunity to focus the spotlight on the songwriters,” Schneider continues. “This was never more evident than the 35 years that he co-hosted the Darrell & Willie and the Ben-Willie-Darrell [golf tournament]. Most all of these participants were songwriters, and most of them were from Texas.”
Each day of golf was capped off with a well-attended concert featuring singer-songwriters that often carried over into a small pickin’ party that went into the wee hours of the morning.
Larry Gatlin says he was humbled to be asked by Coach’s wife Edith to be part of this year’s program by honoring her late husband with music. Gatlin says Edith Royal was a huge part of Coach’s many victories in life.
“Behind this successful man was a woman named Edith Royal — his lifelong partner and wife. And like I said at his funeral, we need to remember Edith’s contribution to his life and to his career. We all need to remember that everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers did backwards in three-inch heels. Edith Royal was Coach’s Ginger Rogers.”
On Sunday, the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association will remember the larger than life man who had an ear for lyrics and helped elevate Texas songwriters. No doubt, Coach will be listening and will turn the red light on for anyone who is not.
Larry Gatlin summed up what Coach meant to Texas songwriters with this: “For all of us to have the stamp of approval of one of the great icons, not just in football or music but in Texas history period — that’s a pretty good deal. If you got to sit down at a pickin’ party with Darrell, that’s pretty tall cotton.”
Tickets are still available for the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame Awards Show on March 3 at ACL Live. Roger Miller, Ronnie Dunn and Sonny Curtis are being inducted. The show will include performances by Larry Gatlin, Sonny Curtis, Ronnie Dunn, Toby Keith and Jack Ingram.
Coach Darrell K Royal was part of the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame Awards from the beginning. The "Darrell K Royal Patron Award" was named after Coach because of his incredible support of musicians and songwriters. At each awards show, it is given to someone who has demonstrated a continued support of Texas music and songwriters. This year, Robin Ratliff Shivers, the founder of HAAM, will posthumously receive the award.