The Cowboy in Country Music: Red Steagall

Red Steagall
Red Steagall

On the night in February 2005 when the Grammys were telecast, Red Steagall was sitting in front of his TV at home on his Texas ranch watching the broadcast. Nora Jones had recorded “Here We Go Again” with Ray Charles on that legend’s last album, and she sang it on that show amidst the glitter and glitterati in Los Angeles. There were two Red Steagalls watching and listening at home: the Red Steagall who used to be and the Red Steagall who is now.

“Here We Go Again” was written by Red and Don Lanier back in 1965 and recorded originally by Ray Charles, which meant a big songwriting check for $19,000 for a guy in L.A. who was struggling to get by. The struggle as a songwriter was not over with that check or that song.

Each song a professional songwriter writes must have the potential to be commercial, must interest an artist who’ll want to record it and must appeal to radio program directors in order to reach an audience who will, hopefully, like the song enough to want to hear it and buy it.

It’s not what they’ve written in the past, it’s what they’ve written today and will write tomorrow that drives professional songwriters. Red Steagall lived that life for a number of years, trying to come up with catchy tunes and lyrics that would connect to a fickle public. Chasing hits, day after day after day. And then it all changed with Elko. Russell “Red” Steagall was born in Gainesville, Texas, just across the line from Oklahoma, almost due north from Fort Worth.

He grew up in Sanford, in the Texas panhandle, north of Amarillo. He took guitar lessons when he was nine but it wasn’t until he was 15, after he’d had a bout with polio, that he seriously began to play the guitar. That first guitar was a Guild. Red paid half the cost with money earned from a paper route and his Mom paid the other half. Red’s still got that Guild guitar.  



 In college, at West Texas A&M where Red studied animal science and agronomy, he began performing. After college, he joined the Shamrock Oil and Gas Company in advertising, where his job was “to make sure their bathrooms were clean and the people who were selling gas knew what they were doing.”

Red had a big territory—Texas, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico—so his performing career gained a wider arc as he played local clubs and coffeehouses on his travels. Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen and Donnie Lanier had a group called the Rhythm Orchids.

The group had a two sided hit in 1957 with “Party Doll” on one side and “I’m Stickin’ with You” on the other. Donnie Lanier and Red had gone to school together before Donnie moved to Dumas, Texas, where Bowen lived. After Buddy Knox was drafted, Lanier and Bowen called Steagall to join them in Los Angeles in 1965.

From 1966 until 1968, Lanier and Red Steagall lived together, which is how they came to write “Here We Go Again” in 1966. Red took the song to both Ray Price and Buck Owens, but neither would record it unless they could have the publishing. “And Don Lanier and I were not going to give up the publishing,” said Red.

Talking with Buck Owens in Buck’s Bakersfield office, Red told him, “I think I’ll pitch it to Ray Charles.” Red walked across the street from Buck’s office and called the office of Ray Charles in Los Angeles and made an appointment for 10:00 A.M. the next morning with Mike Akavoff. Akavoff listened and told Red, “If you give us a one- year exclusive on this song [meaning it would not be played for any other artists to record] then we’ll guarantee you the ‘A’ side of a single.”

That was in August of 1966. In May 1967, Ray Charles released it as a single on ABC, and it reached number 15 on the pop charts and number five on the R&B charts. That opened the floodgates, as other artists, including Glen Campbell, Nancy Sinatra and George Strait, all eventually recorded “Here We Go Again.” 



Red Steagall worked for United Artists Publishing before he and Jimmy Bowen started Amos Publishing. Warner Brothers executive Dick Glaser, a friend of Red’s, invited him to record for Warner and Red did one single for that label and then was dropped. His next recordings came for Dot Records, when Joe Allison invited him to join the label. Allison and Steagall were both based in L.A. at the time, although the recordings were made in Nashville.

ABC bought Dot Records and Jim Foglesong moved from New York to Nashville to head up that label. Red recorded only one record for Dot, then left and went to Capitol, where Joe Allison had taken over as head of that label in Nashville. Steagall stayed with Capitol for five years, until he recorded his album Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music. Frank Jones had taken over as head of Capitol in Nashville by this time and refused to release the album because it had the name of a product in the title.

Steagall took the tapes across the street to ABC/Dot, where Jim Foglesong agreed to release the album. He gave Steagall a check for the production costs of the album and Red walked back over to Frank Jones’ office, handed him the check and got his release from Capitol. And that’s why Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music was released on ABC/Dot. That occurred in 1975, when Red was living in Nashville.

In 1977 he moved back to Texas but remained as an artist on ABC/Dot until 1980, when MCA bought out ABC/Dot. MCA was headed by Red’s old friend, Jimmy Bowen, who emerged on top in that merger. Later, Bowen headed up Elektra, where he signed Red to record an album for that label. Then it was back to MCA where he recorded again before joining Warner Western in 1990 for an album.

Since that time, Red has left the major labels and worked with independents. Red Steagall was successful in country music but not in the superstar range. He wrote over 200 songs recorded either by himself or others, had 23 singles on the Billboard country chart and released 20 albums.

He’s had songs in movies, performed an average of 200 dates a year, toured Germany, Spain, Australia, the Middle East, South America and the Far East, was a regular on the NBC series Music Country USA and even sang at the White House for President Reagan in 1983. Then, in January 1985, the first Elko was held in Nevada. Red heard about it and went up to check it out, “seeing what it was all about.” Not only did he find out what Elko is “all about,” he also discovered what Red Steagall is “all about.” 



 Red Steagall had been performing both “country” and “western” music for a number of years, but the western was in western swing. When he wrote a song he always looked at it as a professional songwriter: Is this commercial? Will someone find this appealing enough to record it? Could this be a hit? After Elko, Red no longer thought that way. From then on, Red Steagall wrote songs that satisfied his inner muse. He decided to write the songs he felt like writing—commercial or not—and to record western music as an extension of his cowboy lifestyle.

Granted, it might be stretching it a bit to call Red’s home a working ranch when, he says, “You can’t make a living with ten head of horses, two longhorns and two Buffalo cows.” But at least he has a ranch. Since 1985 in Elko, Red Steagall has found a home on the range. He had stayed in country music “until I couldn’t compete anymore,” he admits. “I just couldn’t sing those songs.”

The western songs he began singing gave him a new lease on life, and it was richly rewarding in both a material and spiritual sense. In 1991 he hosted the first Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering in the Stockyards National Historic District of Fort Worth, Texas; that gathering has been a major event on the cowboy calendar ever since.

The Gathering came about when two county agents approached him with the idea; it is now in its 15th year. In 1994, Steagall launched his syndicated radio show, Cowboy Corner, which has featured guest artists such as Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels, Don Edwards, Waddie Mitchell, Baxter Black and the late Buck Ramsey.

The idea for the radio show came about when he spoke to a Rotary Club luncheon and a friend in the advertising business, Max Churchill, asked afterward if Red would do a three- minute radio spot, sponsored by Churchill. Red replied that he didn’t have any three- minute poems.

Stuart Balcom was then approached about helping put together a 30-minute radio show which would be syndicated. Mike Oatman heard it and said, “Make it an hour and I’ll put it on my stations.” So Red put together a one- hour show and contacted Ron Huntsman in Nashville, who marketed it to 154 radio stations. The radio show is now in its 12th year. Elko rejuvenated an interest in cowboy poetry for Red. “From 1889 to 1937, there was cowboy poetry published,” notes Steagall. “But then from 1937 until 1985 there was only a handful published. 



 A lot of people were still writing it, but grandchildren would find it in a shoebox when grandpa passed away.” Red has made cowboy poetry an integral part of his concerts and recordings. He has published four books: Ride for the Brand in 1993, The Fence That Me and Shorty Built in 2001, Born to This Land in 2003 (which was done with photographer Skeeter Hagler) and Cowboy Corner Conversations, a collection of interviews from his Cowboy Corner radio show that was published in 2004. Along the way, Steagall collected a slew of honors and awards.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City honored him with its Western Heritage Award for best album of the year in western music in 1993 (for Born to This Land), 1995 (for Faith and Values: Red Steagall and the Boys in the Bunkhouse), 1997 (for Dear Mama, I’m a Cowboy) and 1999 (for Love of the West). In 2002 his song “Wagon Tracks” won for best western song of the year.

Red was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame in 1999, the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 2003 and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth in 2004.

In 2005 he was named “Poet Laureate of Texas.” “Most academics won’t recognize poetry that rhymes,” said Red. “So I was really honored to get this award.” Red currently does about 60 concerts a year. About ten of them are with a 10-piece western swing band and the rest are with “either two or three guys or by [him] self.” He notes that he “related to country music twenty-five to thirty years ago. Back then there were millions of fans and no way to buy the product.

Now that’s the situation with western music, but with the Internet, that’s changing. Western music has a niche audience that grows and the Internet has been great for it.” “My audience is anywhere people understand what I’m talking about,” said Red. “I write from experience, which is why I only write about West Texas cowboys. I don’t write about Montana cowboys. That makes a big difference.”

Red used to play 35–40 rodeos a year, but he doesn’t any more. “That’s gone to young people,” said Red. “The rodeo promoters couldn’t afford talent with the big purses they now give, so they’ve gone to contract acts and novelty acts.” Young people like the music of the young, so that means “the rock sound” in rodeo arenas, and since promoters want to attract a young audience they feel they need to play rock.

“There’s some good in that because it introduces people to rodeo,” said Red. “Some don’t like it because they want to stick with the old ways, but this is progress and that’s part of life.” When a man loves what he’s doing, he doesn’t work a day in his life. In that light, Red Steagall is an incredibly busy man who doesn’t know what work is. And he intends to keep it that way. “In the future I’d like to keep doing what I’m doing,” said Red. Looking back on his life, he says, “I can’t think of one single thing I would change.” 

SOURCE: Steagall, Red. Phone interview with the author, May 23, 2005. 



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