By CRISTIN REECE
Everybody knows we love both kinds of music in Texas — country and western. What most people don’t know is just how many of the earliest pioneers of country and western music hail from Texas.
Palestine’s Rotary Club members got the star-studded history of Texas’ role in the birth of country music this week during its weekly luncheon when author and official Texas State Historian Bill O’Neal came to visit.
“Governor Rick Perry himself appointed me as the official State Historian,” O’Neal told local Rotarians on Wednesday.
O’Neal has written 40 books and more than 300 articles and book reviews on the American West, covering many aspects of Texas’ past, including gunfighters, lawmen, and ghost towns; country music, with emphasis on Texas artists; baseball, such as his study of the Texas League; and children’s books, including one on the first Thanksgiving held in Texas.
A member of the Western Writers of America, he has appeared in television documentaries on Turner Network Television, The History Channel, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Discovery Channel, Turner Broadcasting System and the Arts and Entertainment Channel.
“Texas has produced a parade of gifted musicians in all genres of music,” O’Neal said as he listed famous Texans who made contributions to many types of music, including the Father of Jazz, Jack Teagarden; Mary Martin, who created the character Peter Pan and was Larry Hagman’s mother; Big Band musician Harry James; rock ‘n roll greats Buddy Holly and Janis Joplin; and Mexicana star Selena and pop princess Jessica Simpson.
“Without a doubt, all these Texans contributed greatly to their genres,” he said. “But there’s one area where Texans have dominated and continue to dominate — that’s country and western music.”
O’Neal explained the origins of country music.
“In the 1800s Texas was settled predominantly by rural, Southern farmers,” he said. “I’m talkin’ rural, country — the largest town at the time had a population of maybe 7,000. What these folks did for a good time on occasion was organize a dance.
“The first thing they had to have lined up was a fiddle player — other instrument players could and would join in as they were available, but the fiddle player was a must. And, like the popular country song says, ‘if you’re gunna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band’ — even today Texas holds huge fiddle competitions, like the one Athens holds every year.”
He explained how many popular C&W songs would sample traditional Gospel music, since that type of music was pretty well universally known and publishers of the era helped make sight-reading music easier by introducing what they called ‘shape-note’ hymnals to many churches at the time.
And after apologizing profusely for his singing voice, O’Neal sang a snippet of one of the most known “cowboy ballads” of the day, “Lil Joe the Wrangler,” which is sung to the tune of “Lily of the Valley.”
“Cowboy songs were hugely popular in those days and this one had 100 verses,” he said. “Back then it wasn’t unheard of for people to be able to read shape notes, but not read a lick of actual words.”
He also shared how the cowboys of the day used music to soothe the savage beast as they sang to the herds of cattle they were moving and how that inspired at least one popular movie star to try his hand at making music.
“John Wayne was the first to bring the iconic singing cowboy to the movies when he took on the role of ‘Singing Sandy,’” he shared, before breaking into a pretty good impression of Wayne, “and ya know how tha Duke talked doncha? Well, that’s just about how he sang too.
“It was terrible — it was a great idea, but he just couldn’t pull it off,” he said to the audience’s laughs. “For the second movie, they got someone else to dub the singing but that didn’t work real well either, since the singer didn’t sound anything like John Wayne did.”
O’Neal said C&W artists took the recording world and later the radio and moving picture world by storm in those early days, citing such prolific artists starting with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Ernest Tubb, Dale Evans and Tex Ritter and including popular artists of today like Willie Nelson, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers, George Jones and George Strait.
He concluded his program with a list of song titles that while seemingly made no sense, were the actual titles of songs that were recorded at the time.
“These were real,” he said. “There really were songs like ‘If my nose were full of nickels, I’d blow it all on you,’ ‘You’re the reason our kids are so ugly,’ ‘How can I miss you if you won’t go away,’ ‘Get your tongue outta my mouth ’cause I’m kissing you good-bye,’ and my favorite, though I admit I have no idea what it means, ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.’”
In 2003, O’Neal retired as a history professor at Panola College in Carthage, but is still headquartered there. For more than 20 years, he has conducted the state’s first traveling Texas history class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100 mile itinerary.
In 2000 O’Neal was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. In 2007 he was named best living non-fiction writer by True West Magazine.