Born to this Land

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Red Steagall will perform 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22 at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

 By M. J. VAN DEVENTER

          In Western circles, Red Steagall is a legend who stands tall in music, movies, television, and literature. A multi-faceted show business personality, Steagall has been performing for 35 years and his venues have ranged from the White House to the Middle East.

He will perform 7 p.m., Feb. 22 at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in an unusual program titled “Born To This Land.” The evening will mix music and poetry with scenic views of the West from the lenses of award-winning photographers David Stoecklein and Bob Moorhouse.

Joining Steagall on stage will be veteran western musicians Don Edwards, Dan Roberts, Jean Prescott, Rich O’Brien, Danny Steagall, Steve Story, Jim Pack and “The Boys in the Bunkhouse,” Red’s band. Red, who serves as director and producer, describes the program as “a musical and visual trip through the rangelands of the West.”

Steagall wrote his first poem in the sixth grade but didn’t begin writing poetry seriously until 1985. Music was his great love as a child and he wrote numerous story line songs, but kept most of them to himself. “No market,” he states.

Growing up in Sanford, Texas, Steagall remembers the days in the early 1950s when cowboys actually rode horseback to do their jobs, unlike today’s cowboys who arrive at ranches across the West in pickups, even helicopters.

Those bygone cowboys inspired Steagall and he remembers, “I always wanted to be a cowboy.” His early mentor and idol in Sanford was Wilbur Moss. “He’d been a cowboy most of his life. He was the best shade-tree veterinarian I’ve ever known ~ still to this day.”

With a deep love for the ranching lifestyle, Steagall hoped to be, not only a cowboy, but a veterinarian. At age 15, he lost the use of his left arm to polio ~ crippling his dream to be a vet. He took up the guitar and the mandolin as physical therapy to recover the strength and dexterity of his arms and hands.

He graduated from high school and West Texas State University with a degree in animal science and agronomy. For five years her worked in ag chemistry selling fertilizer, wrote songs to help make a living and played dances on weekends. His love for poetry idled.

It’s a long road from hawking fertilizer in Texas to making records in Hollywood. But Steagall credits some good friends, especially Tom Thacker and Don Lanier, who were already in Los Angeles. They invited him to come to Hollywood “not to sell fertilizer,” Red laughed in a Feb. 12 phone interview from his home base in Fort Worth.

Another friend, Eddie Reeves, got him a job at United Artists Music Company the winter of 1965 and Steagall wrote Here We Go Again and got it recorded by Ray Charles. “Such good friends,” Steagall recalls. Doors began opening. Steagall and other folks had recorded 60 of his songs by 1969. Those were lucky breaks that changed Red Steagall’s life.

About his good fortune, at that time early in his career, Steagal says, “Every time something happens that moves you forward, it changes your life. It expands your horizons. You make new friends. Through hard knocks and disappointments, you gain an education. Then you continue to educate yourself, so when the next opportunity comes along, you have the ability to recognize it. Being at the right place at the right time means you can recognize the opportunity and be qualified for that experience.”

By 1975, Steagall was becoming well known on the western music circuit. He was attending the National Finals Rodeo in December of that year and heard Reba McEntire sing the National Anthem at the State Fairgrounds Arena in Oklahoma City. “I got cold chills when I heard her sing and I had no idea who she was.”

Steagall was on his way to John Justin’s hospitality suite after the rodeo when Reba’s mom asked Steagall if Reba could sing with him.

“Reba just blew me away. I’d never heard a voice like that,” Steagall remembers. “I had moved to Nashville by then and I asked Reba and her mom to come to Nashville in January 1976 to sing with me. We cut a demo with two songs from my publishing company. In those days, girls didn’t sell tickets or records. It was pretty hard to get a new girl a record deal. Joe Light was peddling songs for my record company. He took those two songs to Mercury Records. Glen Keener said, ‘I don’t like the songs, but I would love to record that girl.’ ”

Reba and Steagall have been close friends since then. When Reba was inducted into the Cowboy Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers in 1995, Steagall was by her side to present the honor. “We’re very good friends,” he said.

By 1985, Steagall was finally writing poetry, blending his thoughtful words with his musical performances. In 1991, he was named the official Cowboy Poet of Texas; in 2006, he was honored as the Poet Laureate of Texas, the first and only cowboy poet to be so honored. “That honor was important to me because I got to represent all poets, especially those who write about the cowboy lifestyle like I do,” Steagall says. “I guess I’m still the Poet Laureate. They haven’t named another one.”

Steagall has starred in and produced movies, been on television numerous times, sang at the White House during President Ronald Reagan’s term, and performed for the United States Information Agency in the Far East, South America and the Middle East.

For the past 21 years, his Cowboy Corner radio show has been entertaining listeners in 165 markets in 34 states. His television show, In the Bunkhouse with Red, is now in its fourth year. Both shows frequently feature appearances by Chuck Schroeder, National Cowboy Museum President, and other museum officials as guests.

Schroeder said, “For a fellow not on our payroll, Red Steagall is one of the most recognizable faces associated with the Museum. It’s no wonder. He’s been a headline performer for our annual Chuck Wagon Gathering for more than 20 years, has won eight prestigious Wrangler awards for his genuine Western music, was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners in 2003 and has served annually as a presenter at Western Heritage Awards, giving honor to others who have made notable accomplishments in the Western field.”

This year marks Steagall’s 23rd year to perform at the museum and he says, “Those Wranglers mean the world to me. The museum is the finest institution of its kind anywhere in the world. I’m so proud of the job all those folks do.”

Schroder added, “Beyond Red’s very public appearances, he also has worked behind the scenes many times helping the museum acquire works of art, secure important donations, find the right entertainers, and simply get things done to further our mission. We are always proud and honored to call him our friend.”

While Red Steagall has rubbed shoulders often with the best of western personalities, he says, “I guess today, Reba and George Strait are two people I admire most in the world of country music performers. They have done more than almost anyone else to keep the spirit of the art form alive.”

He calls his late mother and his brothers and sisters his real heroes. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys have long been his musical heroes.

“Tex Ritter helped me a lot and Jim Reeves was really my idol. I was lucky enough to meet him and spend time with him while I was writing those old bad songs. He would tell me, ‘They’re not quite right. Keep writing.’ He’s responsible for me trying to do better.”

He calls his wife Gail “my best friend for almost 50 years. This year, we will have been married 36 of those 50 years. She is my soul mate, my confidante and my best critic.” Gail is always at his side, cheering him on for each new project in this adventurous life he’s led sharing the cowboy story, through words and music, movies, books and television.

What’s next on Red Steagall’s western horizon?

“I’ve got some other television projects, in a little different format,” he said.

Some veteran cowboys just ride off into the sunset when they are 74 years old. Not Red Steagall, a cowboy icon and hero to many. He’s riding into the future with new songs, new poetry and always, fresh ways of sharing the western story.

Tickets for “Born To This Land” are available by contacting the National Cowboy Museum at (405) 478-2250, ext. 219. The evening includes a buffet dinner prior to the show.

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