Red Steagall: Living the 'Western' of his music

First published in Country Music People, July 1981

One of the backbone entertainers of the modern country scene, RED STEAGALL combines music with life on the ranch. ALAN CACKETT comes up with the story on this regular country chart name.

With the great interest shown in Britain to cowboys, western attire and the great American West, it is quite amazing that a true American rodeo star like Red Steagall is virtually unknown over here. The rodeos that keep Red away from home have been the mainstay throughout much of his recordings and performing career.

The red-headed, bearded singer with a slightly boyish grin, has come to be identified with the cowboys and dusty arenas. As one of the top rodeo entertainment acts on the American circuit, the tall singer is one of the sport’s most ardent promoters. Feeling a need to keep the rodeo’s western theme in his shows, he always makes his grand entrance into the arena on a fine-looking horse.

A quick glance through Red’s recordings, which span the last ten years shows that cowboy and western themes run deep in his music. Songs like About Horses And Wars, Hard Hot Days And Honky Tonk Nights, Rodeo Blues and For All Our Cowboy Friends, have obvious western connections, but Red is not totally absorbed in cowboy music, but covers a wide spectrum which encompasses honky tonk ballads, western swing and even pop standards.

A genuine singing cowboy, who still rides the range, roping cattle for relaxation on his ranch west of Fort Worth, Texas. Russell ‘Red’ Steagall was born in Gainsville, Texas. Struck down with polio when in his mid-teens, Red was left without use of his left hand and arm. The months of therapy were filled with mandolin and guitar lessons, which kindled his love for music.

Entering West Texas State University to study animal husbandry, Red spent any spare time playing coffee-houses and dances in Texas. After college he went to work for an oil company as a soil chemicals analyst, but still continued with his music playing at weekend dances. Eventually he left his job and formed a group that became very popular around the ski resort clubs in the Rocky Mountains. He then moved to California, where he developed his songwriting talents. 

In 1966, Here We Go Again, a song he co-wrote with Don Lanier, was recorded by Ray Charles. Soon artists like Charley Pride, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark and Bobby Goldsboro all recorded Steagall songs, and he went to work for United Artists in Nashville as a song peddler. This led to Ray Sanders recording Red’s Beer Drinkin’ Music and making the charts in 1969, then two years later Del Reeves took A Dozen Pairs Of Boots into the charts. Red signed a recording contract with Dot records in 1970, but it was before the label made much impression in country, so a year later he signed with Capitol and made the country charts with the Joe Bob Barnhill–penned Party Dolls And Wine in January 1972.

The Texas-based-singer-composer’s first album, titled after that first single success, showed him to be completely at home with material which favoured the modern-traditional lyrics of country music. Apart from the hit song, all other songs were composed by Red.

There are the remorse of faded love, the bar-room epics, and when the occasion arises (like with Texas Silver Zephyr) he also proves himself a mighty fine storyteller.

Having produced such a fine country album, I was disappointed when Red came out with singles like Somewhere My Love and True Love. Sophisticated supper-club fare like that just wasn’t his style, yet both scored well on the country charts, so maybe he was right after all. His second album, SOMEWHERE MY LOVE, turned out to be an odd mixture of soft ballads, western swing and even a slice of solid country. Compared with his excellent debut, it was disappointing. An album without a continuing link, and that’s the real reason for its failure. 

Red’s next few singles—Mr. Fiddle Man (a great piece of western swing), This Just Ain’t My Day and I Gave Up A Good Morning—all made the lower reaches of the charts, but certainly didn’t help to make the tall, bushy-headed country singer a major star. He was obviously experimenting a little to find out what the country record buyers really wanted from him. 

The next album, IF YOU’VE GOT THE TIME, I’VE GOT THE SONG, still showed him indecisive, but there were some good musical moments, with the odd touch of swing and a couple of hard-country, honky tonk songs. It was a Jim Weatherly ballad, Finer Things Of Life, which in the summer of 1974 restored him into the higher reaches of the charts; then with a song he co-wrote with Glenn Sutton, he finally made the top twenty for the first time. Someone Cares For You was a great romantic ballad with a good country arrangement. His fourth album, FINER THINGS IN LIFE, turned out to be a better proposition than its two predecessors, but still failed to match the excellence of PARTY DOLLS AND WINE. Included was his last single for Capitol, She Worshipped Me, a Glen Sutton song that would have scored higher on the charts but for the fact that Steagall had left the label and signed with Dot Records.

It turned out to be a wise move, as his very first single for his new label, Lone Star Beer And Bob Wills’ Music, was to be Red Steagall’s biggest country hit. It was one of those records that was released just at the right time.

Texas music had made its presence felt in a big way since Waylon and Willie had began to buck the Nashville system, and in the early months of 1976, Red Steagall found himself fitting into the outlaw scene with a song that took country music back to its roots. It wasn’t really where he belonged, but he was undoubtedly a part of the Texas country music movement, though his music was much more western influenced than that of the ‘outlaws.’

His next album for Dot Records, TEXAS RED, turned out to be just the best thing he has ever recorded. It contained conceptual songs that told stories with strong lyrics, fearless musicianship and production that excelled just about every other album of that time. Produced by Glenn Sutton, this was certainly Texas music: Red’s light baritone voice gliding across the songs with consummate ease, twin fiddles and steel blended together ensure that everything swings like crazy. The song titles—Miles And Miles Of Texas, San Antonio Champagne, Lone Star Love and Take Me Back To Texas—gave an idea of just where Red’s heart lay, though he made one very big mistake by including the old Tony Bennett standard (I Left My Heart) In San Francisco, but the other swingin’ country songs more than made up for that one default.

Surprisingly Red released that old pop song on a single, and even made the country charts. Previously he had charted with a swinging version of Truck Drivin’ Man, a cover of Sonny Throckmorton’s Rosie (Do You Wanna Talk It Over) and the Glenn Sutton–written Her L-O-V-E’s Gone. For his next album Red turned away from western swing to rodeo music on FOR ALL OUR COWBOY FRIENDS.

With his outfit, the Coleman Country Cowboys, Red attempted to produce another concept album, this time dedicated to the rodeos. The arrangements for the most part were straight country with a nice rendition of Little Joe The Wrangler and a swinging version of My Adobe Hacienda, By this time Dot Records were being absorbed into ABC, and Red Steagall was to become one of the casualties, but not before he recorded another excellent album—HANG ON FEELIN’—which was yet another change of style, due in no small part to a new producer, Jimmy Bowen.

The western swing feel was maintained in the excellent, self-penned tribute to Bob Wills—Bob’s Got A Swing Band In Heaven and All She Knew To Talk About Was Texas—but mainly it was good, solid country music.

Dallas Frazier and Whitey Shafer collaborated on the successful single The Devil Ain’t A Lonely Woman’s Friend, there’s a nice reading of Jim Glaser’s Sittin’ In An All Night Cafe, and the self-penned About Horses and Wars shows yet again what a fine writer Red Steagall is.

Soon after the release of that album Red followed producer Jimmy Bowen to the growing roster of Elektra Records. During the past two years he has released some excellent singles, beginning with a pleasant reading of Danny O’Keefe’s Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues, and continuing with the self-penned 3-Chord Country Song, Dim The Lights And Pour The Wine and the best so far, Hard Hot Days And Honky Tonk Nights.

Though they have all scored on the country charts, none have been major hits. Red has continued to delight rodeo crowds, both with his singing and his horse-riding, and in his spare time he breeds quarter-horses on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas.

Party Dolls And Wine – Capitol ST11056
Somewhere My Love – Capitol ST11162
If You've Got The Time, I've Got The Song – Capitol ST11228
Finer Things In Life – Capitol ST11321
Lone Star Beer And Bob Wills Music – Dot DOSD 2055
Texas Red – Dot DOSD 2068
For All Our Cowboy Friends – Dot DOSD 2078
Hand On Feelin' – ABC AB1051 
(All U.S. Releases)