Vernon Dalhart

A seminal figure in the development of commercial country music, Vernon Dalhart was one of the first country performers to gain national recognition, thanks to an ability to make his music palatable to a wider audience. Tackling operatic arias, popular songs and patriotic World War I ditties, he became a well-loved vaudeville entertainer, but it was his 1924 recording of mountain musician Henry Whitter’s The Wreck Of The Old ’97, backed up with The Prisoner’s Song, that provided him with lasting success. Released on Victor, it became a massive hit, reputedly selling more than six million copies, making it the biggest-seller of the pre-electric period. From that moment on, Dalhart recorded more hillbilly material, taking that music to a very large audience. His stiff, rather formal approach to the music, though not to everyone’s taste, brought dozens of hillbilly and folk ballads such as The Letter Edged In Black, The Dream Of The Miner’s Child, The Little Rosewood Casket and Maple On The Hill, to a mass record buying public. He recorded prolifically, with some 5,000 releases in a twelve-year period on virtually every major label. Often he recorded the same songs for different companies, issuing them under different guises, including The Lone Star Ranger, Bob Massey, Frank Evans, Wolfe Ballard, Bill Vernon and Jeff Calhoun. All told he used more than 130 different aliases.

He was born Marion Try Slaughter on April 6, 1883 in Marion County, Texas, the son of a ranch owner. His grandfather had been a Confederate soldier who became a deputy sheriff and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Dalhart’s father was killed in a knife fight when he was still a young boy. He helped his mother on the ranch, herding cows and joining in the campfire entertainment. While a teenager, he and his mother moved to Dallas where he began attending the Dallas Conservatory of Music. Married and with his own family he moved to New York City in 1910 to find work in the music and entertainment business. Initially he worked in a music store while studying light opera and singing at funerals and weddings. In 1912 he obtained a part in Puccini’s Girl Of The Golden West, and later appeared in HMS Pinafore and Madame Butterfly. He made his recording debut for Edison Diamond Discs, with a so-called ‘coon’ song, Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline released in 1915. Following this came a deluge of Dalhart recordings on various labels, the most popular being as a pop singer on Just A Word Of Sympathy, in 1918.

Six years later he was asked to record The Wreck Of The Old ’'97 for Victor, a mountain ballad that had previously been recorded unsuccessfully by Henry Whitter. Dalhart’s smoother, more citified approach to the song captured the public’s attention and became the biggest-seller of the 1920s. Almost as successful was the record’s other side, The Prisoner’s Song. Both songs generated court cases over copyright and ownership, but unperturbed by all of this, Dalhart went on to record for whichever label would pay him. In 1925, he recorded a series of topical event songs for the fledgling Columbia Records. These included Little Marion Parker (a murder ballad), Kinnie Wagner (about an outlaw), The Santa Barbara Earthquake and The John T. Scopes Trial (about the evolution trial in Tennessee), all of which became big-sellers, many selling more than 100,000 copies and helping to establish the Columbia label.

He continued to record throughout the 1930s under so many different names it became a nightmare trying to figure out whether the records were by him or not. He was never really a true hillbilly performer, but possessed the talent to adapt hillbilly music to suit the taste of non-hillbilly music lovers. In many respects, he was the forerunner of a pop-country crossover artist. As authentic hillbilly artists started to make records, Dalhart’s popularity plummeted. By the early 1940s he was finding it more difficult to find work as both a recording artist and a live performer. He found work as a night clerk at the Barnum Hotel in Bridgeport, Connecticut, earning extra money as a voice coach. He died of heart failure September 14, 1948, in relative obscurity. In the 1960s, when record collecting became a serious pastime, he was rediscovered, and reissues of his recordings were made available on LPs. Diehard fans successfully lobbied for his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1981, though there are still many who doubt his credibility as a genuine country singer.

Recommended Listening

Ballads & Railroad Songs (Old Homestead 1980)
Wreck Of The Old '97 (Old Homestead 1985)