Early Texas Country Music Legends 1900s – 1940s
Country music had its informal beginnings in the front porch fiddling, campfire ballads, social entertainment and sacred singing of the nineteenth century rural American south. Anglo-American settlers began a new tradition by adapting the folk ballads and dance music of their ancestral homelands to the realities of frontier life and the small, isolated communities where they lived and worked.
Song material, performance style and instrumental technique were passed along orally from generation to generation into the 1900’s. Although a number of performers were known in their localities for their abilities to entertain an audience, few could consider music a primary vocation in those times when survival was a full-time job. The first “professional” country performers were traveling troubadours, medicine show performers or fiddlers who would pass the hat at dances or compete for prize money at fiddle contests.
By the first decade of the 20th century, numerous commercial phonograph records featured popular music, classical music, opera, and spoken word but southern rural Anglo-American music was not recorded until the early 1920s.
The first instrumental country music recorded was by fiddler Eck Robertson, a resident of Amarillo. After gaining considerable popularity as a contest fiddler, in 1922 Eck convinced Victor Co. to record him playing Arkansas Traveler/Sallie Gooden. Subsequent records by Robertson and others confirmed the viability of country music in the south. In January of 1923, the first “barn dance” radio show began on WBAP in Fort Worth.
Country music had its first million-selling crossover hit in 1924 with The Prisoner’s Song/The Wreck of the Old 97 by Vernon Dalhart. Dalhart, from Jefferson, Texas, had been recording pop songs and light opera since 1916 and was familiar with country music from his small-town childhood. The success of Dalhart’s The Prisoner’s Song exposed the world at large to the simple melodies, plaintive lyrics and heartfelt vocal delivery of country music.
The art of country songwriting reached new heights in the thirties with material by Texans like Floyd Tillman, Dale Evans, Cindy Walker and Stuart Hamblen. Family style harmony singing was recorded by musical acts like the sacred singers the Chuck Wagon Gang.
By the end of World War II, a new sound emerged. Texans Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman, Al Dexter and Ted Daffan were among the originators of early honky tonk music, which reflected the freewheeling atmosphere of post-war America, where many country folks were now living and working in cities.