There is a set of principles, founded many generations ago when it wasn’t fences that kept the land separate but honesty and hard work instead, that have been passed down from man to man, mother to child. These principles made up what is our country’s great, wonderful West; full of cowboys, cattle, long days, and a lot of love for one’s fellow man and the land we are blessed to inhabit. “The cowboy lifestyle is based on respect for heritage, tradition, values; those values being honesty and integrity, loyalty, work ethic, dedication to family, conviction of your belief in God, and practicing common decency and respect for your fellow man every day you live.” Mr. Red Steagall recited those words in his calm, Texan twang last week and for a moment I was blessed to witness the simplicity and peace of the life he has built. With a career in entertainment that spans over forty-five years and nearly every corner of the world it would be an easy task for Steagall to forget his ties to his homeland and the Cowboy way of life. That is what is so remarkable about this man; he has not only not forgotten, but he has used his success in the entertainment industry to bring world-wide recognition to “the men and women who provide beefsteak for the dinner tables of America.”
College, Rodeos, and Red-Headed Cowgirls
Born on December 2, 1938 and raised in the panhandle of Texas, Red Steagall had an upbringing that was tied to working the land, riding rodeo, and a casual love for music. At the age of fifteen, stricken with polio, Steagall’s focus turned to music as not only an interest, but a means of healing and a lifestyle. “I think I wanted to be a part of the music industry since I was big enough to talk. Mother would enter me into talent contests from time to time and I would usually recite poetry because I couldn’t play an instrument at that age. I didn’t take music seriously until after I had polio because I was more concentrated on running coons and coyotes and playing football than anything else. The music really struck home after I had polio and used the mandolin to regain the strength in my fingers. Mother bought me a guitar for Christmas that year- that was my Christmas and graduation present from high school.”
With learning the mandolin under his belt and his new guitar in hand, Steagall went off to college at what is now West Texas A&M to study animal science and agronomy. Though his studies were leading him down a scientific path, his heart was still headed straight for music. “I got to college and found a group of friends who were musically inclined and we played a lot together and made a dollar a night a piece and had fun doing it. There was a fellow who grew up with me whose name was Don Lanier and when we got to be high school age his daddy got transferred to a plant on the north side of the river, so he went to high school with Jimmy Bowen. I hooked up with them again down at school. They went on to join forces with Buddy Knox and were very instrumental in rockabilly music. They had seven number one records in a row as Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids. Donny and Jimmy became professional at that time. One night I got a call from them from Hollywood saying we need some help out here, why don’t you come on out here? I didn’t know anything about show business or how to make a living at it. I started selling industrial chemicals in the Hollywood area and Donny and I were sharing an apartment. Donny and I started writing songs together.” It didn’t take long for Lanier and Steagall to see success with their endeavors in songwriting. “We wrote a song called “Here We Go Again”, I got Ray Charles to record it, and the rest was another step up the ladder. I developed from being a songwriter and a music publisher to being a recording artist.”
Red Steagall relocated to California in August of 1965 and spent eight years working as an industry executive and budding songwriter. Throughout his eight years there he never once stopped missing his home state of Texas. True to his cowboy philosophy, Steagall found comfort in his work in the form of a song. “I was terribly homesick when I lived in Hollywood. I
wanted to come home so bad so I wrote a song called “The Texas Silver Zephyr”. When I was a kid I used to sit on horseback and watch that big silver train come across the Texas prairie and it used to take me to places I could only dream of going. It was what is now BNSF, which ran from Ft. Worth to Denver. So I’m out in Hollywood and I’m homesick and the only way I could think to go back home was to write about it, and so I did.” In June of 1973, Steagall returned home to Texas. Two years later his love for music, his home, and most of all the rodeo would lead him to an important discovery: Reba McEntire.
Steagall is credited with McEntire’s discovery at the National Rodeo Finals competition in Oklahoma City in 1975. McEntire was set to begin the festivities with the National Anthem and would later cross paths with Steagall in the Justin Boot suite, a meeting both have discussed at length in interviews throughout the years. “The first night that I heard Reba sing the National Anthem I heard the quality in her voice, I heard the total control she had over it. Mr. Justin of Justin Boot Company would get a big suite and we’d gather there after the rodeo, and Reba’s mother brought her up there after she sang. Reba sat down beside me and started singing harmony with me. My guitar playing was limited, but I played a couple of songs for her and she just absolutely blew me away with her voice, with her confidence; everything about her spoke to me as someone who had the potential to be a superstar.” While Steagall was instrumental in launching McEntire’s career, the two have always operated as equals and as good friends, which included a live re-recording of Steagall’s hit song “Here We Go Again”. “I went along with Reba up to a certain point and then I got out of the way because I didn’t want to be her manager. I had a career of my own that I was working on and I didn’t want to do anything to get in her way. Later on we got her hooked up with management but whenever she wanted to know about something I was there to help her understand it. I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen a person with a stronger identity than Reba has. She knows exactly what’s right for her and exactly what to turn down. She’s not afraid to say no and I think that’s one of the most important things in a professional career because everyone wants a piece of you. You have to learn to say no, and she did that very early on. She’s a good girl. I’m really proud of her.”
1985 and Beyond: The Rancher, The Poet
During the first two decades of his career Steagall wrote and cut several albums that brought him mainstream success in the genre of country music, but that was before the otherwise separate worlds of music and television collided. Steagall marks 1985 as a life-changing year in his career as a result. “One of the most meaningful parts of my career probably happened in 1985. There was a whole group of us in country music who were in it before there was television attached to it. I’ve never done a music video in my life for television and radio. The day those things came together, well I named it the day that sad songs and waltzes quit selling. It was a turning point for me because I couldn’t work anymore in the way I always had. When I got into the business you could work for six or seven years off one record if it was a hit, but newer acts were taking over the radio and things went a lot faster. Before music television the only way people knew what you looked like was buying pictures at a concert. That kind of access changed things dramatically. I went out to Elko, Nevada in 1985 to the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and that’s when I really learned where my heart was. I knew those people. I knew their way of life. Because of my agricultural background I knew what their challenges were. I realized back then that country music as I knew it wasn’t ever going to come back. I started writing poetry, then I started my radio show to keep my name alive. Now I write cowboy songs and cowboy poems; I haven’t tried to write a country song since the early 80’s. I still have a swing band, I still perform, I still play quite a few dances during the year, but a big part of my business is in the cowboy world now.”
From agricultural chemistry to songwriting to Reba McEntire to running his ranch outside of Ft. Worth, Texas, Steagall’s career has had many twists and turns, all of them important threads in the quilt that has been his life’s work. When asked about the motivation that keeps him exploring such a vast array of creative and agricultural paths, Steagall again returned to his Texas work ethic and the land he loves. In the entertainment industry I never was what you would call a headliner or a superstar. I tried to identify who I was and not step out of those boundaries. So I just consider myself a farmer, in that world too. I do television, a little bit of radio, I do some concerts, and I do a lot of charity work. It’s been an unbelievable career and I thank the Lord for it every day.”
Now nearing his 80th birthday, there is little Red Steagall hasn’t done. Name a facet of the entertainment industry in regards to cowboy music, poetry, and storytelling, and Steagall has a hand in it. I asked Mr. Steagall if there was anything left he’d like to do and I was greeted with a kindhearted laugh. “I don’t want to say no to that because there might be a lot of things I’d still like to do. I’ve performed all over this planet for people I really enjoyed performing to, met people from all walks of life, made friends that have taken me to heights I never thought possible. I’m married to the woman I’ve always wanted to have in my life. I have a son out in California that I’m awfully proud of. I’ve had a great career and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. Some of these guys I worked with have been with me going on forty years, so they’re another part of my family. I don’t have the desire to be on a network television station. I love RFD and I love having my own radio show and today I’m still in 150 markets in 34 states. I don’t know what else I could ask for. Like I said, I’ve got really good friends, I’m married to the only woman I ever wanted to live with, and I think everything else is window dressing.”
As varied as his interests and involvements are, Steagall’s focus on his own strengths, loyalty to his land, and dedication to his family has never strayed. That focus and devotion is in fact the reason he has seen such success. “What has always worked for me is trying to figure out exactly where I fit in a puzzle. If I don’t feel like I fit in the puzzle, I don’t play any part in it. Always be true to yourself. You’ve got to please you first. Don’t do things that you don’t approve of. I had a guiding light that a lot of people don’t have – my mother was the most precious person in the world to me and I never wanted to disappoint her. She had a very strong sense of values and, even today, when I start to make a decision I think ‘what would mother think of that’? Everyone needs a shoulder to lean on and a guiding light and so just make sure that you’re true to yourself, that you don’t do anything that’ll make you look bad. Be conscious of your reputation. Let everybody know they can depend on you and don’t do something just because you can make a dollar on it. That might not work for everyone, but that’s what works for me.”
It would be simple to laud Red Steagall as a pioneer of our industry, to list his various achievements and awards as things to admire, but all of the titles and trophies in the world couldn’t measure up to the spirit of this man. There is virtue in working the land because your forefathers did it and there is beauty in celebrating those who came before us. There is wisdom to be found in that land and in our ancestors, and there is nothing better in this world than loving your family and friends well. These possessions we can’t take with us when we’re gone are what motivate Red Steagall. There are lessons to be learned in his life, his love, and his poetry if only we are willing to listen with our whole hearts. Red Steagall is truly a legend of our time, for so many reasons.
I got a horse I can catch when you need him
A dog that’ll come when I call
A good woman who shares my frustrations when anything’s happening at all
Got a good friend who owns an arena and a trailer that’s legal to haul
A good set of spurs and a saddle that fits
And a one-ton ford pickup that starts
I figure that’s all that a man really needs.