“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad,” Hill said. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” – Keith Hill
Welcome back to Tomato Tuesdays: A Celebration of Women in Country Music
The words we use have power; whether we are speaking to our loved ones, our foes, or writing our histories. In the case of Belle Starr, a well known outlaw woman, words have allowed her story to take on a reality of its own very far from the truth and actual glamour of her life. Starr is a fascinating case study in the power of words and how we allow them to dictate our realities, even long after someone is gone, or perhaps, because someone is long gone.
From Sissy Spacek to Bob Dylan to Emmylou Harris, Belle Starr has often been a topic of conversation and written works in Americana and Country circles. The infamous outlaw woman has become fodder for legends; she lived a bawdy and scandalous life, at least in writing. Often called The Bandit Queen, Starr was known for her questionable and very unapologetic ways as she rode along (or, usually, in front of) the most famous outlaw cowboys of the west…and wrote about them, too. Sure, she was a renowned horse thief, but she was also a seductress, and she was known for her habit to kiss and tell…erm… everyone. There is no end to the things Belle Starr is thought to have done; every biography is different and every biography is wildly contested. According to some stories she was curvy in all the right places; visually stunning, sharp with a gun and soft in the sheets. Other sources call her “an unfortunate woman hardened by her times and associates, bony and flat chested with a mean mouth; a hatchet faced; gotch-toothed tart.”
Early Life: Myra Maybelle in Missouri
Born Myra Maybelle Shirley on February 5, 1848 to “Judge” John Shirley and his third wife, Elizabeth Pennington, in a log cabin near Carthage, Missouri, Starr came from a well-to-do Virginia family. Her father, the black sheep of the otherwise well mannered clan, moved west to Indiana, where he married and divorced twice, until he found sweet Eliza, who was on the Hatfield side of the feuding Hatfield and McCoy families. At least Starr came by it honestly. Due to her father’s multiple marriages, Starr was raised in a household with many much older half-siblings. Her elder brother John Addison, who went by the nickname Bud, influenced her greatly, teaching her to use guns and ride horses. These early details of her life seem consistent through every biography. Starr attended the Carthage Female Academy, where she was instructed in ‘the three Rs’ along with music and classical languages and was by all accounts considered a wealthy and well educated young woman. Although educated as a lady, she flaunted her status as a rich girl and took advantage of having an audience wherever she could find one.
Raised in the contested Missouri territory in the years leading up to the Civil War in a family that supported the Confederacy with a brother that taught her to ride and shoot greatly influenced Starr’s life choices. When Bud died in 1864, the family moved to the Scyene area of Texas near Dallas and Starr’s fate was all but sealed. While in Texas she became reacquainted with ‘the first man she ever loved’, Jim Reed, and married him in 1866. Many writers have exaggerated the Reed’s marriage, stating that Belle’s parents objected to the union and that the couple eloped with a band of desperados, even going so far as to say one of the gang supposedly read the marriage ceremony while the couple took their vows on horseback. All of this is wildly untrue; the Shirleys had no objection to Reed, who was not yet a wanted man when he wed their daughter, Belle, in 1866. A copy of the marriage license issued to Myra Maybelle Shirley and James C. Reed in Collins County, Texas, shows that they were married on November 1, 1866, by the Reverend S.M. Williams.
By 1868 she’d had her first child and by 1871, her second. Jim Reed regularly consorted with criminals and was often on the run from the law. It is heavily debated whether his faithful wife was a part of his nefarious activities and some historians have gone so far as to say Belle Reed wanted a quiet life of domesticity and that before his death in 1874 she had left her marriage and returned to her parent’s farm to raise her children in peace. This is heavily contested among sources, but there’s probably more truth to it than anyone can verify. The rumors about Belle Starr were greatly exaggerated and sold for a quarter a piece by National Police Gazette and other popular publications in the 19th century, which are now considered primary sources from which historians glean their facts. Ahh, historiography.
According to other sources, Reed’s death left Belle destitute and the years between her two marriages are somewhat of a mystery. Some authors have tried to fill in the gaps in Starr’s story by suggesting she was involved in such activities as robbing banks and burning down stores, being jailed for stealing some more horses and then eloping with her jailer (which I find to be one of the more fun and creative stories about her), robbing a poker game at gunpoint, never touching a gun at all despite the rumors. None of these stories can be validated by court records or newspaper accounts. Local gossip even had it that she lived with Bruce Younger and she married him in 1880 …which is interesting, given he wouldn’t have been the only man she married in very short order that year if that were the case.
Belle Starr: A Legend is Born
By 1880, Belle Reed had wed another questionable but fun fellow named Sam Starr and a true legend was born. Part Cherokee and a member of the Starr Gang, it is rumored that Sam and Belle Starr harbored criminals like Jesse James at their home. By 1883 the Starrs were convicted of stealing horses. Each spent nine months in jail in Detroit, Belle on two counts of larceny and Sam on one, and were returned to Indian territory, and our dear Bandit Queen came into her own with her notoriety growing over suspicion for later crimes. Some historians have argued that Belle Starr lived a quiet life at home while her husband Sam engaged in all the illicit activity- because still, today, we want women to be innocent- and have trouble with their ownership of both good and bad power. Her husband was dead by 1886 and Starr was arrested twice more, though never convicted again. It is rumored that she reformed, refusing to harbor criminals in her home after his death.
Belle met an unfortunate fate, much like her two late husbands and many rumored lovers. Leaving from an early afternoon lunch in town near her home place, Belle Starr was shot off her horse in the middle of the street. While there are many rumored suspects, including her own children, her killer was never caught. There are many tawdry, mostly untrue, details of Starr’s life on public display in books, songs, and poems; some of which Starr even wrote. I could fill them in here, true or untrue, and you’d probably believe them, but I’ll let you do your own research and come to your own conclusions should you choose to do so.
By every account a creative and clever woman, Starr is at the very least a fascinating early case study of the way women who do not subscribe to traditional standards are portrayed; who are only not wives and mothers, nor are they only homewreckers and criminals, but a little bit of both. Belle Starr was a complex woman. She was a beloved wife who loved the men in her life well and with pride, a mother who expected her children to adhere to the rules of society (she was furious when her daughter fell pregnant and demanded one of two solutions; visit a special physician or be sent away and never bring the child into her presence), a sly criminal, a woman who liked to have a little fun, a well educated lady caught in a fraught political identity leading up to the civil war.
In country music, among male as well as female writers, Starr has become a poetically beautiful literary device to describe the outlaw lady. Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler co-wrote I’ll be your Belle Starr / You can be my Jesse James to describe love as an outlaw game. Sissy Spacek claims she had a dream that Belle Starr was her grandmother which inspired her to write “Some Small Crime”, a song that highlights Starr’s status as both a criminal and saintly mother figure in the eyes of her granddaughter. Bob Dylan has written about her many times, including in “Tombstone Blues” and in “Seeing The Real You at Last”. Perhaps my favorite and the most romanticized if untrue account of Belle Star (and also the version which makes me wish I WERE Belle Star) is Michael Martin Murphey’s. It bears repeating the track not just once but endlessly.
As she rode into Dallas on a dashing black stallion
The silver trimmed bridle caught the rays of the sun
She had a plume in the band of her spotless white Stetson
A long velvet gown and two matching six guns
Sometimes she wore fringe on her bright beaded buckskins
Raised hell with her pistols and smoked a cigar
She had a rattlesnake necklace and she loved desperados
This petticoat wildcat the outlaw Belle Starr
Born Myrabelle Sherley in Southwest Missouri
She spoke Greek and Latin and Hebrew quite well
She’s fierce as a wildcat deadly aim with a pistol
She played the piano like a sweet Southern belle
Her brother rode under the black flag in Kansas
He was killed with one thrill in the great Civil War
She was only sixteen when she bought twin revolvers
And began her career as the outlaw Belle Starr
And she loved many men who were wild rough and fearless
She danced with Cole Younger and she fancied Frank James
She married Jim Reed a dashing young outlaw
Many a lawman soon cursed her name
Certainly a captivating woman in history, though whether or not the entirety of her story is true is up for debate, Starr has provided endless material about which our current favorite Country and Americana stars write. From real life outlaw to legendary criminal queen, we do love Mrs. Starr here at Lula 1892. She’s definitely on our “wish we could” list of women to interview, if only to get her thoughts on what she has become in the overall scheme of historical writing and how we represent women within the dichotomy of mother vs. monster and whether those two seemingly mutually exclusive definitions of women are still at odds. Studying Belle Starr is to study the way we write women- and the way we write about them.
Happy Tomato Tuesday, and watch your back on your horse today. You never can be too careful when ole’ Belle comes up.