Clad in jeans and Resistol hat, his feet jammed into Leddy boots, Red Steagall slides behind the wheel of his Ford pickup and pulls away from the office and studio he built at the entrance to his ranch west of Fort Worth.
The pickup is a King Ranch model outfitted with a custom-done barbed-wire pinstripe and a discreet running RS brand on the door. He pushes a button and the ranch gates swing open. He rolls through, pointing to the barn where he and his wife, Gail, lived for 22 years, but he takes another road. This one leads to the gracious house they share now.
At 77, Steagall is tall and straight — the famous red hair gone white — his eyes, a startling blue. Famous for the annual Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering and Western Swing Festival held each October in Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards, he is a seasoned showman and poet who knows his audience well.
On this afternoon, he is willing, but not eager, to open his home and talk about his life’s journey and the long road that has brought him at last to this sweet spot.
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He is, after all, the sort of man who is forever looking forward: to the next cowboy gathering, the next concert, the next radio show, sunrise, homecoming.
But Steagall, one of Fort Worth’s most recognizable and celebrated Western heritage champions and the man the Texas Legislature named the Cowboy Poet of Texas, has made a life — and a living — by looking back.
He tips his hat in poetry and song to days gone by, and his verses celebrate customs that still cradle and nurture the ranching way of life. His storytelling is fastened to people born to and shaped by the land. Sometimes they are from another day and time. Sometimes they are here-and-now cowboys trying to live by the time-tested traditions of integrity, dedication to family, strong work ethic and loyalty forged by other generations.
Over the years, Stegall has collected dozens of awards for his work and been inducted into too many halls of fame to list. He doesn’t need new accolades, but on March 12, he’ll be honored by the Cowtown Opry, a small nonprofit, at a gala dinner in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
“He is an icon to anyone in Western music,” says Opry board chair Sonya Howeth. “Because we are all about promoting, preserving and performing Western and Western swing music, we have a great deal of respect for all he has accomplished and how he represents everything ‘cowboy’ to the world. ... He has made a huge impact.”
More often than not, Steagall turns down such invitations, but he is nothing if not deliberate.
“The Cowtown Opry is trying very hard to keep the music and poetry of a lifestyle I hold dear alive,” he says. “They thought I could help, and I am proud to do that.”
He is an icon to anyone in Western music.
— Opry board chair Sonya Howeth
It is odd, really, that Steagall became a performer. His father was an oil-field worker. His mother, a schoolteacher. Red was the oldest of their six children, a smart boy who skipped second grade, graduated high school at 17, and earned a degree in animal science and agronomy from West Texas A&M University.
He calls his childhood in the Texas Panhandle “idyllic.” But those years were not so good for his parents. His mother was pregnant when his father left the family in August 1954. The next month, Steagall, then 15, was diagnosed with polio.
In four months — January 1955 — the Salk vaccine stopped that disease, but it was too late for Steagall. The deltoid muscle in his left shoulder was wrecked.
“My fingers were like five little ropes hanging at the end of a stick,” he says.
His mother’s last baby, a little boy called Danny, was born four days after Red’s diagnosis.
Maybe without polio, Steagall would have become the ranch vet he’d dreamed of being, but as it was, his mother gave him a $10 secondhand mandolin and music lessons, a gift that changed everything. Several times a week, Steagall rode his bike to the music teacher’s house and worked on strengthening each finger in turn. His hand grew strong, the music took root, but the shoulder would not recover.
“I’ve done everything I wanted to do in spite of polio,” he says. “I have no regrets in life. Everything that has happened to me that was unpleasant at the time, has been a blessing.”
After college, he had a short career in agricultural chemistry, and then one fine day, an old pal who was making it big in the music business called and said he needed help. Without a backward look, Steagall headed to California, hunkered down in Hollywood and soon became a music industry executive.
Along life’s way, he became a singer and a songwriter, an actor, a rodeo announcer, a television personality with an award-winning show and the host of his own radio show.
He and Gail have been married 38 years, but they have known each other longer. She’d married Steagall’s cousin, but that young man died in a car crash just six weeks after the wedding. “She was still part of our family,” says Steagall. They kept in touch.
Years passed, and Gail remarried, then divorced. Steagall married, too, and adopted his wife’s children, but the marriage was soon finished. He remains close to those men today and calls them his sons.
In time, it became clear that he and Gail should be together, and they married.
By the late 1970s, Western swing had become his bread and butter. Life was good. His calendar was always full. But then in the 1980s, things changed.
“Nobody wanted sad songs and waltzes,” he says. “Pop was taking over.”
A 1985 visit to the first ever National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada changed his life again. “I didn’t write a song for five years. I sat at my desk and I wrote 10 poems a week. It’s as if all those things had been stored up in my mind all those years and they needed to come out,” he says.
And so his influence as a poet began to grow.
The Road Home
He parks on the side of the house and takes the stone walk to the front door. This house is Gail’s creation, he says. “I didn’t want to move out of the barn, but now I love this place. ... I love coming home.”
A long porch runs across both the front and the back of the house. A row of dormers across the front makes it appear that there is a second story. But inside, the ceiling lifts to the highest point of the dormer’s windows.
Gail is at the door. Tall. Striking. Short white hair. Dark eyes. Layers of heavy silver beads. Beautiful.
She had no interior design help with this home and even acted as architect, she says. For years, she collected photos of homes and rooms she liked and, when Steagall finally gave his blessing, she was ready to run.
“I found the front of the home in Southern Living magazine,” she says. She held the budget in check by trimming 2 feet off the back porch, 1 foot off the front porch and lowering the ceiling from 18 feet to 16 feet.
Interior doors were milled in 1904 for a house in Louisiana that Steagall once owned. “I didn’t see a reason to leave them there,” he says.
The house is filled with memorabilia from their life together. Even the rug in the entryway is something Steagall carried back from one of his many trips. There are bronzes and books, awards and original artwork used for album covers.
This house is so warm and welcoming, stepping inside feels like a hug. It’s no wonder Steagall wants to stay close when he’s not traveling.
His calendar is still full, but now he writes poems and songs in his rustic office. His youngest brother, Danny, born when Steagall was 15, sometimes writes the music. “Danny has always been very musical,” he says. “He was playing the mandolin when he was 3.”
Yes. That same mandolin that saved Steagall’s hand and gave him a living.
Steagall’s talent has taken him to the White House to perform for President Reagan, and to the Middle East, South America, Europe, Australia and beyond.
But always, the road leads back to this ranch house, this sweet spot.
Texas Independence Day Gala
Honoring Red Steagall
Stockman’s Club in the Fort Worth Stockyards
Gala dinner, concert with Cowtown Opry performers, silent auction
$75 adults; $50 children (Reservation deadline is March 7.)
Dressy Western attire