These Fort Worth lights created ‘Christmas City’
Before Robert Earl Keen, even before Willie Nelson, our most enduring Texas Christmas song came from Dallas via New York.
In 1952, a Dallas department store executive dashed off a few lines for the flip side of what The Dallas Morning News called a Gene Autry “hillbilly” tune.
Today, it’s not Christmas without Asleep at the Wheel’s or George Strait’s rendition of “Merry Texas Christmas, You All.”
“Texas and Christmas always make good songs, and we like to brag on the state,” said Bill Mack, a 40-year country music host retired from a national satellite radio career.
Instead of Autry’s sweet singsong version, Mack remembers Texas honky-tonker Ernest Tubb’s freewheeling part-sung, part-hollered rendition. Mack was 20 in 1952 when Autry and Tubb released the records weeks apart.
“Ernest had the bigger hit,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Two years earlier, in 1950, marketing executive Leon A. Harris Jr. of Dallas’ A. Harris & Co. department store had written a poem as a Texas takeoff on New Yorker Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas (’Twas the Night Before Christmas)”.
Harris’ poem, “The Night Before Christmas in Texas,” became the store’s holiday theme.
After Time magazine printed it, New York music publisher and songwriter Bob Miller asked to put it to music.
Quoted in the News, Harris said Miller asked for another song.
Harris jotted out “Merry Texas Christmas, You All”: “I think those were about the only words in it.”
We have no jingle bells or sleigh
To display on Christmas Day
There’s not much snow down Texas way
But we sure mean it when we say
Merry Texas Christmas, you all …
The News reported Harris’ deal with a “top hillbilly composer” in New York.
In July 1952 in California, Autry recorded both songs. Still riding another department-store promotion hit, Montgomery Ward’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Autry drew reviews praising the new songs as “his jolliest and most entertaining.”
In September 1952, Tubb recorded “Merry Texas Christmas” in a Nashville studio with the Beasley Sisters as backup, led by Opry mainstay Alcyone Bate Beasley.
In Tubb’s version, set to his signature pedal-steel twang, he hollers midsong “Oh, San Antonio and Houston! From Fort Worth and Dallas, too!”
Years earlier, Tubb launched his career from a Fort Worth radio show and Stockyards gigs.
(In 1949, the same year Autry first sang “Rudolph,” Tubb beat him on the record charts with New York songwriter Jay Johnson’s “Blue Christmas.”)
A.J. Lockett of Fort Worth remembers selling dozens of copies of Tubb’s remastered “Merry Texas Christmas” CD in recent years at the former Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Stockyards Station.
“It’s just a great Christmas song, and Ernest did it better,” she said.
“I heard Asleep at the Wheel sing it on the radio coming home today. Ernest loved doing those songs about Texas. You know, Ernest loved Texas.”
Justin Frazell played the newer versions as the morning host at KFWR/95.9 FM “The Ranch.”
“Songs about Texas are near and dear to a Texan’s heart,” he said.
“The new Texas musicians will make it sound current, but it still says, ‘Look how great everything is in Texas.’ That song and Robert Earl Keen’s ‘Merry Christmas From the Family,’ those are the songs everybody comes back to at Christmas.”
Harris, the songwriter, left the retail business after his family’s store merged to become Sanger-Harris (later Foley’s, now part of Macy’s).
He went on to write several books and biographies, including “The Merchant Princes,” a history of the Jewish families behind America’s great department stores.
Bob Miller, the New York publisher who wrote the tune, had started his career as an arranger for Irving Berlin. Miller also wrote the wartime tune “There’s A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.”
A great-nephew, Harmon Miller of Memphis, keeps a family website.
“His claim to fame was writing ‘hillbilly music,’” Harmon Miller said.
“I think all the classic Christmas pop songs were written in about a 15-year period in the 1930s and ’40s, and this was one of those hits.”
Born in Memphis, Bob Miller’s only connection to the Lone Star State was composing and publishing Harris’ song, Harmon Miller said:
“I don’t think he ever made it to Texas.”