The singing cowboy became a popular entertainer on radio and in the movies in the 1940s. One of the most dominant performers in this field was Woodward Maurice Ritter, commonly called “Tex.”
Tex Ritter was born in the piney woods of East Texas in Panola County in 1905. He attended the University of Texas in Austin, where he sang in the glee club, and he later attended law school for one year at Northwestern University.
A collector of Western songs and stories from his youth, Ritter began singing on a Houston radio station in 1929. Hoping to expand his career opportunities, he went to New York City in 1931 and landed a role in the musical “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which eventually became the basis for the hit musical “Oklahoma.” With his Texas twang and his storehouse of Texas and cowboy lore, Ritter became a New York sensation, greatly in demand for lectures and performances in eastern colleges. His audiences had no idea that Ritter’s background was far removed from any real cowboy activity.
In 1932 Ritter was the featured singer at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo, and from there he went on to a recording contract and a slot on the “Lone Star Rangers,” which was among the first Western radio programs ever featured in New York City. From1932 to 1936 he hosted a program called “The Barn Dance” on radio station WHN in New York.
Building on his successful radio career, Ritter headed west to Hollywood in 1936 to launch his movie career, which eventually included 85 films. Tex Ritter was by no means a real cowboy, but he was a believable interpreter of cowboy songs. Impressionable Easterners were easily convinced that he came, not from a small East Texas community but rather from a working Texas cattle ranch. Ritter skillfully lived up to the part. He was elected to the County Music Hall of Fame in 1964. Ritter’s career extended into the 1970s.
Among his last public performances were at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnics. He died in 1974. His life and career are memorialized in the Texas County Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Carthage.
Dr. Tommy Stringer is executive director of the Navarro College Foundation. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to “Soundoff” on this column? E-mail: email@example.com