March 2023

Cowboy Singer

Les Marcott | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Les Marcott

There's a voice singing across the prairie…well not exactly. The voice is confined inside my Toyota. It is the voice of Carl T. Sprague. And just who is Carl T. Sprague? He was a cowboy singer from the 1920's.  Sprague preceded the Hollywood singing cowboys like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Rex Allen.  In fact, what set him apart from many of his contemporaries was that he was the real deal.  He dressed the part and looked the part.  He was deemed the "original singing cowboy".  If Jimmie Rodgers was considered the father of country music, then Carl T. Sprague was certainly the father of cowboy music as it came to be popularized.  He came from a family of farmers and ranchers.  He was also an academic, earning a degree in animal husbandry from Texas A&M University.

His music is almost totally forgotten today, but back in 2003, Bear Family Records located in Germany of all places rereleased Sprague recordings he had recorded for Victor Records from 1925-1929. Bear Family is not so much a record company as it is a music preservation society.  Its eclectic projects run the gamut of Yiddish, calypso, old German movie soundtracks to British music hall songs of the early 1900's.  Currently their website homepage showcases the late great honkytonk singer Hank Thompson who hails from my hometown.  Then there is Sprague's cowboy compilation called Cowtrails, Longhorns And Tight Saddles.  One of the songs on this compilation "When The Works All Done This Fall" sold an estimated
900,000 copies, an astonishing amount in the early days of recorded
music.  It was the jazz age, but evidently there was a tremendous interest in cowboy music. The song itself details the tragic death of a novice ranch hand.


Listening to Sprague's songs a hundred years later truly does take you back to another era.  His sparse arrangements with just guitar and fiddle along with that lonesome tenor voice feels earthy just like the dusty trails and travails he sings about.  Born in 1896, Sprague wasn't far removed from the Old West that produced the myths and legends that persist to this day.

By 1930, for whatever reason, Sprague decided to leave the music business behind and work for his former alma mater as an athletic trainer.  Eventually he would go back to what he loved best – ranching.  He stayed inactive until the folk music boom of the late 50's, early 60's.  It was then he began playing music festivals of that era introducing a new audience to the music that he not only performed but lived.  Sprague died in 1979 at the age of 85.  It is remarkable that he not only witnessed the beginnings of the recording industry itself, but also the formation of pop, folk, country, and rock in his lifetime.  But Sprague always stayed true to the songs he learned as a young man sitting around a campfire, songs that were 100 years old by the time he heard them.  While there are numerous cowboy poetry festivals across the country each year, there's probably just a handful of "cowboy singers" keeping the genre alive, most notably Michael Martin Murphy, Don Edwards, and Rex Allen Jr. 

There's a voice singing out on the prairie.  Follow that voice wherever the trail ends.


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Les Marcott | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.  For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Les Marcott
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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