Often backed by his band, the Coleman County Cowboys, Red performed an average of 200 dates a year, including many rodeos, and he toured Australia, Europe, South America and the Far East. He also sang at the White House for President Ronald Reagan in 1983.
By the mid-1980s, Western swing and honky tonk songs weren’t selling as well as pop-influenced country music.
Coincidentally, the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, was held in 1985, and Red attended. Once again, his career shifted in direction.
“My brother and I went there, and we fell in love with it,” Red says. “I started writing poetry and didn’t write a song for five years.”
Red credits Elko and WestFest, a cowboy gathering spearheaded by entertainer Michael Martin Murphey for years, as events that sparked a renaissance in cowboy poetry and Western music.
“They were two major forces that elevated the image of the West in the minds of the public,” he says. “From about 1935 to 1985, there weren’t a handful of people who published cowboy poetry. It was out of vogue. Cowboy motion pictures and television shows were [popular], but the written word was not. So those two events got such publicity because it was like a brand new art form.”
Red was named the Official Cowboy Poet of Texas in 1991. His first book, Ride for the Brand, was published in 1993 and included 168 pages of poems and songs. That same year, he released an album for the first time in seven years. Born to This Land featured songs about cowboy life and Western history. It was followed by eight more Western music albums, including Dreamin’ of…When the Grass Was Still Deep, released in 2011. Red is currently writing new songs for an album he plans to record with his Boys in the Bunkhouse band.
Red’s nationally syndicated radio show, Cowboy Corner, spotlights individuals making a living in agriculture and is in its 25th season. His television show, Somewhere West of Wall Street, is in its fifth season. The program features great horses, influential people, modern ranches, and significant places and events in the history of the American West. It is recorded simply by Red and two cameramen, Jody Duggan and Gary Reynolds. Reynolds operates one of the cameras, plus edits video and produces the show.
“All three of us are from the Texas Panhandle, so we speak the same language,” Reynolds says with a laugh. “Red truly cares about portraying the Western lifestyle and our history. It isn’t always romantic, but he wants to be honest about how it was.”
Another venture that promotes the Western lifestyle is the Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering, which regularly attracts about 40,000 people each October. The event includes chuckwagon competitions, Western swing dances, a ranch rodeo and a cowboy trappings show. It draws people from throughout the United States and touches all age groups, from retirement-age fans of swing music to working cowboys competing in the ranch rodeo, and children participating in fiddle and poetry contests. The Cowboy Gathering also raises money through various channels for youth seeking higher education, and so far it has awarded nearly $1 million in scholarships to students from agricultural families. Overall, the event embodies Red’s biggest passions: music, poetry, ranching heritage, Western values and traditions, and the working cowboy.
“Our goal is to celebrate the lives of the men and women who continue to work cattle horseback, providing beef for dinner tables of America,” Red says. “There is still an image of the cowboy. It’s the image of America that people worldwide adore and glom onto. It’s because the cowboy exhibits independence, individualism and freedom, the three things that everybody wants to experience regardless of where they live or what they do for a living.”
Despite a hectic, well-traveled schedule, Red has carved out plenty of saddle time. He team-roped for many years, gripping the reins with his left hand but tying the rope to his saddle horn rather than dallying. He has regularly attended rides as a member of the Rancheros Visitadores, Tejas Vaqueros and Cowboy Artists of America.
“The CAA made me an honorary member in 1973,” he says. “I have missed only one trail ride since 1976. So they’ve been my family for a long, long time.”
Red often joined the Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, for spring works. For 20 years he and several friends helped with branding for a week on the JA Ranch in Clarendon, Texas. Many times Greene has accompanied Red on the historic ranch founded by Charles Goodnight and John Adair.
“Red has a lot of experience and the know-how about working cattle and being on the wagon,” Greene says. “And he is very capable of dragging calves to the fire. Here’s this guy that is basically one-handed, and I’ve seen days when he just double-hocks them all day long. If [the job] requires 25 miles in a trot that day, then that’s what it is. He would be asked, ‘Do you think it’s going to get cold or rain?’ And his answer was, ‘Well, if it does, it does. But here we are.’ He was never complaining; never expecting any special considerations. He deeply loves the cowboy culture and all it entails—the long hours, the hard rides and terrible weather—and how those experiences shape who we are.”
For Red, one of the highlights of those experiences was riding alongside working cowboys who live by a code based on respect and integrity.
“When we would pull into those pens where we would set up camp, those guys and I didn’t belong to ourselves,” he says. “We belonged to that wagon boss. We were just like day workers.
“And you learn courteous things to do right away, like you never should ride in front of another man. But the cowboys will never criticize you. They’ll give you a suggestion. As long as you’re trying and you don’t break a rule, the cowboys are on your side. They don’t laugh at you. They try to help you because they want you to succeed. It’s just an unbelievable society. It’s everything I respect in people. It’s a way of life that is so fulfilling to me.”
Greene says that Red himself personifies those cowboy codes and values.
“He’s the ambassador to the world for the Western and ranching culture,” Greene says. “I’ve been in Europe with him and people come running up, hollering his name. One of his greatest traits is his ability to help people understand that they matter to him. That’s one of lessons I’ve learned from him. It’s so valuable, and it’s completely sincere.”
“The person that you see on screen is very much the person that he is in real life,” Reynolds adds. “He is a very genuine person and is cut from the old cloth of honesty, integrity and caring about your neighbor. He’s always very gracious with people he meets and appreciates his fans. He has the most fantastic memory for people of anyone I’ve ever been around. He’ll meet someone, and then go, ‘I remember, I met you here like nine years ago, the year it rained and we played at the rodeo.’”
After residing in Hollywood and then Nashville, Tennessee, Red returned to Texas early in 1977. Later that year, he and his wife, Gail, were married. For the past 40 years they have lived about 25 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Their place includes their home, an office building, a barn, pastures, Longhorn steers and several horses they own. For Red, living in his home state in a rural setting with Gail has been an ideal existence.
“I always knew where I wanted to be, I just didn’t know how to get there,” he says. “Gail is my best friend. It’s the most wonderful life I could possibly imagine.”
Red says he sees or talks to his brothers and sister almost weekly. His brother Carroll lives in Weatherford, Texas. Brothers Barry, David and Danny live in Oklahoma. Sue Anne lives in Colorado. Red and Gail also regularly visit his son Steven, whom Red adopted during his previous marriage. Steven and his family live in California.
There are too many awards and honors given to Red to list, but they include induction into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 2006 Poet Laureate of the State of Texas, and multiple Academy of Western Artists awards.
Looking back on his career as a musician, which began in the mid- 1960s, Red laughs and says, “I’ve lived through five revolutions in music.”
He is clearly not worried about whether or not his songs, poetry or television episodes are in vogue. Trends, by nature, never last long. Red is more concerned with recording music and words that accurately portray Western and agricultural life.
“I believe that what we write and perform today may be the only reference to how we lived that people have 50 years from now,” he says. “It’s important to me to be as honest about it and as authentic as possible. I think we have a great way of life. We look at life through a beautiful window, and I want other folks down the road to know that it was a good time. So what we write is very important.”
This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Western Horseman.