Best remembered today as the author of the Eddy Arnold hit "Cattle Call," Tex Owens was a fixture on local radio in Kansas City and the CBS network during the 1930s and early '40s, and he was one of the first artists signed to Decca Records back in the '30s. He was the youngest of 13 children in a sharecropper family whose musical interests began with his generation -- his brother Chuck was a singer and songwriter, and his sister Texas Ruby was a performer with the Grand Ole Opry. Despite their musical activities, however, it took Owens until he was nearly 40 to decide on a career in music.
Doye (some sources spell it Doie) Hensley Owens was born in Kileen, TX, but the family moved to Cushing, OK, while he was still a boy. The name "Tex" logically seemed to stick after the move to Oklahoma. Beginning when he was 15 years old, he worked lots of jobs, especially on ranches in the surrounding area, and even spent a stint as a chuck wagon cook. He did gravitate a little toward singing -- he could play guitar well enough to accompany himself, and as a lanky 6'3" vocalist, he looked natural enough as the center of attention. He made his first foray into music at a traveling tent show as a blackface singer, doubling as a hired hand, and spent up to a year with one such tent show. The life didn't appeal to him enough to stay with music, however, and by his late teens Owens was back working more conventional and reliable jobs. He was just young enough, having been born in 1892, to avoid being drafted into military service during World War I.
Owens worked oil fields in Texas, and then jobs in Missouri and Kansas, and after marrying Maude Neal, he settled for a time in Drexel, MO. He worked as a farm hand and mechanic, and later even served as a lawman in Bridgeport, OK, before the family -- which now included two daughters, Laura Lee and Dolpha Jane -- moved west to Colorado. It was the combination of acute appendicitis and a freak blizzard in Lamar, CO, that brought Owens back to music. While recovering from an appendectomy, Owens saw a group of school children (five of whom had frozen to death before being rescued) who had been stranded in a blizzard brought into the hospital, and he entertained them with some songs.
This proved to be the most appreciative audience to which Owens had ever played, and their reaction pulled him back into music for the first time in years. After the family moved back to Kansas, Owens began singing with his two daughters, including performances at medicine shows. Finally, in the very early '30s, Owens got his first indoor gig, singing to audiences between features at a local movie theater. This led him to a radio audition at KMBC in Kansas City, MO, and his being hired full-time as a singer and general on-air performer.
He was billed as "The Original Texas Ranger" and performed regularly with two groups, the Texas Rangers and, later, the Prairie Pioneers. They were popular enough locally and regionally that the record industry beckoned -- Gene Autry, another young Texan with roots in Oklahoma, was burning up the airwaves and selling millions of records, and every record company was looking for another Autry. In the summer of 1934, Owens was signed along with the Texas Rangers to the newly founded Decca label. (Curiously, Decca had also signed another "Tex," by the last name of Ritter, around the same time).
They recorded a comedy single, "The Dude Ranch Party, Pts. 1 & 2," on August 27, 1934, on which Owens sang a bit of "The Cattle Call" amid a series of songs that included "Git Along Little Dogies" and "Prance Along," plus comedy material. The Texas Rangers included Bob Crawford as leader, with the two Massey brothers, Curt (who later wrote much of the background music for the television series The Beverly Hillbillies) on fiddle and Allen on fiddle and banjo, respectively, Gomer Cool on fiddle, and Hugh Studebaker on guitar, with George Washington White doing comic relief, often in blackface.
It was Owens' full recording of "Cattle Call," made solo the following day, that ultimately proved more important, introducing a song he'd written and copyrighted in Kansas City that year. According to his wife, he'd written it ahead of a show during a snowstorm when they were stuck at the hotel where the radio station was headquartered, borrowing the melody from "The St. Paul Waltz." The song, one of four he recorded in Chicago that day, wasn't a success at the time, and Owens' relationship with Decca ended after that session. He next recorded ten songs for RCA in September of 1936, none of which -- including another version of "Cattle Call" -- were issued and all of which are lost today.
Most of Owens' career was spent not in the recording studio, but rather on the radio, performing with either the Texas Rangers or the Prairie Pioneers; he also made personal appearances and, on rare occasions, performed in movies. He began seriously writing songs in the early '30s, more than a dozen of which were published by the radio station in a songbook in 1934. It is also rumored that Owens' KMBC show was telecast in experimental broadcasts by the engineering departments of Kansas State, Purdue, and Iowa State University in 1932. He was a star as a singer and storyteller on KMBC's Brush Creek Follies, which included in its cast comedy acts like Uncle Ezra and Aunt Faye, the hillbilly yodelers Bud and Spike, and the Fiddling Minstrels. He was popular enough that in 1939 the governor of Texas declared Owens and the Texas Rangers honorary Texas Rangers.
Owens' show on KMBC lasted for more than 11 years, a period during which he was also picked up by the CBS radio network and carried nationally. At the end of his time at KMBC, Owens moved to Cincinnati and a new gig at WLW, where he sang and also hosted a country variety show called The Boone Country Jamboree. In 1943, Owens moved once again, this time to Hollywood, and began making appearances in movies and short films.
He frequently appeared in a trio with his two daughters, and Laura Lee (1920-1989) later began a career of her own, leading a musical group called Laura Lee & Her Ranger Buddies. In 1943, she became the first female singer hired by Bob Wills for his band, the Texas Playboys. Owens himself continued his work on radio and in movies, but his footage had to be removed from the biggest film in which he ever appeared. He was cast in a supporting part in Howard Hawks' epic Western Red River, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, when his horse fell on him during the shooting of one scene and broke his back.
Owens spent a year recovering and never fully got over the injuries. He returned to performing with a new backing group, the Prairie Pirates, and cut a pair of sessions with them in 1953 and 1954. The four songs from these sessions were released on the Wrightman label but failed to excite any major public interest, despite the presence of such gorgeous songs as Alice Canterbury's "Give Me the Plains at Night" as well as the Tex and Chuck Owens-authored instrumental "Porcupine Serenade."
During this period, "Cattle Call" twice became a hit, but not for Owens. In 1944, Eddy Arnold cut a hugely successful single of the song, which became his signature tune; in 1955 Arnold had a chart-topping country hit with it again in an orchestrated version. Owens wrote more than 100 songs, but "Cattle Call" was far and away the biggest success he ever had. Unfortunately, he never achieved a fraction of the success as a recording artist that Arnold did during those decades, and by the time Arnold's second version was topping the charts, the author was past 60 and partly forgotten; most listeners assumed Arnold had written it.
By the end of the 1950s, Owens was retired from Hollywood. Now past 60, he'd seen his oldest daughter, Laura Lee, embark on a successful career as the first female vocalist ever hired by Wills. He and his wife moved to Baden, TX, in 1960, and it was there that Owens died of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 70. His sister Ruby, a star of the Grand Ole Opry, died the following year in a fire. Nine years later, in 1971, Owens was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame in recognition of his work as a composer. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi