Ramblin' Rhodes: Augustans heard Dalhart, country music's first star, in 1911

Vernon Dalhart performed with an opera company in Augusta in 1911. He later recorded two songs that became known as country music's first million-selling recording.

There are many Texans in town this week for The Augusta Futurity with the reigning 2012 Futurity Open champion being Craig Thompson of Buffalo, Texas.


More Texans (23) have won the top Futurity Open competition in the Augusta Futurity’s 34-year history than contestants from any other state.

So it is fitting this week to write about one special Texan who came to Augusta in December 1911 who with his powerful voice not only impressed local music fans but the nation as well.

That native of Jefferson, Texas, was Marion Try Slaughter II, better known to the recording world as Vernon Dalhart.

It was Dalhart who in 1924 recorded a ballad called The Prisoner’s Song that was released on one side of a vinyl 78 rpm record with the train tragedy song Wreck of the Old 97 on the other side.

The Prisoner’s Song had these plaintive words: “Now if I had wings like an angel, Over these prison walls I would fly. And I’d fly to the arms of my poor darlin’, And there I’d be willin’ to die.”

Dalhart’s two songs on the 78 rpm struck a responsive chord with the record-buying public and the release went on to become what is known as country music’s first million-selling recording. It is said to have sold more than seven million copies.

Those selections along with Dalhart’s hundreds of other recordings led to his being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Foundation and Hall of Fame in 1970, into the Country Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 1981 and having The Prisoner’s Song being selected for the Grammy Recordings Hall of Fame in 1998.

Dalhart’s personal life was just as interesting as his recordings.

He grew up the son of a small land rancher outside Jefferson. His uncle thought his father was not treating his mother (his uncle’s sister) right. That led to his uncle shooting and killing his father when Dalhart was 10.

Dalhart managed to get by and help his widowed mother by working as a cowboy on west Texas ranches before the family moved to Dallas. That’s where he began seriously studying music at a conservatory.

He married in 1902 and soon had two children. When his mother remarried, he moved his family to New York City and studied opera at night while working at a piano warehouse during the day.

His big break came in 1911 when he was hired to be a minor principal in Giacomo Puccini’s opera The Girl of the Golden West. It seemed a natural fit with his western background.

For a stage name, Slaughter picked the names of two Texas towns near where he had worked as a cowboy: Vernon and Dalhart.

He spent 121 days touring with The Girl of the Golden West across Canada and the United States.

The Henry W. Savage operatic company came to Augusta on Dec. 8, 1911, with a performance of The Girl of the Golden West in the Grand Opera House, which was on the northeast corner of Eighth and Greene streets.

Dalhart was listed in the Chronicle as playing Nick, a bartender at the Polka saloon in a mining camp in the days of gold fever (1849-1850) “at the foot of the Cloudy Mountains in California.”

The Chronicle’s review of the show noted, “The minor roles were all sung by such beautiful voices (for instance Mr. Dalhart who sang the part of ‘Nick’ the bartender) that one wished the opera gave them greater opportunity to be heard. But it is emphatically an opera for three voices and they do practically all of the solo work.”

Dalhart worked with other opera companies singing in English, Italian and French until finally beginning his recording career in 1916 with Columbia Records. He would go on to make hundreds of recordings for other labels such as Emerson, Edison, Victor and RCA Victor.

He sang in many styles including his Texas-roots country and western music.

The Chronicle in October 1924 wrote about his break-through record, noting, “Vernon Dalhart makes an unusual record of a kind popular with us of two quaint and vigorous songs of the Southern mountaineer.

“Titularly they give some hint of the interest that is in them. Wreck of the Old 97 and The Prisoner’s Song, the former of a railroad classic of the Casey Jones order, apparently ante-dating that inspiring hit of yesterday. The other song descends from the hair-brooch and weeping willow period.”

When radio came along in the 1920s, it deeply hurt the recording business just as television and the Internet has done today.

Dalhart ended up becoming a security guard in Bridgeport, Conn., during World War II and then worked as a night baggage clerk at Barnum’s Hotel in Bridgeport after the war.

He suffered a damaging heart attack in January 1948 and a fatal heart attack the following September. He was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport.

His gravestone, which can be seen on the Web site findagrave.com, simply reads, “Marion T. Slaughter, 1883-1948.” His wife, Sadie, is buried next to him.

You can learn more about Dalhart at the Web site vernondalhart.com.

Despite Dalhart’s selling more than 70 million records and becoming what widely is regarded as country music’s first star, most country music fans today know little or nothing about him.

So, as a native Texan myself (born in Gainesville) and as a die-hard country music fan and historian, I am privileged this week to salute the one and only Marion Try Slaughter II, better known as recording star Vernon Dalhart.