One of the most popular recording artists in his day, and one of the least appreciated today, is classically trained tenor-turned-country singer Vernon Dalhart. The first million-selling country artist, whose records enthralled the listeners of the 1920s, and sometimes annoy record collectors today because of their prevalence, a testament to his popularity.
The man who would become internationally famous as Vernon Dalhart was born Marion Try Slaughter II in the town of Jefferson, Texas on April 6, 1883 (some sources say 1881), son of Robert Marion “Bob” and Mary Jane Slaughter. Growing up on a ranch outside town, Try, who went by his middle name, learned to play the harmonica, kazoo, and Jew’s harp. The Slaughters, living up to their name, had a reputation as violent people, and when Try was ten in 1893, his uncle, also named Bob, shot his father following a dispute in the alley behind the Kahn Saloon in Jefferson.
The young Try Slaughter took singing lessons while attending school in Jefferson, and later learned traditional cowboy songs while spending his summers working as a cattle puncher in West Texas. Whether or not Slaughter actually sang at the Kahn Saloon, as noted in the historical marker above, is debated, as he left Jefferson before the age of seventeen.
In the late 1890s, Try moved with his mother to Dallas, where he attended the Dallas Conservatory of Music, and later married Sadie Lee Moore–Livingston, with whom he had two children, Marion Try III, and Janice. Around 1908, feeling free from his commitment to his now re-married mother, Slaughter moved his family to New York, to pursue work as an operatic tenor. Living in the Bronx, Slaughter found work in a piano warehouse and as a church singer.
By 1910, Slaughter was performing opera in New York, and before long he found a role in Puccini’s Girls of the Golden West, which toured eighty-seven cities in America. Around that time, after seeing a newspaper advertisement calling for new recording artists, Slaughter made several trials for Thomas Edison, and adopted the stage name Vernon Dalhart, after the Texas towns of those names.
Following successful runs in The Merry Widow, Madame Butterfly, and H.M.S. Pinafore over the following years, Dalhart began recording professionally for Edison, Columbia, and Emerson, and later Victor Records. Dalhart had a wide repertoire that encompassed several genres of song including operatic and popular songs, and later as a vocalist for dance bands. Dalhart was quite popular at the time, and touring the nation in various engagements including Edison’s Tone Tests, which compared real artists to their recordings.
Singing some songs in his native dialect, some have accused Dalhart of using an artificial accent. Insisting that his inflection was genuine, Dalhart said in 1918, “When you are born and brought up in the South your only trouble is to talk any other way…the sure ‘nough Southerner talks almost like a Negro, even when he’s white. I’ve broken myself of the habit, more or less, in ordinary conversation, but it still comes pretty easy”.
In May of 1924, after hearing the Henry Whitter’s 1923 recording for Okeh Records, Vernon Dalhart recorded the now-classic railroad ballad “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97” on Edison Diamond Disc. Having transcribed the lyrics from Whitter’s recording, some words sung by Dalhart are incorrect.
Following the success of his Diamond Disc, Dalhart took “Wreck of the Old 97” to the Victor Talking Machine Company, who agreed to record it if he could provide a suitable song for the flip-side of the record. For this demand, Dalhart procured “The Prisoner’s Song”, a folk song that he had heard from his cousin Guy Massey, in whose name Dalhart copyrighted the song (though Victor’s recording director Nat Shilkret claimed, “that’s [The Prisoner’s Song] the one that guy stole from me”). Dalhart recorded the songs on August 13, 1924, accompanied on guitar by Carson J. Robison, a studio musician with Victor at the time, and Lou Raderman on viola. Dalhart’s performance of “The Prisoner’s Song” was issued on Victor 19427, and became one of the best-selling records and most popular songs of the 1920s, selling as many as seven million or more copies. Finding himself in high demand, Dalhart recorded the two songs for numerous labels that year, and Victor re-recorded them electrically the next year.
After witnessing the immense success of “The Prisoner’s Song”, Dalhart and Robison saw the profitability of this so-called “hillbilly music” and after Robison’s contract with Victor expired in 1925, the two launched a new career as a team, playing their form of commercialized country music. Over the next few years, the duo of Vernon Dalhart and Carson Robison, often accompanied by violinist Murray Kellner became the most popular country music team of the day, recording several thousand titles across practically every record label, and under numerous pseudonyms. Some of the many songs they recorded include the Lindbergh flight topical songs, “Lucky Lindy” and “Lindbergh (Eagle of the USA)”, “The Letter Edged in Black”, and “In The Baggage Coach Ahead”, as well as numerous other songs about train wrecks. The pair repeated the success of The Prisoner’s Song in 1927 with Robison’s “My Blue Ridge Mountain Home”.
In 1927, the popularity of Vernon Dalhart’s hit record of “The Prisoner’s Song” led the Victor Talking Machine Company to, in an effort to replicate its success, make a series of field recordings of country music in Bristol, Tennessee. Known today as the Bristol Sessions, a landmark event in the history of country music, artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family made their first recordings there. However, the new stars created by those sessions soon began to put a strain on Dalhart’s monopoly on the hillbilly market.
Success was not to be long-lived for the duo, however, as tensions were growing between Dalhart and Robison. Dalhart, who Robison claimed was a difficult man to work with, had been collecting a portion of royalties from Robison’s compositions, which frustrated the songwriter. Tensions came to a head when, while Robison was vacationing, Dalhart replaced violinist Murray Kellner with his friend from his early recording days, Adelyne Hood. While Robison reportedly respected Hood, he resented Dalhart for making such a move without his input. Nevertheless, Dalhart, Robison, and Hood continued making records together until, following a contract dispute, Robison found a new partner in fellow Kansan Frank Luther in 1928. The team of Luther and Robison soon supplanted Dalhart as the nation’s country music powerhouse.
Despite the loss of his guitarist and frequent songwriter Carson Robison, Vernon Dalhart continued to and enjoy success and make records with Adelyne Hood, and also entered the budding field of radio, but his days in the spotlight were numbered. As the roaring 1920s drew to a close, and the Great Depression of the 1930s loomed, Dalhart’s record production dwindled, though he continued to appear on radio with Hood. In the early 1930s, Dalhart made only a few records, including one for Durium and two sessions with Crown. Where he once in high demand, he now only sang on the dime store labels and faded from the spotlight entirely.
Having lost a fortune in the crash of 1929, Dalhart was forced to sell his large estate in Mamaroneck, New York and live a more modest existence in the 1930s. After only appearing sporadically on the radio for most of that decade, Dalhart returned to Victor Records in April of 1939 for his first recording session since a Brunswick session in 1934, and recorded six sides released on Bluebird as Vernon Dalhart and his Big Cypress Boys, named for the Big Cypress Bayou in his hometown of Jefferson, Texas. This session would turn out to be his last time in the recording studio.
In 1940, Dalhart had taken up residence in Bridgeport, Connecticut and worked teaching voice. He served as a security guard for a factory during the Second World War, and finally as a mere night clerk at Bridgeport’s Barnum Hotel, the job he held when he died of a heart attack on September 14, 1948, the days of his stardom having long passed. He was buried in the Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport.
Dalhart was fondly remembered by his proteges including “Red River Dave” McEnery, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995. In 1998, Dalhart’s “The Prisoner’s Song” was inducted into the the Grammy Hall of Fame.