Texas boy Carl T. Sprague was among the first cowboy singers to make records, with his first session taking place in 1925. He also holds the uncommon distinction of being perhaps my favorite cowboy singer.
Carl Tyler Sprague was born in Brazoria County, Texas, near the town of Manvel, on May 10, 1895. His family was involved in the thriving cattle business, through which the young Sprague learned the traditional songs of the cowboy. He attended Texas A&M to study agriculture, but was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. After the war’s end, he returned to Texas A&M, and graduated with a degree in animal husbandry. After graduating, he was employed as an athletic instructor at the university, a position which he held from 1922 until 1937, and acquired the nickname “Doc”. Following the success of Vernon Dalhart’s “mountaineer’s songs”, Sprague wrote to the Victor Talking Machine Company expressing interest having them record some of his cowboy songs. They apparently obliged, and Sprague traveled to Camden, New Jersey to make two test recordings. Victor must’ve liked them, because two months later, he returned to record a series of ten sides in sessions on the third, fourth, and fifth of August, 1925, half of which were issued. His first record, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”, became quite a hit, and proved that people were interested in hearing the song of the cowboy. That was followed by a further three sessions over the following three years in Camden, Savannah, Georgia, and Dallas, producing eighteen more sides, all of which were released. In spite of his records’ success, singing was but a hobby for Sprague, and he did not pursue a music career outside of record-making. He left his post at Texas A&M in 1937 and opened a store in Bryan, and when the Second World War rolled in, he served once again, as a recruiter. The folk revival of the 1960s brought Sprague back into music, and he played and lectured around the country, and recorded two LPs in 1972 and ’74. Carl T. Sprague died on February 21, 1979 in Bryan, Texas, where he had called home since 1920.
Victor 20122 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on June 22, 1926, at Sprague’s second series of sessions. The record was released in December of the same year, and remained in the catalog all the way until 1944, perhaps indicating it was Sprague’s greatest success. Sprague is accompanied by two fiddles played by H.J. McKenzie and C.R. Dockum.
Stark, bleak, and sorrowful, “O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy)” is a mesmerizing, repetitive, and minimalistic piece, with Sprague’s vocal backed by the beat of his guitar and the forlorn fiddle’s croon, which I feel really encapsulates an archetype of cowboy music. The song has been featured in recent years on Dust-to-Digital’s evocative multimedia collection I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs (1880-1955).
On “B”, Sprague sings “The Cowboy’s Dream”, a less depressing and rather enchanting melody. It also provides a demonstration of Sprague’s distinctive and simple-yet-pleasing style of playing guitar, which from both aural and photographic evidence, seems to have been done on a metal-bodied resonator, or at least it was by the end of his recording career in 1929.