The Legacy of Tex Ritter
America’s Most Beloved Singing Cowboy Lives On Through His Heirs and Hometown
This summer marks 20 years since the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage began holding an event to honor outstanding contributors to the industry. Among the six inductees that first year in 1998 was Panola County’s hometown hero and America’s most beloved singing cowboy, Tex Ritter.
Maurice Woodward “Tex” Ritter was born January 12, 1905, the youngest of six children of James Everett and Elizabeth Matthews Ritter. They were ranchers in the Murvaul community just south of Carthage.
Tex grew up in a family that loved music and they liked to sing in church. As a teenager, he studied voice, trumpet, and guitar. He graduated high school with honors in 1922 and enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study law. After traveling to Chicago with a musical troupe, he entered Northwestern Law School.
But Tex was soon derailed from a law career by a love of country music and show business. In 1928 he sang cowboy songs on a radio program in Houston and later moved to New York City and landed a job in the men’s chorus of the Broadway show The New Moon. He appeared as a cowboy in the Broadway production Green Grow the Lilacs in 1931, which was the basis for the musical Oklahoma!. He played the part of Sagebrush Charlie in The Round Up in 1932 and Mother Lode in 1934.
During the early 1930s, Tex performed on numerous radio shows, singing and telling tales of the Old West and he began recording songs with his first release being “Goodbye Old Paint.” “Rye Whiskey” soon followed and in 1935 he signed with Decca Records where he released his first original recordings, “Sam Hall” and “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo.” He recorded 29 songs for Decca, the last in 1939 in Los Angeles as part of Tex Ritter and His Texans.
Tex was also cast during this time in guest-starring roles on TV shows including Death Valley Days and The Rebel.
In 1936 Tex moved to Los Angeles and began his movie career. His motion picture debut was Song of the Gringo. He starred in 12 B-movie Westerns including Headin’ for the Rio Grande and Trouble in Texas co-starring Rita Hayworth. Between 1938 and 1945, Tex starred in around 40 “singing cowboy” movies.
A small sampling of famous posters from among the 40 or so movies in which Tex Ritter starred, a career that spanned 30 years starting in 1936.
From 1938 to 1940, Tex made four movies with a young actress named Dorothy Fay from Prescott, Arizona: Song of the Buckaroo, Sundown on the Prairie, Rollin’ Westward, and Rainbow Over the Range.
Tex and Dorothy Fay Southworth married June 14, 1941.
He teamed up with Johnny Mack Brown for films Deep in the Heart of Texas and The Old Chisholm Trail in 1942 and The Lone Star Trail, Raiders of San Joaquin, and Cheyenne Roundup in 1943. He was also the star of the films Arizona Trail, Marshal of Gunsmoke, and Oklahoma Raiders from 1943-44. And in 1944-45 he did eight features as “Texas Ranger Tex Haines.”
About this time Tex turned his attention to his recording career. In 1944 his “I’m Wastin’ My Tears On You” hit No. 1 on the country chart and 11 on the pop chart. Billboard magazine noted years later that with that song, he “reached the style of rhythmic tune that would assure his musical stature.”
For the next few years Tex cranked out one chart topper after another including “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder,” “You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often,” “Rye Whiskey,” “The Deck of Cards,” “Pecos Bill,” and “Daddy’s Last Letter.”
Tex and Dorothy welcomed first son Thomas Matthews Ritter on January 8, 1947, and son Jonathan Southworth Ritter on September 17, 1948.
Tex Ritter, wife Dorothy Fay, and their sons Tom and John. Photos courtesy of Tex Ritter Museum, Carthage, Texas.
In 1952 Tex recorded the movie title track “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin’)” which became a hit. At the first televised Academy Awards ceremony in 1953, he sang the song, and received an Oscar for Best Song that year.
During the early 1950s he began performing on TV on shows like Town Hall Party and Ranch Party in Los Angeles and in 1955 made his national TV debut on ABC’s Ozark Jubilee, followed by its 1961 NBC spin off, Five Star Jubilee.
Tex released his first long-play (LP) album, Songs from the Western Screen, in 1957. In 1961, he hit the charts with “I Dreamed of a Hill-Billy Heaven.”
He was one of the founding members of the Country Music Association in Nashville and spearheaded the effort to build the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Inducted in 1964, he was the first singing cowboy to be honored there.
Tex and Dorothy Fay moved to Nashville in 1965 and he went to work for WSM Radio and the Grand Ole Opry, earning a lifetime membership in the latter in 1970. For a time, Dorothy was an official greeter at the Opry. During this period, Tex co-hosted a late-night radio program with country disc jockey Ralph Emery.
In 1966, Tex played himself in the movie Nashville Rebel, where moviegoers were introduced to a little-known 29-year-old country singer named Waylon Jennings.
In 1967, “Just Beyond the Moon” hit No. 3 on the country chart.
For the next few years, Tex dabbled in politics and toured with his band.
On a snowy January 2, 1974, Tex went to the courthouse in Nashville to bail his lead guitar player out of jail (arrested for not paying child support). While waiting for his band mate’s release, Tex sat down in a chair and died right there. It was ruled a heart attack then, but years later, the family would come to learn about aortic aneurysms and believe now that was the cause of his death.
Tex died just 10 days before his 69th birthday. His last hit record was a cover of “The Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion)” which made the charts shortly after his death.
Tex Ritter followed his dreams and lived life to the fullest. For his contribution to the recording industry, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Museum in Oklahoma City in 1980, and received numerous other accolades throughout his life.
Besides leaving the world with a treasure chest of entertainment, his heirs continue to resonate his generous and vibrant spirit.
TWO GOOD SONS
Tex and Dorothy Fay’s two sons — Tom and John — grew up in southern California in the 1950s with two famous parents and with Tex deeply steeped in movie and music recording fame. With a “singing cowboy” for a father, the boys spent most of their time with their mother, as Tex was on the road performing much of the time.
First son Tom was born with cerebral palsy. Tex helped start United Cerebral Palsy, an international leading advocate for adults and children with disabilities and the family spent a great deal of time raising money and public awareness to help others with the disorder.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2001, John talked about growing up with his brother.
”The idea of feeling the responsibility of watching out for your older sibling is something I can identify with [but] I thought my brother was much stronger, tougher and meaner than my parents thought. I thought they coddled him.
“If he fell down, I’d say, ‘Get up.’”
Later, Tom went to law school, which was where their parents wanted both of the boys to go, while John pursued drama. “He was the good son,” John jokes.
Today, Tom is married to Pamela and they live in the Los Angeles area. He is involved with his church activities and likes to visit his father’s beloved Panola County, Texas, when he can.
John followed in his parents footsteps and became a famous actor. As early as 1968 he began appearing in TV shows with a resume that includes almost 100 different shows and 42 movies. A couple of his most notable movies include Problem Child and Sling Blade. But it was TV that brought his charming smile and quick wit into living rooms around the world. His biggest recurring role early in his career was as Rev. Matthew Fordwick on The Waltons, from 1972 to 1976.
By this time Tex and Dorothy could see their youngest son was bound for stardom but it wasn’t until shortly after Tex’s death that the world fell in love with John as the delightfully entertaining Jack Tripper in Three’s Company that ran from 1976 to 1984. The sequel Three’s a Crowd followed from 1984-1985 and many other successes came later including his role as Detective Harry Hooperman from 1987-1989, playing a senator’s aide in Hearts Afire from 1992-1995, and providing the voice of Clifford the Big Red Dog from 2000-2003.
His last sitcom was 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. After 31 episodes, John suddenly collapsed on the set and passed way from an aortic aneurysm September 11, 2003, the same thing it is now believed that killed his father.
In Remembering John Ritter: A Life of Laughter that aired just weeks after his death, John’s family and co-workers paid tribute to him. Diane Sawyer emceed and said, “It’s as if John knew he had 90 years of living to spread around in just 55 years.”
Like his father, John did indeed pack a lot of living into his short life.
Tex and John became the first father-and-son duo to get stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Dorothy Fay lived to see two generations of her family enjoy celebrity status and fulfilling careers and the promise of what may come with the births and young lives of her grandchildren. She suffered a stroke that impacted her speech in 1987 and moved in to the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in California in 1989. She died of natural causes at the age of 88 on November 5, 2003, less than two months after John’s death.
GENERATIONS OF TALENTED RITTERS: Tex, John, Jason, Carly, Tyler, and a young Stella with John. Courtesy photos
THE LEGACY CONTINUES
Through John’s lineage, the Tex Ritter legacy continues with four grandchildren. The youngest, Stella, was born September 11, 1998, just five years to the day before her father died. She has just completed her first year of college.
Daughter Carly was born March 1, 1982. Like her grandfather, Carly was born with a gift for singing and songwriting among many other passions. She graduated from Vassar College and has worked for several non-profit organizations and released a CD titled Carly Ritter in 2013. She lives in Oakland, California, is married to her college sweetheart, engineer Tim Rappold, and they have a one-year-old daughter, Aria Marie, who delightfully takes up most of her time these days.
In an interview with County Line Magazine, Carly talks about her famous father and grandfather and those that carry on the legacy today.
“I never got to meet Tex,” Carly says, “but hearing what a huge and generous person he was in the world means so much.”
She and her siblings of course heard much about their legendary grandfather while growing up with their equally legendary father. But beyond all the “celebrity” were much greater lessons in giving back to others, lessons they learned early in life going to summer camps that helped other kids, and watching the adults in the family.
“[They] did telethons for many years,” she recalls. “They were all very active in raising awareness for cerebral palsy and helping make things more disability acceptable. My grandmother devoted her life to that among many other wonderful things.”
Carly says her father’s fun-hearted and generous energy that came across on screen was the way he was in real life too.
“He brightened up every room and every place he went,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because he lost his father so young, but he always said ‘You don’t take days for granted’ and he really lived that way. The most important thing to him was spreading joy. He was an incredible actor but he did so many unspoken deeds.”
The Ritter children knew much of that desire to help others came from John’s parents as they were told one story after another of ways Tex and Dorothy served, even sitting with a woman through the birth of her baby just because she asked them to, and then helping her with financial assistance during the baby’s first few weeks.
“This sort of kindness and generosity that they all participated in still comes back to bless us,” Carly says. “My dad focused on people more than anything. We were so blessed to get to be his family and see who he was in the world.”
While Carly said she considered acting as a career at one point in her life, she quickly decided she didn’t inherit those genes like her brothers did.
Oldest brother Jason was born February 17, 1980.
“He knew quite early that acting is what he wanted to do,” Carly says.
He got his first taste of performing as a child in the opening credits of his father’s show, Three’s Company. He was the little blonde-haired boy running up to Joyce DeWitt in the petting zoo scene.
He’s had roles in more than 60 movies to date including Freddy vs. Jason, The Education of Charlie Banks, and his most recent, an HBO release, The Tale. Almost 40 television show credits include Parenthood, Gravity Falls, Another Period, and he most recently starred in the TV comedy series Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.
Jason was nominated for two Primetime Emmys and he received another four nominations for other acting awards.
He is currently engaged to actress Melanie Lynskey.
Brother Tyler was born January 31, 1985. Despite having acted in high school plays and student films, following his father’s unexpected death while he was still in his teens, Tyler originally decided not to pursue acting professionally. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, he worked for three years as a teacher in Argentina. At the age of 25, he made the decision to return to Los Angeles and pursue an acting career.
Tyler married Argentinian film director Lelia Parma in 2007.
He is well known for his role in the TV series The McCarthys that ran in 2014-15. His most recent projects include the TV mystery thriller Stillwater that released this spring and numerous guest spots on the action adventure show Arrow as Detective Billy Malone.
On June 9, 2017, he and his wife welcomed their first child, son Benjamin Parma Ritter.
BACK TO TEX RITTER ROOTS
Keeping the Tex Ritter legacy alive in Panola County, Texas, is cousin Tommie Ritter Smith. She spearheaded the establishment of the Tex Ritter Museum in Carthage in 1992. The museum was initially housed on the top floor of an antebellum home. In 1997 it began to expand to include friends of Tex Ritter and other Texas-born country music legends and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame was born. To make room for the expansion, the city built a $2.2 million, 13,000-square foot structure that opened in August 2002 and houses the current museum and hall of fame.
Tom (left) and John Ritter show their appreciation to cousin Tommie Ritter Smith during the first award ceremony for the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage in 1998. The brothers accepted an award on their father’s behalf as one of the first recipients. Courtesy photo
Tommie said Tom, John, and all of John’s children have been to the museum that teaches them so much about the life and times of Tex Ritter and the fans that still keep his memory alive today.
“They are the most wonderful children you’ll ever meet,” Tommie says. “Stella came one year with her mother and helped with a display. They’ve all been to the museum several times, Carly more than the others.”
The Tex Ritter Museum takes up about a quarter of the Hall of Fame building space. It depicts the story of Tex’s life from farm boy to popular music icon and includes many collections of his cowboy tunes as well as his work on Broadway, radio, and in the movies.
Welcoming visitors outside the front door is a life-size bronze statue of Tex and his horse.
“More than 30,000 country music fans have come from all over the world so far to see great moments of Tex Ritter history,” Tommie says.
LET THE CEREMONY BEGIN
Tommie and other Carthage citizens began an annual event in 1998 to celebrate the contributions of Texans to the country music profession and induct them into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. Among the first honorees was Tex Ritter along with Jim Reeves, Willie Nelson, Gene Autry, Cindy Walker, and Joe Allison.
Tex had been gone for almost 25 years by then. His sons attended that first ceremony and accepted the award for their father.
“This is just beautiful,” John said, in video capturing the day. “Tom and I were standing backstage watching this glorious program.”
The brothers have some comedic fun back and forth at the microphone and then Tom takes over.
“There are a couple of reasons why I think my dad would be honored to be inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame,” Tom says. “One, this is where it all began, this is where he grew up, where his family and some of his dearest friends were. And the other reason is because all of the other members being inducted tonight were his friends. He used to say ‘Friends are like family.’ So we’re very happy to help honor dad by honoring everybody else as well. We’ve come full circle now.”
Tex Ritter fans are thrilled to hear his granddaughter Carly’s beautiful versions of some of his songs and other old cowboy tunes on SoundCloud and a few on her YouTube channel like “I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” “I’ve Sold My Saddle for an Old Guitar,” and “Snowflake,” along with her own songs.
Carly says she’ll continue her music and after baby Aria gets a little older she hopes to get back into more non-profit work. She and her brothers are often spotted helping out with charities, the latest being an upcoming fundraiser for finding a cure for Huntington’s disease (as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s).
“Nonprofit work is where my heart is,” Carly says. “I imagine [Aria] getting older and having more time for that, maybe combining my love of music and working with children. I love working with children and young people.
“Knowing how amazing it is to have my own child now enforces my desire to make the world better for her and all children. I look forward to channeling that at some point.”
She sees herself working with kids to help them with healthy conflict management and also building community.
“Building relationships where people feel heard,” is important she says. “If someone’s feeling isolated someone should notice. We need a lot more relationship building and training for dealing with human emotions and where to constructively put them.”
Recently Carly and her brothers and families got together with their Uncle Tom and his wife to introduce the two newest members of the Ritter clan. The one-year-old cousins were born just three days apart.
Tyler and his wife Lelia brought Benjamin Parma Ritter into the world in 2017, the first great-grandchild of Tex Ritter. Photo by Tija Zamparelli.
The youngest member of the Ritter clan is Carly’s daughter Aria born just three days after her cousin Benjamin — at a year old, she’s already showing an interest in her mother’s guitar — the legacy continues. Photo by Carly Ritter
The newest generation has a lot to learn about their famous “singing cowboy” great grandfather, and fortunately they can hear his voice and see his talents through music and film and hear the stories passed down through family members of not only his career but of the way he lived.
“It’s this humbling thing to carry forward this legacy of goodness to other people,” Carly says.
She recalls hearing a speech Tex made where he talks about what music does for people.
“He said it helps us see where we need to grow and shows us our commonalities and that we are all part of each other.
“He laid out a good road map of how to be in the world. You can have fame and do wonderful things in arts and music but not lose sight of how we treat each other in relationships we make along the way.
“He never made it about fame,” she says. “He cared about the people that were coming to hear him sing. The more I hear about my grandfather and what he did for people, the more I feel I better do his legacy good and work in my small way to carry that on.”
To learn more about the genetic disorder that cut short the lives of Tex and John Ritter, visit The John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health at www.johnritterfoundation.org.