Riley Crabtree, country music artist and regular performer on Big D Jamboree, was born on a farm in Mount Pleasant, Texas, on February 19, 1912. The youngest of eight children, he was stricken with polio when he was two years old, and the effects of the disease resulted in his dependence on crutches for the rest of his life. As a young man, he was inspired by the music of Jimmie Rodgers, and Crabtree’s heartfelt and bluesy vocal earned him first place at a singer’s convention on KPLT radio in Paris, Texas, in 1938. He toured with various acts through the World War II years, and around late 1945 he formed his own group, the Hillbilly Ramblers. They built up a popular following with their performances on KIMP radio in Mount Pleasant.
In 1949 Crabtree signed with the Talent (later known as Star Talent) label in Dallas and recorded at engineer Jim Beck’s studio. Crabtree chose to lay down songs by his idol Jimmie Rodgers during two sessions and also cut and released his own song, “Free From Shackles and Chains,” which achieved notable success locally. Impressed by Crabtree’s talents, producer Don Law signed him to Columbia on November 13, 1950. His remake of “Shackles and Chains” paired with “Get Away From It All” was also successful and gained Crabtree notice by Nashville and an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry as a regular cast member.
He chose not to move to Nashville but opted instead to remain in Dallas and join the cast of Big D Jamboree—a country program broadcast on KRLD every Saturday night. He based his decision in part out of responsibility to support his wife and two children with his day job as an auto mechanic—as his record contract never provided enough money to make a full-time living. On the Jamboree, Crabtree performed with an impressive cast of regulars as well as rising stars, including Sonny James, Hank Locklin, Sunshine Ruby, Charline Arthur, the Light Crust Doughboys, Billy Walker, and many others. His contract with Don Law and Columbia ended in late 1953, but he signed on with the Ekko label out of the West Coast two years later. From the later 1950s through 1965 Crabtree appeared on a number of independent labels, including Country Picnic (where he released “Tattle Tattle Tale” in 1957), Security, York, and Country Hit. He also branched out into rockabilly.
He suffered a stroke by the end of the 1960s and consequently was confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. He died in a fire caused by a defective electric blanket on April 1, 1984. He had apparently remarried, and his wife was able to escape the blaze and survived.
Crabtree’s songs reached new audiences in the early 2000s with the release of two CDs, Riley Crabtree—28 Original Tracks and The Rare Riley Crabtree Radio Sessions on two German labels, as well as a number of tracks on The Guys of Big “D” Jamboree in 2002.