Tex Ritter, country singer and movie star, son of James Everett and Elizabeth (Matthews) Ritter, was born Woodward Maurice Ritter on January 12, 1905, in Murvaul, Panola County. Ritter's signature as a student at the University of Texas shows that he spelled his first name Woodard (not Woodward), and a delayed birth certificate filed in Panola County in 1942 also shows the spelling Woodard; however, all printed sources use the spelling Woodward. He moved to Nederland in Jefferson County, to live with a sister, and graduated from South Park High School in nearby Beaumont. He attended the University of Texas from 1922 to 1927, spending one year in the law school there, 1925–26. As a student he was influenced by J. Frank Dobie, Oscar J. Fox, and John A. Lomax—who encouraged his study of authentic cowboy songs. Ritter, more interested in music, did not take a degree; for a time he was president of the Men's Glee Club at the university. He also attended Northwestern University for one year in 1929 before he began singing western and mountain songs on radio station KPRC in Houston in 1929.
The following year he was with a musical troupe touring the South and the Midwest; by 1931 he was in New York and had joined the Theatre Guild. His role in Green Grow the Lilacs (predecessor to the musical Oklahoma) drew attention to the young "cowboy," and he became the featured singer with the Madison Square Garden Rodeo in 1932. Further recognition led to his starring in one of the first western radio programs to be featured in New York, "The Lone Star Rangers." His early appeal to New Yorkers as the embodiment of a Texas cowboy, in spite of his roots in the rural southern music tradition, undoubtedly led to his first movie contract in 1936.
Tex appeared in eighty-five movies, including seventy-eight Westerns, and was ranked among the top ten money-making stars in Hollywood for six years. Although his movies owed much to the genre begun by other singing cowboys such as Gene Autry, Ritter used traditional folk songs in his movies rather than the modern "western" ditties. Films such as Arizona Frontier (1940), The Utah Trail (1938), and Roll Wagons Roll (1939) earned him a reputation for ambitious plots and vigorous action not always found in low-budget Westerns. Tex Ritter's successful recordings, which began with "Rye Whiskey" in 1931, included over the years "High Noon" (1952), "Boll Weevil" (1945), "Wayward Wind," "Hillbilly Heaven," and "You Are My Sunshine" (1946). Ranch Party, a television series featuring Ritter, ran from 1959 to 1962. His version of “High Noon” from the highly-acclaimed movie High Noon won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1953.
He was married to Dorothy Fay Southworth on June 14, 1941; they were the parents of two sons. His younger son, John, became well-known through his television shows, Three's Company and Hearts Afire. In 1964 Tex Ritter was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, only the fifth person to be so honored; he also served as president of the Country Music Association from 1963 to 1965 and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1965. In 1970 he made an unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate seat from Tennessee. He died in Nashville, Tennessee, on January 2, 1974; funeral services were held in Nederland, Texas, near Port Neches, and he was buried at Oak Bluff Memorial Park in nearby Port Neches.
In 1980 he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. The Texas Ritter Museum opened on October 18, 1992, in Carthage, Texas, (in Panola County) and contained memorabilia from his career. In 1998 he was an inaugural inductee into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, also located in Carthage, and in 2003 both the Texas Ritter Museum and Texas Country Music Hall of Fame were housed together. Ritter has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is also honored in the Museum of the Gulf Coast’s Music Hall of Fame in Port Arthur.