Marion Try Slaughter II, a singer known as Vernon Dalhart, was born in Jefferson, Texas. He was the only child of Robert Marion and Mary Jane (Castleberry) Slaughter. The 1900 census indicates that Try (as he was called) was born in 1881, while his World War I draft registration card states 1882 and his World War II draft registration card lists 1884. Still, his date of birth is listed as April 6, 1883, in his obituaries and on his grave. Due to the family's use of this date it is the generally accepted year of birth. Try's parents had married in 1880 and moved to a ranch run by Bob and his brother. Although Try was born in Jefferson, he grew up on the ranch outside of town, where he learned to ride and shoot at an early age. He also learned to play the harmonica and Jew's harp while still a small child.
Try was named for his grandfather, who was notorious in Jefferson for his violent ways and was almost certainly a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless in 1880 the grandfather was appointed a deputy sheriff of Marion County. Later he became the Jefferson town constable, a position he held until his death in 1886. His son, Robert, inherited his father's violent ways. Robert Castleberry, Try's uncle, thought Bob Slaughter was mistreating his sister, and a feud soon developed between the two Bobs. In 1893, one of their violent arguments ended in the death of Bob Slaughter in the alley behind Kahn's Saloon. The shooting seems to have been in self-defense, since Bob Castleberry was never tried for murder. In fact, Slaughter's widow soon moved into Jefferson with her son to live with her brother.
Try attended school in Jefferson for several years and also took singing lessons. As he grew older he spent his summers in West Texas working as a cowboy. He continued his singing during the school year and often sang at local affairs. Legend has it that he often sang at the Kahn Saloon before he left Jefferson. If so, it was at a young age, since he left Jefferson before he was seventeen. Try and his mother moved around 1898 to Dallas, where he continued his musical education at the Dallas Conservatory of Music and worked at various jobs to support himself and his growing family. He married Sadie Lee Moore–Livingston in 1902 and by 1904 had a son, Marion Try III, and a daughter, Janice.
Encouraged by his teachers at the conservatory, Try moved to New York around 1908. After settling in an apartment in the Bronx, he supported his family by working in a piano warehouse and taking singing jobs as a church soloist. Meanwhile he continued studying voice to prepare himself for his eventual goal, opera and the concert stage. By 1910 he was performing with one of the many opera groups operating in the New York area. The following year, he had progressed enough to be hired as one of the minor principals for a six-month tour of Puccini's Girl of the Golden West, performed in English. The tour covered eighty-seven cities across the continent. While in rehearsal for the opera, Try made a trial cylinder for Edison Records. The cylinder was filed away by Edison and forgotten. Shortly after the recording attempt, Try picked a stage name to use for his first listing as a principal in Girl of the Golden West. He chose the names of two West Texas towns, near where he had worked on a ranch during his teens: Vernon Dalhart.
In the years following Girl of the Golden West, Dalhart toured with various opera companies performing tenor roles such as Camilla Jolidon in The Merry Widow and Lt. Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly. One of his best-known roles was Ralph Rackstraw in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M S. Pinafore. He performed this role at the Hippodrome in New York in 1914 and also toured with the road-show version.
In 1915 he made further record tests—with Edison in January and Columbia in February. Finally, in 1916, Dalhart managed to record for both of those companies and a third, Emerson. His first record release was "Just a Word of Sympathy," issued in December 1916 on Columbia. Emerson released two Dalhart records later the same month. Dalhart's first Edison recording, "Can't You Heah Me Callin', Caroline?" was issued in 1917. On April 30, 1917, before his first Edison record was released, Dalhart signed a contract with Edison; he recorded for the company almost exclusively for the next two years. He also continued concert appearances as well as touring for the famous Edison Tone Tests.
Dalhart was versatile from the beginning of his recording career, doing everything from classical to popular music as well as children's songs and vocal refrains for dance bands. His recording career continued to grow, albeit slowly, and by mid-1924 he had made well over 400 recordings that appeared on more than 800 sides in the United States and at least 200 sides abroad.
In May 1924, Dalhart talked Edison into letting him record a song he had heard and thought he could do well with his native accent. His "The Wreck of the Old 97" (also known as "The Wreck on the Southern Old 97"), made with Frank Ferera on guitar and with Dalhart playing the harmonica between choruses, did well enough that Dalhart asked Victor, a much larger company, to let him do it on trial. This time Carson Robison, a contract artist for Victor, played the guitar along with Dalhart's harmonica and vocal. For the B-side, an old folk song was rearranged and used. Dalhart had heard the song from his cousin, Guy Massey. It was recorded with Robison again playing guitar and Lou Raderman playing viola. Both songs were accepted by Victor and issued in November 1924. "The Wreck of the Old 97," with its B-side, "The Prisoner's Song," achieved phenomenal success as the first million-selling country record in the history of American music and launched country music onto the national market as a viable genre for major record companies.
As soon as the B-side showed signs of popularity, Dalhart copyrighted "The Prisoner's Song" under his cousin's name and split the royalties with Guy Massey, 95 percent for himself and 5 percent for Guy. (Years later all rights were returned to the Massey family.) The song became enormously popular. Within a year it was being heard everywhere. Dalhart performed it on radio and recorded it for almost every record company in the United States. His recordings of this song appeared on more than fifty labels. In addition, the song was recorded as a waltz and by dance and jazz bands, often with a vocal refrain by Dalhart, although he was usually not identified on the record.
In 1926 the song was re-recorded electrically by Victor and Columbia and re-released using the original record numbers. The song continued to sell until the late 1930s and became popular in every English-speaking country in the world. It has been said that "The Prisoner's Song" was the biggest-selling record of the acoustical era, but this is difficult to substantiate, since many copies sold were of the electric version. It was certainly the biggest-selling song of the 1920s.
Dalhart and Robison teamed up as soon as Robison's Victor contract expired. Robison performed as singer, whistler, and guitarist on Dalhart's recordings and also became a prolific composer, writing many of Dalhart's hits. Over the next three years, Dalhart and Robison, usually accompanied by violinist Murray Kellner, made records for almost every company in the United States. Among the most popular were "My Blue Ridge Mountain Home," "In The Baggage Coach Ahead," "Golden Slippers," "The Death Of Floyd Collins," and "The Letter Edged In Black."
Although Dalhart started accumulating pseudonyms almost as soon as he began recording, they now began to multiply. Many of the names were used by the record companies without Dalhart's knowledge, usually to avoid the same name appearing on labels selling for seventy-five cents and others selling for twenty-five cents. At least eighty pseudonyms have been verified as used by Dalhart in the United States. At least thirty more were used in England, Australia, and Canada. Dalhart also recorded with many musical groups without being identified on the label.
By 1926 he was doing well enough to purchase a large estate in Mamaroneck, New York, where he had moved in 1922. In addition to real estate purchases, Dalhart also invested a lot of his money in the stock market.
In May 1927, while Robison was on his honeymoon in Kansas, Dalhart replaced their violinist, Murray Kellner, with Adelyne Hood. Dalhart had met her during an early Edison Tone Test tour. She was an accomplished violinist and pianist and also sang. Although Robison respected Hood, he resented Dalhart's making a change in their group without his approval. Robison was already unhappy with Dalhart since Dalhart was claiming a portion of the royalties on Robison's songs that Dalhart recorded. Despite Robison's discontent, the trio of Hood, Robison, and Dalhart recorded together for a year, and some of Dalhart's most popular songs were released during this time. However, in mid-1928, Dalhart signed a contract with Columbia over Robison's objections. This was the end of their partnership. Robison found a new partner in Frank Luther and left Dalhart.
Although the new contract prevented Dalhart from recording for all the record companies as he had in the past, he still managed to record over 200 songs after Robison left. Hood usually backed him, often with additional contract musicians. But the loss of Robison's songwriting, the decline of record sales due to radio and the Great Depression, plus competition from new country artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, all contributed to the decline in Dalhart's popularity.
Dalhart lost many of his investments in the Crash of '29. Eventually he was forced to sell his large mansion and move to a smaller home in Mamaroneck. By 1931 the record industry had almost disappeared. Many performing artists were now relying on radio, not recordings, for their income. Dalhart had earlier appeared on network radio as a guest star, and in 1931, along with Adelyne Hood, he signed up to host a network show for Barbasol. The show, Barber Shop Chords, did not do well and left the air after only six months. In the spring of 1931 Dalhart and Hood traveled to England, apparently for a few personal appearances. While there they did two recording sessions, recording eight songs with an English orchestra. Two of the four songs released were never issued in the United States.
Dalhart made only a few records over the next few years. In 1938 he toured upstate New York, where he appeared at a few fairs and conventions. He also performed on a local radio station to generate interest in his personal appearances. In 1939 he signed with RCA Victor and in one recording session cut six songs with a group called Vernon Dalhart and his Big Cypress Boys. Dalhart named the group after Big Cypress Bayou, near Jefferson, Texas, but the musicians were hired only for the session. The six songs, released on the Bluebird label, were not promoted by RCA and sold poorly. Dalhart never recorded again.
In 1943 he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he took a job as a security guard at a defense plant. After the war ended, he set up as a voice coach in Bridgeport. In addition, he worked as a night baggage clerk at the Barnum Hotel. He had a serious heart attack in January 1948 and was under a doctor's care when he died of a coronary occlusion on September 14, 1948. He is buried alongside his wife and son in the family plot at Mountain Grove Cemetery. His daughter is buried with her husband in a nearby section.
Many people, including Carson Robison, have stated Dalhart was a difficult man to work with. However, others say he was easy to get along with and was a gentleman to work for. Two Dalhart protégés, Bobby Gregory and Red River Dave McEnery, always spoke of him with great affection. In 1970 the Nashville Songwriters Association inducted him into their Hall of Fame. The Country Music Foundation called Dalhart a one-man recording industry when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1981. They were not far off. Dalhart recorded over 1,600 songs between 1916 and 1939, for nearly every record company in the United States. He appeared on over 5,200 sides for a total of more than 3,300 records issued under 173 labels. In 1995, during Dalhart Days in Jefferson, Dalhart was belatedly inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1998 his recording of "The Prisoner's Song" for Victor was honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
Paul Kingsbury, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music (London: MuzeUK Limited, 1998), Volume 2. Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985). Jamey Moore, "From the Hills of Home," Texas Historian, 40.1 (September 1979).
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Slaughter, Marion Try II [Vernon Dalhart],”
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