There are questions that might stump even the most dedicated country music fan: Who kickstarted the country music industry in the 1920s, even before big names like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family? And why is this Texas musician buried in Bridgeport, Connecticut?
His name was Vernon Dalhart, and he released some of the best-selling records of the era, including “The Prisoner’s Song.”
“You can’t overemphasize the impact that Dalhart had on American music,” says country music historian Bill Malone. “He just revealed to the entertainment trade that the music he was doing had an appeal, that people wanted to hear it.”
By just about any measure, he was the first superstar in American country music. He recorded thousands of songs with virtually every recording label of the day. His two-sided single containing "The Prisoner's Song" and "Wreck of the Old '97" was the first million-selling country music record, and may have sold up to seven million copies – or more. To put that into comparison, that puts it on par with "Billie Jean," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
So why don’t more people know Vernon Dalhart’s name or his impact on American music? Or, for that matter, why he’s buried in Connecticut?
I started my search for answers with the Texas State Historical Association. Music historian Laurie Jasinski told me Dalhart didn’t start out singing this kind of music: his passion was opera.
“He would study opera-type styles, and all the while he’s going to West Texas and working on a ranch.”
Dalhart wanted to pursue his dreams. He left Texas for New York, toured with some opera companies, and then sang with various record labels, including Thomas Edison’s.
“He basically persuades Thomas Edison to let him record, basically, a country song,” Jasinski says. “At the time they called them hillbilly tunes. These were tunes he’d heard during his days when he was ranching and heard cowboys singing them, folk songs.”
One of these folk songs was “The Wreck of the Old ’97,” which would prove a huge hit for Dalhart.
When “The Wreck of the Old ’97” started to sell, Dalhart took it to the big label – Victor Records. And “hillbilly” music soon became the rage. He used his newfound wealth to buy a mansion in Mamaroneck, New York, and settled there. Meanwhile, record producers scoured the South to find singers with authentic country twangs. Historian Bill Malone says, on the other hand, Dalhart had this opera quality to his voice.
“It was hard for Dalhart to compete,” Malone says. “Compared to them he seemed artificial and stilted and a little bit condescending perhaps.”
Dalhart’s record sales slowed. He lost of lot of money in the Depression. He sold his mansion and moved to Bridgeport around 1940. He worked as a night clerk in Bridgeport’s Barnum Hotel, and died less than a decade later, largely unknown.
He’s buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, in the heart of Bridgeport. It’s the same cemetery where P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb are buried. But Dalhart’s not easy to find. For one thing, Vernon Dalhart wasn’t his real name – it was Marion T. Slaughter. He took the stage name of Vernon Dalhart by slapping together the names of two small Texas towns.
In 1981, Vernon Dalhart was finally recognized by the Country Music Hall of Fame – as one of the first to introduce this genre to a national audience. And his greatest hit, “The Prisoner’s Song” has been covered by musicians from Johnny Cash to Loudon Wainwright III.