By Jim Poulton
Carl T. Sprague. Credit: Bluegrass Messengers
Carl T. Sprague – not exactly a name you associate with a hit record, but Sprague is the name of the man who recorded the first cowboy/country ‘hit.’ In 1925, the young Texan traveled to Camden, New Jersey to record ‘When the Work’s All Done This Fall.’ The song – remarkably clear and concise for a recording from the first quarter of the 20th century – went on to become a huge hit, selling over 900,000 copies (a recording was considered successful in those days if it sold 5,000).
Another of Sprague’s early hits was ‘The Cowboy,’ recorded in 1927.
Sprague was born in 1895 on a ranch near Houston, Texas. As a young man, he accompanied his uncle, who had worked as a cowboy from the late 1880s, on cattle drives between Texas and the railheads in Kansas. That’s where he first heard the poems, ballads and songs of the drovers who lived their lives on the move, sleeping under the stars and spending hot days coaxing stubborn cattle into line. Sprague imbibed the complete atmosphere of life on the trail (along, perhaps, with a little Texas whiskey), and from it emerged a direct and sincere voice almost perfectly suited to portraying the sometimes grand and sometimes tragic life of the cowboy.
XIT Ranch, Texas. 1903. On day herd with the XIT outfit in Texas. Credit: Library of Congress.
Sprague served in World War II and went to college at Texas A & M. During his college years, he played in a band and conducted a weekly radio program. In 1925 Victor offered him a recording contract, but between 1925 and 1929 he recorded only 33 songs. As with so many other musicians of the era, the Great Depression stepped in to squash any hopes he had of making music his full-time profession.
Sprague did not record again until 1972, when he cut an album for a German folk label. He was 77. He died on February 19, 1979.