CARTHAGE, Texas (AP) — If you’re not from East Texas, you may not be familiar with this handsome, little town northeast of Nacogdoches (and west of Deadwood). County seat of Panola County, home to Panola College, proud to call itself the “Gas Capital of the United States,” Carthage seems to mind its own business, thank you very much.
Then again, if you’ve seen the movie “Bernie,” director Richard Linklater’s 2011 dark comedy about a beloved funeral director who murders a wealthy — and unloved — older woman and stashes her body in her home freezer, then you know Carthage. Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey and based on a Texas Monthly story by Skip Hollandsworth, “Bernie” is a true-life tale that unfolded a couple of decades ago in a prosperous, pine-shaded neighborhood among unsuspecting Carthaginians.
Carthage native Tommie Ritter Smith knows “Bernie” — and Bernie — and she enjoyed the movie, but she’d prefer that when you think of her hometown, you’d think of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame & Tex Ritter Museum. Housed in a red-brick building a few blocks off the square, the superb, little museum was inspired by her cousin, the singing cowboy and movie star, Tex Ritter, who may be best known for his rendition of “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling,” the “High Noon” theme song. Ritter and the late Jim Reeves, the velvet-voiced country crooner of “He’ll Have to Go” and “Welcome to My World,” were both Panola County natives.
Smith, president and CEO of the hall and museum, told the Houston Chronicle about an experience she had as a chamber of commerce executive back in 1997, when the two sides of Carthage notoriety intertwined. The chamber had hired a bus to take several dozen local residents to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and Bernie was on the bus. What’s more, he was lavishing attention on another wealthy older woman. His fellow passengers couldn’t help but notice.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- They relied on rapid COVID tests to gather safely; now some wish they hadn't
- New sequence of images shows Tonga volcano's devastation
- Cracker Barrel served a cleaning chemical to a customer; now the restaurant must pay him $9.3M
- How to find a quality mask (and avoid counterfeits)
What Smith and her fellow Carthaginians didn’t know as the bus lumbered through Arkansas and across Tennessee is that their neighbor was already laid out among the frozen steaks back home.
It got worse, as far as Smith was concerned. Bernie and his new companion dared share a room in the Nashville hotel where the Carthage contingent stayed.
“What am I going to do?” Smith asked husband Bill. “We can’t have the chamber of commerce sanctioning an unmarried couple staying together in the same room!”
Bill calmed her down, reminding her that both were consenting adults (one of them for a very long time).
Carthage doesn’t attract many visitors eager to see Bernie Tiede landmarks, but Tex Ritter and his fellow country-music Texans attract more than 5,000 a year, including two busloads from Ireland and England a couple of days ago.
Those of a certain age remember watching Tex vanquish the guys in the black hats during Saturday-morning matinees at the local theater or later on tiny black-and-white TV screens. He recorded hundreds of songs in a career that lasted decades, hosted radio and TV shows, toured the country and the world with his band and even ran for the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. He lost in the 1970 Republican primary to Congressman Bill Brock, who went on to defeat the Democrat, Al Gore, Sr.
He was born Woodward Maurice Ritter in 1905 in a Panola County settlement called Murvaul, now a ghost town. When he was in the sixth grade, the Murvaul school burned, and “Woodard” transferred to Carthage and then to Beaumont’s South Park High School.
Entering the University of Texas in the fall of 1922, he saw himself as a budding lawyer, but he spent more time singing with the university glee club than studying pre-law. He also came under the influence of the legendary John A. Lomax, the nation’s foremost collector of cowboy songs, and the equally legendary J. Frank Dobie, collector of southwestern folk tales. Both encouraged young Ritter, by then proficient on the guitar, to learn cowboy songs and folk ballads.
In 1927, he wangled a job as choir director for Houston’s Third Presbyterian Church and also produced a 30-minute program of cowboy music over radio station KPRC on Saturday mornings. “He became radio’s first cowboy balladeer, a role he would later resume on the airways of New York City,” biographer Bill O’Neal writes.
When he arrived in New York in 1928, he quickly became “Tex,” thanks to his deep-voiced drawl. After a couple of months singing for peanuts in Greenwich Village, he landed a role in the chorus of “The New Moon,” a musical comedy by Oscar Hammerstein, and then as a guitar-strumming cowboy in “Green Grow the Lilacs,” forerunner to “Oklahoma.” He was an understudy to Franchot Tone as Curly, but the actor never relinquished the role.
Broadway led to radio and then to Hollywood, where he joined his hero Hoot Gibson and other screen cowboys turning out westerns by the hundreds. Ritter not only could sing and act but also could handle a horse. With his drawl, easy smile and tall, rangy physique, he soon was vying with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers as Hollywood’s most popular singing cowboy. Debuting in “Song of the Gringo” in 1936, he would go on to star in more than 70 B-westerns.
Tommie Smith last saw Ritter in 1970, at a Houston fundraiser for his Senate campaign. Three years later he ascended to “Hillbilly Heaven” (the title of one of his most popular songs). Smith brought him back to life, so to speak, when she left Houston in 1976, came back home to Carthage and took a job with the Panola County Chamber of Commerce. She realized that Carthage needed something authentically local to attract visitors; two Panola County legends, Ritter and Reeves, filled the bill.
The Tex Ritter Museum has been a success since its opening in the early ’90s, and so has the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. Its annual awards ceremony and show each August is a big event in Carthage. This year’s inductees were Kenny Rogers and Bobbie Lee Nelson, who took their place among Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, Mickey Gilley, Johnny Rodriguez, Gene Autry and other Texas luminaries.
You don’t have to be dead to be inducted, Smith said, just Texan — although many of the stars who’ve passed on are the most interesting. Their flashy, fringy outfits — irreplaceable, Smith points out — are themselves worth the price of admission.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com