Day Trips

The Texas Country Music Hall of Fame & Tex Ritter Museum honors and remembers state luminaries

Day Trips
Photo By Gerald E. McLeod

The Texas Country Music Hall of Fame & Tex Ritter Museum in Carthage reminds me of a merry-go-round. The amount of material packed into a small space makes your head spin, and the music is contagious.

This August marks the 10th year that the Hall of Fame has chosen a group of Texans who have made significant contributions to country music. Not until you see all of the names lined up along the walls do you get a feeling for the immense talent that has come out of the Lone Star State. So far, more than 30 legendary voices have been honored, and the number continues to grow.

All inductees are honored with a plaque telling their life stories and accomplishments. The list includes the usual suspects such as Ray Price, Gene Autry, Bob Wills, and Lefty Frizzell. Among the honorees are a few surprises like Roger Miller from Fort Worth and Dale Evans from Uvalde. Of course, they couldn't overlook current stars like Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, and the Gatlin Brothers. The list combines a mix of old and new that gives deep perspective to country music history.

Some of the honorees are represented simply by a bronze storyboard, while others have full-blown exhibits. Nelson could have done better than donating a golf putter, an old headband, and assorted other items to the display. On the other hand, the exhibit on Cindy Walker gives some insight into the songwriter from Mexia who wrote Roy Orbison's hit "Dream Baby" and many other popular songs.

One legend who is not slighted is local boy Woodward Maurice Ritter, better known as Tex Ritter. Born and raised a few miles south of Carthage, the Tex Ritter Museum was incorporated into the Hall of Fame and takes up better than a quarter of the floor space in the exhibition hall. Out front of the red brick building is a life-sized statue of the singing cowboy and his horse to greet visitors.

Through a dozen panels and glass display cases, Ritter's story from farm boy to popular music icon unfolds. The father of actor John Ritter began his musical career by collecting cowboy tunes but moved on to Broadway, radio, and, ultimately, movies. His first hit was the old cowboy standard "Rye Whiskey" in 1933. By the 1970s he was still a show-business powerhouse, but his political views were too ultraconservative even for U.S. Senate voters in Tennessee.

Also included in the Hall of Fame is "Gentleman" Jim Reeves, another Panola County graduate. The velvet-voiced crooner might have had a career in major-league baseball if not for an injury that ended that job prospect. By 1957, he and Elvis Presley were on their way to having a string of hits for RCA Records. One of his most popular songs, "Distant Drums," was written by fellow Texan Cindy Walker.

The music was cut short in 1964, when Reeves died in a private-airplane crash in Arkansas. One of the biggest stars in country music at the time, he came home to a small memorial plot three miles east of Carthage off U.S. 79. The park is very tastefully done with a guitar inlaid into the sidewalk leading to a white marble statue looking out into the Piney Woods.

Panola County is wedged up against Louisiana where Texas' eastern boundary begins a line due north from the Sabine River. The local economy is still based on the farms cut out of the thick forest that comes right to the edge of the road. For great food in the county seat of Carthage, try the deli in the back of the general store in Old Center. The footlong sausage links are a meal by themselves.

The Texas Country Music Hall of Fame & Tex Ritter Museum is at 300 W. Panola St., about three blocks off of the main town square. Doors open Monday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm. For more information, call 903/693-6634 or go to Tickets are on sale for the Aug. 18 ceremony to induct Johnny Rodriguez, Red Steagall, and Bob Luman.

836th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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