Austin Lounge Lizards' Big Tex's Girl.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week, in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
After graduating from Princeton in the late '70s, history majors Hank Card and Conrad Deisler decided to move to Austin and write songs together. It was there they met philosophy major Tom Pittman and formed the folk/blue-grass outfit Austin Lounge Lizards.
While they never achieved a ton of mainstream national success, their '95 album Small Minds does contain a track steeped in Dallas history.
The song “Big Tex's Girl,” as one might infer, is chocked full of references to the State Fair of Texas.
Some history: The State Fair of Texas actually started in 1886 as two competing fairs — the Dallas State Fair & Exposition and the Texas State Fair & Exposition — each of which were funded by groups of private businessmen and relied heavily on revenue from gambling on horse races to function. Perhaps not surprisingly, both were heavily in debt by the time the groups merged in 1887. They called their merged venture the Texas State Fair & Dallas Exposition. In 1904, the fair and grounds were sold to the city of Dallas for $125,000, making the area now known as Fair Park just the second park in the city's park system. (Fun fact: Established in 1876, Dallas Heritage Village was the city's first park. Back then, it was called City Park.)
Another interesting tidbit from the fair's history occurred in 1918. That year, the fair was canceled due to World War I. The U.S. Army took control of Fair Park and established a temporary aviation boot camp called Camp Dick.
These days, the State Fair of Texas is the largest state fair in the United States by annual attendance, as it averages three million visitors during its yearly 24-day run, while pumping over $350 million into the Dallas economy.
Sill, though, we haven't yet touched on one of the song's central figures, who, sadly, passed this morning. Go the tune's opening lines: “You've all heard tell of Pecos Bill who rode a cyclone 'til it broke / Well, at the Texas State Fair there's an even bigger bloke / That cowpoke's name is Big Tex.”
The rest of the song's themes revolve around a human girl named Heather Jo who was the alleged girlfriend of the State Fair's biggest icon.
But how much did she really know about her 52-foot-tall beau? For one thing, she may be surprised to find out the 60-year-old statue got his start as a 49-foot-tall paper mache Santa Claus in Kerens, Texas. In 1952, the Santa was purchased by R.L. Thornton for $750.00 and converted into a cowboy by Dallas stage and set builder Jack Bridges. According to Bridges, he modeled Tex's face after Will Rogers, a Bell County rancher named Doc Simmons and his own face. “I took the worst features from all three of us,” Bridges told the Dallas Morning News in a 1997 interview.
Before his demise this morning, the 6,000-pound Texan wore size 70 boots, a 75-gallon hat, pants with a 284-inch waist and a 185-inch length. He also sported a 50-pound belt buckle.
Although according to the song, “All day long [Heather Jo] sits beside Big Tex as he greets the folks at the State Fair,” it's hard to imagine Heather having too much time to talk with Tex, who greeted Fair visitors with his booming “Howdy, folks!” salutation an average of 60 times every day.
That's OK, though. As the lyrics tell us, when he said “Howdy, folks!” Heather just heared him saying “Heather Jo, I love you, though small minds reject us.”
Other parts of the song list State Fair attractions that Heather Jo stopped caring about once she became infatuated with Big Tex. For instance: “Corny dogs don't thrill her like they used to.” But she's perhaps the only one in town who that sentiment applies to. Half a million corny dogs are sold at the fair each year. Though the origin of that famous food aren't exactly clear, the fact that they were first served by Neil and Carl Fletcher as early as 1938 definitely make the State Fair version among the nation's earliest corny dogs. (The Pronto Pups vendors, who are another source widely believed to have invented the popular fried item, began serving their creation at the 1941 Minnesota State Fair and didn't file a patent for the dogs until 1942.)
With Tex taking up most of her time, Heather Jo really stopped caring about most Fair attractions: “She's not lost inside the House of Mirrors / She no longer rides the Tilt-a-Whirl / Midway barkers cannot draw her nearer / She just wants to be Big Tex's girl.”
The most notable of these rides is, of course, the iconic Texas Star Ferris Wheel. It is also the Fair's most popular ride. At 212 feet tall, it is the tallest Ferris wheel in North America. The ride was purchased from an Italian manufacturer in 1985 and shipped to town in 21 containers. Because its owners, a private family, are required to be on site the whole time the ride is operational, an efficiency apartment was built underneath the ride, where two of the family's members reside during the fair's run.
The song ends with the following bit of lyricism: “You might say that their love has no future / The crowd around his feet may taunt and tease / She's just happy as Big Tex's squeeze.”
We feel for this widow. We really do. Fortunately, Mayor Mike Rawlings promises that Big Tex will be rebuilt.
We just hope Heather Jo will be OK with his new look.