(1895–1979). Carl T. “Doc” Sprague, one of America’s first singing cowboy stars, the son of William T., Jr., and Libby Sprague, was born on May 10, 1895, near Manvel, Texas, in Brazoria County. As a youth, he worked in the family cattle business and, from his uncles, learned many of the old cowboy songs while sitting around the campfire. Sprague went to College Station to study agriculture at Texas A&M but seems to have languished in the academic field, having only attained the status of sophomore by 1917.
During World War I he served in the United States Army Signal Corps and was stationed in France. He returned to A&M in 1920 and graduated in 1922 with a degree in animal husbandry. He was hired by D. X. Bible as an athletic trainer at A&M. This assignment earned him the sobriquet “Doc,” and he worked there from 1922 to 1937.
In 1925, impressed by the success of Vernon Dalhartqv‘s hillbilly recordings, Sprague wrote to Victor Records and suggested that they record his cowboy songs. On August 3, 4, and 5, 1925, at the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey, he recorded ten cowboy songs learned from his uncles on those cattle drives in South Texas. One song, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” about a cowboy killed during a night stampede, became the first cowboy song to achieve hit status.
As a result, the image of the singing cowboy was permanently established in American folk culture. Sprague recorded eighteen more songs at three other Victor sessions in 1926 in Camden and New York, in 1927 in Savannah, Georgia, and in 1929 in Dallas. He was the first artist to market himself in the image of a singing cowboy complete with chaps, hat, and guitar. His experience in ranching and cattle drives also made him among the first actual cowboys to record a cowboy song.
Sprague never opted to pursue a serious musical career but looked upon his singing as a hobby. In 1937 he left the employ of Texas A&M and began operating a filling station and grocery store and also worked as an insurance salesman. He returned to the army during World War II and achieved the rank of major, working as a recruiter in Houston and Dallas. He then returned to the insurance industry until the early 1960s. During the 1960s and 1970s he experienced a resurgence in his musical career.
He was honored at several folklife seminars, notably at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Illinois, where he performed in Western outfits and spoke about the life of the American cowboy. Sprague returned to recording in 1972 and 1974 and made two long-playing albums for Bear Family Records of Germany.
Carl Sprague lived in Bryan, Texas, from 1920 until his death. He married Lura Bess Mayo in 1926. They had no children.
Carl Sprague died on February 21, 1979, in Bryan. In 2003 a collection of his twenty-four songs, including “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” “Rounded Up in Glory,” “Last Great Round Up,” and “Utah Carrol,” was released in an anthology titled Cowtrails, Longhorns, and Tight Saddles: Cowboy Songs 1925–1929.