Q: The State Fair of Texas recently announced that it’s looking for a new voice for Big Tex, the friendly cowboy giant who has been greeting visitors to the State Fair for, I would imagine, about a century by now. A call has gone out for all Big Tex want-to-bes to provide basic personal information along with a “Howdy, folks” voice sample. I have a running buddy who is expressing interest in throwing his hat into the ring. My problem is this: my friend is from Alabama. With most matters, I would be happy to allow for any participants with the necessary talent (which my friend probably has) to be allowed for consideration for such work. In this particular case, however, I have serious reservations about Big Tex’s voice being that of a native Alabamian. Am I wrong?
Christopher Hoffman, Sugar Land
A: Howdy, Mr. Hoffman! This is Big Texanist talkin’. Welcome to the Official State Advice Column of Texas Monthly, the National Magazine of Texas! Big Texanist is glad to hear from you and aims to provide a suitable answer to your interesting query while you’re here. In the meantime, grab a turkey leg and a cold cup of beer and, on behalf of the entire organization, please have a big time as you make your way through this column.
Actually, Mr. Hoffman, the Texanist is pullin’ your chain a little bit. There’s no such person as Big Texanist; this here’s your straight-shooting, regular-sized, good-enough-for-the-missus Texanist talkin’, and, in fact, he’s actually writin’, not talkin’—though he’s been told that he’s a pretty good talker, too.
The Texanist hopes you didn’t mind his momentary masquerade, which was all done in good fun. But if you did mind it—if, by chance, you were frightened by the unexpected appearance of Big Texanist, a fairly daunting figure indeed—well, apologies. And welcome, all the same. And thanks for the letter.
You may not be surprised to hear that the Texanist also noticed the Big Tex job posting. And he’ll admit that it caused him to momentarily gaze off into the yonder, slowly rub his chin, and contemplate lending his dulcet tones to Big Tex’s voice box. But the Texanist snapped out of his dreamy trance—he may have been sidetracked by thoughts of mustard-slathered corny dogs and strange deep-fried foods—and remembered that he loves his current gig, which allows him the chance to interact with his fellow Texans year-round, unlike Big Tex, who appears for only a few weeks in the fall. Still, the Texanist is not surprised that, according to the folks at the State Fair, hundreds of people—perhaps your friend was among them—applied to be the voice of the world-renowned elephantine Texas robot before the mid-April cutoff date. Big Tex, no matter how awkwardly animatronic he may be, gets big love in these parts.
So large a presence is Big Tex—not only physically, but as a figment of the Texan psyche—that it may feel like he’s been around for a century or more. But the truth is that he was born in 1952, when the repurposed 49-foot-tall Santa Claus from Kerens made his debut at Fair Park. Solemn and silent that first year, he was still a big hit, and he returned the following year with a few cosmetic improvements (a crooked nose and a droopy eye were fixed) as well as a voice, which was supplied by Al “Big Al” Jones, a local radio disc jockey at the City of Dallas–owned WRR. In 1954 Jones was followed by another WRR deejay, Jim Lowe, who was known for his R&B show Kat’s Karavan, which is credited with introducing white Dallas to Black artists such as John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Lowe spent more than four decades voicing Big Tex, making him by far the big guy’s longest-serving ventriloquist. It’s Lowe, more than anyone else, who provided Big Tex with his kind and folksy demeanor.
At the turn of the last century, Dan Alexander, a Dallas-area jingle singer and voice talent, took the helm for two years. And then there was a statewide competition held in 2001 at the Cotton Bowl, from which Sonny Ray Stolz, who worked in broadcast media, marketing, and advertising, emerged victorious from a field of hundreds. Stolz, though, got crossways with his bosses and did his thing for only one season. The Fair folks then replaced Stolz with the contest’s runner-up, Bill Bragg, who was a local broadcast engineer and an actor who had played a bank teller in Bonnie and Clyde and a TV cameraman in Semi-Tough. Bragg voiced Big Tex for ten years, up through the horrific electrical fire in 2012 that destroyed Big Tex.
The new and improved Big Tex that debuted at the fair in 2013 stood 55 feet tall—6 feet higher than the Santa whence he evolved—and was voiced by Bob Boykin, a longtime Lockheed Martin employee who had served as the announcer at the old Green Valley Raceway, in Smithfield, during his college days. Unfortunately, Boykin passed away this past January, leaving Big Tex without a voice and precipitating the search that caught your friend’s attention.
One thing that all of the aforementioned gentlemen have in common is that they were all native Texans. And all of them, save for Houston native Sonny Ray Stolz, were natives of North Texas. Jones was from Stephenville; Lowe and Alexander were both Fort Worthers; Bragg and Boykin were Dallasites.
Another thing that all of these fellows have in common is that, again save for Stolz, they’ve all passed on to the big midway in the sky. So the Texanist reached out to Stolz to get his thoughts as to whether a non-Texan could ever bring Big Tex to life. He did not vacillate when he offered his response. “No,” he replied. “Not ever. It would be an insult to Texas and all Texans, including the big guy himself. No outsider Big Tex voices. Period.” This opinion echoed the Texanist’s feelings on the matter, and since he couldn’t find anything to argue about with the former voice of Big Tex, the Texanist thanked him for his time.
Strong opinions notwithstanding, however, you and your buddy will likely be interested to know that the Texanist, while perusing the Voice of Big Tex job description provided by the State Fair folks, came across some language concerning the very issue you’ve raised. Right there near the top of page two, under the “Experience and Training Guidelines” heading, the first entry clearly and quite surprisingly states that a candidate must be “a true Texan, no matter if you were born here or got here as quick as you could.” It’s those last eight words that caught the Texanist’s attention: Or got here as quick as you could. If the Texanist reads those words right (and reading things right is an essential part of the Texanist’s job) then it seems, strange though it may be, that being Alabamian doesn’t preclude a person from being the voice of Big Tex—so long as that Alabamian got here as fast as he could.
As you likely know, this year’s fair was canceled for the first time since World War II as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Curious as to how this might have affected the Big Tex selection process, the Texanist checked in with the fair folks. From the more than five hundred applicants who threw their hats in the ring, the field has been narrowed down to three. And before long there’s going to be just one great big voice standing. Alas, we’ll likely have to wait until September 24, 2021, when the fair is next scheduled to open, to find out whether or not Big Tex will, for the first time ever, have an Alabama accent—the powers that be at the fair try as best they can to keep the identity of the honoree a closely guarded secret, and would likely double these efforts if that person turned out to be Bama-born. The Texanist grudgingly wishes your friend well but hopes that he understands that he’s got some pretty stiff—and a whole lot more puredee—competition.
With that all said, Big Texanist thanks you again for the letter. And he sure hopes you had a fine time at the Official State Advice Column of Texas Monthly. Now, be careful on your way home and come back again real soon.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.