Robert William Lane, better known as the international country music and variety performer Tex Morton, was born in Nelson on 30 August 1916. The son of Mildred Eastgate and her husband, Bernard William Lane, a telegraph operator, he was the eldest child in a family of three sons and a daughter. His father’s family had lived in Nelson since the 1840s. He attended Haven Road and Nelson Boys’ schools, and then Nelson College (1930–31), where he was described as a good student who loved singing and playing the guitar. He was fascinated by radio, learned Morse code and became a boy scout. Despite running away from home several times, he remained the apple of his family’s eye.
Lane wanted to be an entertainer. During the depression he became an itinerant musician and swagger, busking on street corners and offering guitar lessons at a shilling a time. He is said to have founded New Zealand’s first country music club, in Nelson, and around 1932 he recorded about 20 songs in Wellington. Possibly the first commercial recordings of country music outside the United States, they were played on radio stations in Auckland and Nelson. About 1933 he caught a ship to Australia.
Lane fell back on the rough-and-tumble life of a hobo, working daredevil jobs in construction and sideshows, before establishing a reputation as a country and western singer in Sydney. In 1936, under the stage name Tex Morton, he recorded four songs for the Regal Zonophone label, and within two years he was the biggest music sensation either side of the Tasman. Known as the ‘Yodelling Boundary Rider’, Morton added sharp-shooting and whip-cracking to his repertoire, and began touring Australia with his own Wild West Rodeo show. On 24 November 1937, in Sydney, he married Marjorie Brisbane, a salesgirl and model; they spent their honeymoon in New Zealand. Twin sons were born in 1941, but the couple separated soon after.
Morton was composing and recording at an astonishing rate: between February 1936 and May 1941 he released at least 90 songs. Although they were not the first Australasian songs in the hillbilly style popularised by Goebel Reeves and Jimmie Rodgers, they rate as the most significant. Morton collected folk songs from the Australian bush and added music to ballads made famous by poets Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. In these songs, such as ‘Wrap me up in my stockwhip and blanket’, and in his own compositions, ‘The yodelling bagman’ and ‘Wandering stockman’, he fused turn-of-the-century Australian poetry with American country music, and helped create the modern legacy of Australian country music. A poster from his pre-war peak claimed sales of 10,000 records a month in Australia and New Zealand, rivalling Bing Crosby.
During the Second World War Morton entertained Allied troops in Australia and the Pacific. In 1949 he toured New Zealand, where he recorded a further 12 singles for the Tasman label, and became the first life member of the Composers, Artists and Writers Society of New Zealand. He sold his rodeo show and moved to Hollywood and then Montreal. By the early 1950s he was transformed into ‘The Great Morton’, setting box-office records in North America with his one-man show of singing, poetry, rope-spinning, sharp-shooting, hypnotism and extrasensory perception demonstrations. Under the name Dr Robert Morton he opened a clinic in Toronto which earned an international reputation in hypnotism. About 1955 he returned to Hollywood to appear as a cameo actor in television and films.
In the late 1960s Morton toured New Zealand several times and compèred the popular ‘Country Touch’ television series. Returning to Australia during the early 1970s, he became a notable character actor in television and films, and reached the top three in record sales charts with a song about a racehorse, ‘The Goondiwindi grey’. At Tamworth in January 1976 he became the first person elevated to the Australasian Country Music Awards Roll of Renown; the following year he was inducted into its Hands of Fame.
Morton remained a ham-radio enthusiast throughout his career, with numerous worldwide contacts. But even after all-night radio sessions, he was careful with his appearance. He was described as ‘meticulous almost to the point of conceit’ with his dress, wearing ‘silk ties, and always the best stetson hat’. He was of average but wiry build, and stood out as a conversationalist. His sister recalled, ‘Our mother always used to say he swallowed a packet of gramophone needles when he was a child’. He also gained a reputation for being generous with his fortune.
Formally divorced from Marjorie in the late 1970s, Morton later lived with Kathy Bryan, of Victoria. He died in Sydney on 23 July 1983, survived by Kathy and a son. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in Nelson beside his parents, his plaque bearing the epitaph ‘A Millionaire in the Experience of Life’.
Tex Morton was eulogised as a hobo who became a star, the eternal punter betting today on a better tomorrow. Other tributes rated him alongside Canadian Hank Snow as an outpost of the American country and western style inspired by Jimmie Rodgers. Considered by some to be the first true superstar of Australasian entertainment, he recorded about 300 songs, a third of them originals. His 1938 song about the Queensland railway police, ‘Sergeant Small’, was possibly the first banned disc in Australia, while ‘Travel by train’ stands alongside similar songs of the depression era by Rodgers and Woody Guthrie. Morton was loved for his cheery smile, battered guitar and honest songs which evoke the depression years in New Zealand.