Like so many industries, Texas music can seem like a boys' club. That's why visitors to the Texas Musicians Museum in Irving are surprised by one of its star exhibits, a 1912 wax cylinder recording of Mary Carson's "O Dry Those Tears," the first known recording by a Texas musician.
"Texas is all about the guys, and the men are pretty much the prominent ones as far as music goes, and it's just kinda fun to let them [the visitors] know that the first recording ever made by a Texan was a woman," Thomas Kreason, the museum's owner, says. "And the women like it. They're going 'yay!'"
One of the museum's archive specialists, George Gimarc, found the recording and the device it's played on (also on display) at an estate sale a year and a half ago. Kreason says many of the items in the museum's collection come from estate sales and auctions.
Carson was born in the late 1800s in Millican and raised in nearby Houston. Both of her parents were musicians, and when she displayed a gift as a vocalist, she was sent to New York and the New England Conservatory, where she was classically trained as a soprano.
After her education, Carson traveled to Europe, where she performed operas with famous composers such as Richard Strauss. Some of her roles included Gilda in Rigoletto, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Norina in Don Pasquale.
"She went to Milan and Florence, and she toured widely and sang probably about 30 operas in Italian, German, French and English," Kreason says. "And then it was in 1912 when she was 36 years old that she released her debut recording, which was 'O Dry Those Tears.'"
Five years later, Carson became the first artist to sue her record label, Thomas Edison’s Blue Amberol. "She sued Edison over her label's refusal to pay her when she was not booked, yet was forbidden to work for any other employer," Kreason says.
She won her suit and was granted $250,000 in damages. "That was just unbelievable money back then," Kreason says.
After the lawsuit, Carson pursued a career as a music teacher in Houston, where she lived until her death in 1951. Kreason believes she stopped recording and changed careers because her public dispute with Edison damaged her reputation.
"After that, she wasn't going to do anything in the music business," he says. "No one was going to hire her."
Kreason says the Mary Carson display has been one of the museum's most prized since it was acquired.
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"It's one of our talking points, he says. "It's a showcase piece that we always bring everyone's attention to cause it's such a fun and a unique piece celebrating our Texas music history."
The Texas Musicians Museum opened in 2015. It will unveil a new exhibit Saturday night about Gary P. Nunn, who will also perform.
"He's truly an icon of Texas music, so it's great having him here," Kreason says.
In March, the museum will host a similar event honoring Dallas native Gary Myrick.