Hailing originally from Ohio, where his father worked in a plow factory, Wilburt Lee O’Daniel had graduated from business college at age eighteen. In 1935, O’Daniel started his own firm, the Hill Billy Flour Company. Each sack of his company’s product was emblazoned with a goat, beneath which was the slogan “Pass the biscuits, Pappy.” From the day the first sack hit the market he was known far and wide as Pappy. By 1938, he had formed his family into a band: Pat on the banjo, Mike on the fiddle, and Molly teaming with Texas Rose on vocals. Within months the cornpone ensemble was reaching hundreds of thousands of Texans over a statewide radio hookup.
While his offspring strummed and hummed in the background, the handsome, beaming Pappy delivered homilies on the virtues of motherhood, Texas, the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule. He even composed songs for the program, “Your Own Sweet Darling Wife” and “The Boy Who Never Gets Too Big to Comb His Mother’s Hair” being among the most notable. “At twelve-thirty sharp each day,” a national publication reported, “a fifteen-minute silence reigned in the state of Texas, broken only by mountain music, and the dulcet voice of W. Lee O’Daniel.” A political career was inevitable.
In 1938 Pappy asked his radio audience what they thought of the idea of his running for governor. He subsequently reported that more than fifty thousand voiced their approval. Ignoring his inexperience, O’Daniel campaigned blithely on the teachings of the Bible and a promise of a $ 30-a-month pension for every Texan over the age of sixty-five. To the disgust of Texas elite— economic, political, and intellectual— Pappy captured 573,000 votes, 51 percent of the total. In 1940 his total climbed to 645,000 or 54 percent of the whole, which made him the most prolific vote getter in the state’s history.