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‘A Cowboy Has to Sing’: Scenes From a Chuck Wagon Jamboree


Every summer night throughout the American West, hundreds of tourists and western music fans sit down to a meal and a show at a modern-day chuck wagon. At these venues, a throwback to the covered wagon kitchens that were part of cattle drives, audiences polish off plates loaded with meat, baked beans, a potato, applesauce, a biscuit and cake, and then watch a house band tell corny jokes and play cowboy songs popularized by people like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry in the 1930s and ’40s.

The bands are not just the entertainment; they are the main attraction of the chuck wagons, and carry the same names. The Circle B Ranch in Hill City, S.D, has the Circle B Cowboys, for example, and the Flying J Wranglers perform at the Flying J Ranch in Ruidoso, N.M. Each group typically includes the owner, some of his family members and performers who have played with the band for decades. They are informal affairs. Chuck wagons do not have green rooms; instead the performers spend their time before their shows helping to serve food and pour lemonade.

The chuck wagon season, which for most runs from Memorial Day weekend until about Labor Day, wraps up each year with a two-night jamboree. This year, on Sept. 3 and 4, six groups gathered at the Bar D in Durango, Colo., for the Chuckwagons of the West Association’s 43rd annual Chuckwagon Jamboree, and 700 of their fans came with them.

The chuck wagon dinner and music business in the West can be traced back to 1953, when Ross Wolfe opened the Flying W Ranch in Colorado Springs, Colo. And many of the current chuck wagons have their roots back at the Flying W.

Cy Scarborough, below, spent 15 years performing with the Flying W Wranglers. He opened the Bar D Chuckwagon in 1969.

But for the last seven years, since a fire burned down the ranch, the Flying W Wranglers have had to play on the road. Construction is underway to rebuild the venue, and next summer’s Jamboree will be held there.

As the crowds wait for the dinner and music to commence, they can wander the grounds and take part in the activities the chuck wagons provide. At the Jamboree, they could pose for photographs in a painted cutout of John Wayne, shoot an old-West-style six-shooter, practice lassoing, take a tractor ride or buy belt buckles or CDs from the chuck wagons’ various merchandise shops.

“It’s not Disney Land,” said Scott Humphrey, who now performs with and runs the Bar J Chuckwagon in Jackson, Wyo., which his father, Babe Humphrey, founded. “But with the gift shops, train rides and things like that, it’s not that different.”

The camaraderie runs deep among the bands. They will join each other for jam sessions in each other’s gift shops. And this year, during the after-party at Francisco’s Restaurante y Cantina in Durango, they joined forces to sing songs like “Have You Ever Been to Colorado,” popularized by Merle Haggard.

The chuck wagons have truly devoted fans.

Nirankar Ambriz was just 3 when her family took her to the Bar D, a tradition now going on some 20 years. She and her fiancé, Ty Horaka, are planning to have the Bar D Wranglers play at their wedding in October.

Jean Rice, who started coming to the Bar D in 1974, has now been to 32 end-of-season gatherings. “I was competing with my friend Tom Greiner to see who could go the most Jamborees,” she said. “He was two years ahead of me, and then I missed two more years for health reasons, so he pulled even farther in the lead. But he passed away three weeks ago, so I am here carrying our tradition on for him.”

Between the singing and yodeling, the bands joyfully tell groan-inducing jokes. As the Circle B Cowboys, from Hill City, S.D., told the crowd during a set that included “Riders in the Sky” and “Ride Cowboy Ride,” it would be “corny cowboy jokes all night.” Like this one:

“Did you know that when cows get scared, they hide in trees?”

“What are you talking about? I have never, in all my years, seen a cow in the trees!”

“Well there, see how good they are at it.”

And of course there is the food. At this year’s Jamboree, the $45 ticket got you a roast beef or chicken breast dinner. (For an extra $15, a rib-eye steak could be had.) The menu over the years has hardly varied.

“It started with roast beef,” said Joel Racheff, the upright bass player for the Bar D Wranglers, who also grilled steaks for the crowds. “Three decades later they introduced chicken and then two decades after that they added steak.”

Though the chuck wagons have their die-hard fans, the demographic trends are a significant concern. Most of the musicians are above 50, and most of the fans above 60.

“It gets tough getting younger folks excited about continuing this kind of business,” Scott Humphrey said.

But the chuck wagons exert a pull that the band members can’t resist. Jeanne Martin, part of the Blazin’ M Cowboys from Cottonwood, Ariz., who often open their shows with “A Cowboy Has to Sing,” is one of them.

“The annual Chuckwagons of the West Jamboree is very special to me, because it gives all of us that are passionate about keeping the music and culture of the American West alive a time to come together and share that love with our terrific friends and fans,” she said. “When we are together we share a special bond, and it is like coming home to family.”


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