Babe Humphrey came to Jackson Hole in the 1970s knowing he needed at least 20 acres to build his risky business venture. The local real estate office offered him a half-acre lot.
“We need 20 acres,” Humphrey shot back. “A one-half acre plot is out of the question.”
The agent laughed.
Of the roughly 3% of Teton County, Wyoming, that is not owned by the government, most is occupied by ranches that were homesteaded long ago. Private acreage is hard to come by, let alone a chunk of land available for commercial use.
Determined, Babe went directly to local ranchers to pitch his business idea: an old-fashioned chuckwagon supper topped off by a rollicking cowboy music show. The Earl Hardeman Ranch gave him a chance. They cordoned off the acreage with an arrangement that Hardeman would get a cut of the profits, and Babe got to work building his dream: the Bar J Chuckwagon.
Forty-four years later, it’s nearly impossible to hang on to those 21 acres off the southern tip of Grand Teton National Park, and Babe isn’t alone in grappling with the changing landscape of the American West.
Idaho now holds the No. 1 spot for economic growth, and the quality of life across the Mountain West is undeniably attractive: low unemployment, national parks at every corner of the compass and plenty of opportunities for outdoor, family-centric suburban living.
But maintaining balance between the region’s roots and its emerging bourgeois status isn’t easy. Some communities have simply given up trying — the median home price in Jackson Hole, for example, is nearly $2 million. Reports show seasonal workers attracted to the resort area are turning to their cars or the national forest for lack of affordable housing.
A city council member from Ketchum, Idaho, says he can no longer afford to rent or buy a home in his own city, even when adding the income from several jobs to his government salary. As The Wall Street Journal chronicled earlier this summer, the circumstances were exacerbated by the pandemic with well-heeled out-of-staters flocking there to work remotely.
This growth — a welcome sign of prosperity — is also shearing farmers and ranchers from the land and replacing a sinewy Western way of life with what some fear is an all too silicon substitute. Mindful of those dualities, I drove from Utah to Casper, Wyoming, to see these tensions play out onstage. The attraction was the beloved singing cowboy group, the Bar J Wranglers, born by Babe’s chuckwagon endeavor. Handlebar mustaches, 10-gallon hats, the lazy slide of a pedal steel guitar.
It’s all there, but not for long.
After nearly half a century of selling songs with side helpings of beans, brisket and Western wit, the Bar J outfit has decided to hang up their hats. This is their final tour, with stops in Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska and, starting this week, Utah. So I thought by interviewing the band and watching the cowboys live I might better appreciate what we in the West stand to lose with all this new growth. What I found instead was a band and a tradition that embodies the West’s fragile success, providing perhaps the best hope for a pragmatic future of adaptation while remaining rooted in people and place.
In the spacious auditorium of Casper’s Highland Park Community Church, the Bar J Wranglers open their set as they always do.
“I’m headin’ for the last roundup,” they croon in a lethargic shuffle rhythm, “Gonna saddle old Paint for the last time and ride.” Their voices split into their characteristic four-part harmony on the final syllable.
It’s the song they start with on every one of the seven nights a week between Memorial Day and October at the Bar J Chuckwagon, and it’s what they sing first in front of this eastern Wyoming audience as the group hits the road for their last offseason tour.
“So long, old pal, it’s time your tears were dried.”
They tell audiences that the tune, a classic from the Tin Pan Ally era of American music, paints the picture of a cowboy on the trail under the wide-open skies, an effective way to set the mood for the next hour and a half of Western songs and entertainment.
But for all the verve of the fiddling and yodeling and strumming, the “singing American cowboy” — from Roy Rogers to the five wranglers onstage in front of me — seems to always be tinged with longing, like the cowboy won’t be sticking around for much longer.
After 44 years, the Bar J Wranglers are now leaving the ranch that bears their brand. They don’t play up the sad parts, though; they thank the audience for a remarkable run and joke their way through the show as they’ve always done.
It’s a fun, funny and uplifting evening.
“A lot of people are happy for us,” frontman Scott Humphrey tells me. “They know we’ve worked hard and committed to our careers for 44 years.”
Yet one can’t help but notice the somber undertones. There’s the matter of the Wranglers being priced out of their hometown as an influx of outsiders drive up property taxes. There’s the fading away of agrarian culture as small farms die off and urbanization sets in. And there’s the new generation that has little interest in a way of life once so enmeshed with the land.
I ask the man seated to my right what his thoughts are about the end of the run. “It feels like a piece of Americana is dying.”
Their traveling show is as wholesome as entertainment comes, but the real job of the Wranglers is to fund the Bar J Chuckwagon. Each night of the summer, hundreds of guests park in the shadows of the Tetons and walk into a rustic mess hall, tin plates and cups in hand. They find their seats at long wooden tables in front of a stage. On the menu is a hearty meal of barbecued meat and beans (the Chuckwagons of the West Association has been told they use the most pinto beans in all of the United States). There’s also applesauce, biscuits, butter, baked potatoes and all the fixings. But let’s be honest, people don’t come for the campfire fare alone.
There’s the ambiance and nostalgia, too. On the log-wood walls is a smattering of animal heads, cowboy boots, ropes, American flags and some aged metal contraptions. It’s like the organized chaos of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, except you know these decorations weren’t picked out by a corporate office.
The show starts. Five guys in boots and Stetson hats launch into a frenzy of Western (not country, I’m reminded) melodies. They’re a multifaceted bunch: Scott Humphrey sings tenor and plays rhythm guitar; Bryan, his brother, plays double-bass, yodels like no other, and is the resident comedian; Tim Hodgson is a two-time U.S. Open Fiddler; Donnie Cook is a one-man-band playing everything from the Dobro to the triangle; and Danny Rogers accompanies his guitar with bass vocals that reach deeper than a foghorn.
It doesn’t matter if you were raised on Metallica or John Coltrane, as soon as the Wranglers play their first notes you can’t help but feel something — an authenticity and a pull toward a time and place that’s slipping through our fingers.
But not all is melancholy. In Casper they poke fun at the pandemic response — they “replay” a horse race where “Social Distancing” and “Dr. Fauci” are edged out at the last second by “No One Has A Freakin’ Clue.” The real talent is how they pull off each gag with an air of spontaneity that suggests they haven’t been telling the same jokes every night for the past five months.
The lineup you see today is something of a second-generation act. Babe Humphrey started the group in June 1978, and it has cycled through dozens of entertainers over the years. His sons Scott and Bryan joined him in the ’80s, and by the mid-2000s they were essentially running the show as Babe took a back seat.
You could say Babe’s about as Western as they come. Born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to a family of modest means, his childhood was typical for rural kids in the 1930s: Educated in a one-room school house, walked two miles to the grocery store, woke before the sun rose to get his chores done. Then he picked up a borrowed guitar, won a few talent contests, and his music carried him all the way through his career. After serving with the Marines in Korea, dabbling in radio and TV, and playing at chuckwagons on a couple of ranches, Babe settled in Jackson Hole and built his dream.
“Why did you decide to go with me on this?” Babe once asked Earl Hardeman, the rancher who lent his land to the operation. Developers and speculators had already promised to make Hardeman a pile of money with the land. But, he explained to Babe, “When you came to me with your hat in your hand and told me that I wouldn’t make much money for five or six years, maybe you were the only one telling me the truth.”
The truth today for longtime residents of Jackson Hole is getting harder to stomach. The awe-inspiring mountain peaks have boosted everything from tourism to vacation homes to property taxes. The ranchers who once eked out a living are finding it difficult to retire without cashing in on their land.
Scott Humphrey assures me there are many factors behind the decision to end the Bar J Wranglers, but there’s no denying hanging on to 21 acres in America’s richest county is becoming a struggle. Babe is due his retirement, Scott says, and the business alone couldn’t afford to give that to him.
At first Scott jumped through hoops to try to keep the Wranglers alive — could they court investors or move the chuckwagon to a different state? It didn’t square. “My kids would have been working for somebody else for their whole life trying to pay those debts off.”
Beyond finances, there’s the music element, too. Cowboy poetry is an increasingly harder sell in an era where country tastes are defined by rap-cross-over songs like “Old Town Road,” which broke the record in 2019 for the longest-leading No. 1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100. The track’s winding success has sent a clear message to the country and folk scene: adapt.
The zest of the real cowboy and the real old town road is fading, Scott tells me. Although the Wranglers continue to draw strong business, the number of guests has been waning since the group’s peak around 2008. (I look around me in the auditorium and note I’m in a slim minority of attendees without white hair.) Whereas Scott and Bryan had regular doses of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Sons of the Pioneers, you’d be hard pressed to find many young people today who could name any one of their songs.
That’s not to say some of the rising generation doesn’t have a taste for Western flair. Seated behind me at the show is a family with four kids whose favorite music, they tell me, is what they are about to hear. Beside me is another family whose four kids love the act. Across the country, 4-H clubs and FFA organizations limp along — not as relevant as they once were, perhaps, but by no means extinct.
As for the true singing cowboy, though, the future is murky. “The ghost towns are the way they are for a reason,” Scott says. “The cowboy is going to become a museum piece.”
He may be right, but then again, some people say the cowboy died out 148 years ago. In 1873 Joseph Glidden filed a patent for an improved version of barbed wire, and within the decade the Great Plains were being cut up and fenced off, limiting a rancher’s ability to drive cattle across miles of open land. A bit of twisted metal was putting the wranglers out of business.
But they never really went away; the mythos of the cowboys is as hardy as the land they once worked. It’s cemented in books and movies and music, morphing as each new generation adds their take on the legend of life in the West. It’s sure to persevere just as the Bar J Wranglers are sure to adapt to whatever comes next.
That’s the real story of this American expanse. Author Larry McMurtry said of the Western experience that it has “demonstrated perhaps more clearly than any other ... the astonishing speed with which things can change.” Out here, clear skies snap into mountain thunderstorms, the great bison herds disappear as quickly as they stampede, and rustic rural living gets flooded with newcomers towing their urban lives behind them. The flux and wildness may be its truest quality.
In my car on the way home from Casper, I head west along the I-80 and cross the Continental Divide — the zenith of the country. It’s the place where each drop of water decides if it will flow down the Rockies to the Pacific or east toward the Atlantic.
I’m reminded that the Bar J Wranglers have been nestled along this same ridge, straddling the divide for decades. Now, with tensions that can no longer hold, they’re charting their path. But if the West can stay as wild as it’s always been, if its roots dig deep while the topsoil churns, it seems these little doggies will git along just fine.