Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Western music and family fun
By Christina Stock
Flying J Ranch — featuring the Flying J Wrangler band — will be opening their doors for their 40th season on May 28 in Alto, north of Ruidoso. After being limited to having only outdoor performances last year due to the pandemic, most attractions will be open, with the exception of the hands-on training for the pistol shoot, which is not possible because of social distancing regulations.
In a phone interview, Flying J Ranch founder and owner James Hobbs talked about the early days and how the Flying J Ranch evolved.
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Hobbs had worked at a similar Western venue in Colorado, where he met his wife Cindy, a singer from Tennessee. “It was called the Lazy B Chuckwagon in Estes Park, Colorado, I worked up there 1977 through 1980,” he said.
Asked why they came to settle in Ruidoso, Hobbs said that he had family there and that Ruidoso was similar to the Estes Park, being a mountain and tourist town with people visiting in the summer, hiking, camping and looking for entertainment.
The couple found a new home and an undeveloped plot of land outside of Ruidoso, where they started their dream of a Western show venue. “We originally purchased five acres and built our dining hall/chuckwagon show barn, we built that with a kitchen in it and a stage and room for tables where people could sit and eat and listen to the music afterwards,” Hobbs said.
Asked if they had help, Hobbs said, “We had another couple who partnered with us, Jeff and Nancy Chandler. Jeff and I worked together at the Estes Park for a couple of years and then Jeff went off for four/five years when he started with Marty Robbins.”
Hobbs said that Jeff Chandler toured and recorded with the American singer and songwriter Robbins after he and Chandler had sent in an album because they wanted to open for him. “His guys called us back and said, ‘Well, we don’t pick our opening act, but who is singing baritone on your album? We love your album. Not a lot of people were doing Western music, particularly back then. Marty’s baritone singer was retiring and so they offered Jeff a position there,” Hobbs said. Jeff Chandler and Hobbs shared the same dream of owning a chuckwagon show, so when the Chandlers became parents and were ready to settle down, the timing was perfect for a partnership.
There were many challenges, Hobbs said The biggest for him was to be patient. “The business was slow to build, but we just kept doing, kept feeding people and putting on the best show we could. People were appreciative and they would tell their friends and as word of mouth got around, after a few years of doing it, it gained some traction in 1986/87. Attendance started increasing, and we had like 10 years in a row where attendance went up every year,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs found encouragement in the audience early on, one was a priest who told him that he found the performance as spiritual as in a house of worship, which felt like a blessing, he said. Another was an older man from El Paso, whose words Hobbs still can quote today. “He is standing there at the ticket booth, asking how’s it going? And I said, it’s going, we’re getting there. And he told me, ‘I just want you to know, this is a really special place. If you’re just doing what you’re doing, you are going to be OK. Because I love bringing my family here.’”
Nature played a part in the challenges of these first years of the Flying J Ranch. Hobbs had been by himself when the place flooded. “The water came in from the highway; the water came in from a culvert back into the building and covered up the floor in the kitchen and it actually went into the floor in the dining hall, which is a gravel floor. We had two to three inches of water in there. It was like a flash flood,” Hobbs said.
Help came from unknown good Samaritans. “I didn’t have any employees with me,” Hobbs said. “I just sat there by myself and this couple came in, saw the situation and they grabbed brooms and mops and they helped me for an hour and a half to deal with it, and then they just went on their merry way. I don’t know where they came from, I don’t know their name, they helped me deal with that flood.”
The band Flying J Wranglers included Cindy Hobbs and James Hobbs from the start. They made their first appearance in the Roswell Daily Record on June 13, 1982, the same year they started the Flying J Ranch events. However, at the time, their venue was published as Christian Dinner Club. One of their first performances was in Roswell at the Christian Women’s Club meeting at the Roswell Inn. “I remember that,” Hobbs said. “One of those ladies had come to our place and said, you’ve got to come to our meeting. We went down there and did a program for them and some of them ended up coming to the Flying J.”
From then on out, the band would perform for its growing fan base during the summer season at the Flying J Ranch and off season at events in Ruidoso, at music festivals far and wide, including in Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Las Cruces; and they even hosted a free fiddle seminar with Dale Morris, the 1979 World Champion. The band has toured overseas and throughout the U.S.
Over the years, children who visited the Flying J Ranch grew up, had children of their own and returned over and over to share their experience with the next generation.
One encounter touched Hobbs especially. “I had a little 10-year-old Hispanic girl from El Paso, I never forget this, it was 20 years ago. I am up on the stage, probably an hour before serving. She came up, said hello and introduced herself,” Hobbs said. She told him that her grandfather always brought her and her family to the show each year. When he asked if he could meet her grandfather, she said that he had just passed on. “She looked a little sad, ‘We just came here because he liked it here.’ Still, it just breaks my heart and she was just the sweetest little girl. I am still amazed how kids light up when they come out. She was a great example of that. And there are many other stories like that. People, we are part of their memories. Part of their life experience is coming to the Flying J. It is very rewarding to be part of that in people’s lives after 40 years,” Hobbs said.
In 1999, the band ventured into a new territory, starting Christmas concerts at churches in the surrounding area, including in Roswell and in Artesia.
“There are things that are constant,” Hobbs said. “One thing we learned is that we include some Western music, some of our Flying J Ranch-style tunes, because they want to hear Cindy yodel. She is a champion yodeler.”
Cindy Hobbs was nominated for the Will Rogers Awards by the Academy of Western Artists in 2020.
Many of the Flying J Wrangler concerts support other causes, one as recent as on May 22, when the Flying J Wranglers performed at Sacred Grounds Coffee and Tea House in Ruidoso to benefit the Lincoln County Community Theatre.
The pandemic did cause big problems for the team at Flying J Ranch. “It was one of the biggest challenges of my life,” Hobbs said. “We actually did take-out. We developed a system for three weeks and actually made a profit. People from the community made a point to come out to support us. Then we had the opportunity to being open. I learned a lot about myself in that I needed to be more open to change. The bad news was, it was a challenge, lots of hard work. The good news was that we all, the crew and friends, we came through that. So there is an upside, we took a hit, but we’ll be OK, we’ll be fine. We learned a lot.”
For its 40th season Flying J Ranch will offer fan-favorite attractions, exhibits and entertainment, including gunfights, Pony Express rides, gold panning, roping (wooden) cattle, and a visit at an authentic blacksmith to see how pioneers fashioned iron to make the tools they needed. Native American culture is exhibited in the ranch’s teepee, which includes an audio presentation on the history of the local Mescalero tribe.
Every evening, during the season — with the exception of Sundays — the Flying J Wranglers perform, giving an action-packed show with fiddling, banjo playing, guitar picking and yodeling.
Before the show starts, an authentic chuckwagon dinner is offered. However, while the Flying J Ranch staff usually can feed 600 people in 20 minutes, space is limited due to the COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“One thing we do have out there is space,” Hobbs said. “We are still spacing people. We still have a limit on the size of our crowd (225). but we can do enough now. We are going to be wearing masks; we ask people when they go into shops to wear masks, but when they are sitting at the table, they don’t have to wear their masks.”
According to James Hobbs and Cindy Hobbs, so far, they have performed for more than 1,000,000 visitors, making the musical event venue one of the most popular ones in New Mexico.
For more information, visit flyingjranch.com or call 575-336-4330.