Wick Peth was born in 1930 at Mt. Vernon, Washington. “My parents were farmers and ranchers. We run cattle and raised quite a few peas […]
On the Trail with Hadley Barrett
Written by: Maya< Back to Articles
story by Ruth Nicolaus
Rodeo fans across the nation are familiar with Hadley’s voice, and those who were on dance floors across Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado from the 1950s through the mid-80s, listened to Hadley Barrett and the Westerners as he played guitar and sang.
The Kersey, Colo. resident was born and raised in the North Platte, Neb. area, the sixth of seven children of C.J. and Estella (better known to friends and neighbors as “Mom” Barrett.) The family lived on the ranch ten miles north of town, and Hadley grew up knowing how to work. He was “working out” –working for neighboring farmers and ranchers –by the time he was fifteen. Hadley remembers the generosity of his parents. There was always a few extra plates around the dinner table. “Periodically we would have a less privileged kid who would hang out at our place.”
He attended country school, and when he went to high school in North Platte, he boarded with his sister, who had a job and an apartment in town. It was not to his liking. “I was a country kid, and had not been exposed to that kind of life,” he said. “I wasn’t accustomed to the city kids, I didn’t like being away from home, and I didn’t like the school.” At the end of his freshman year, he announced to his parents that he wasn’t going back. “I’m going to work,” he said, and he did.
When Hadley was eight, his parents signed him and his brothers Mike and Bob up for music lessons. Lessons were fifty cents per student, per week, “which was quite a lot then,” Hadley said. “We were living basically on a cream can check for groceries.” Even though Hadley doesn’t remember his parents being musically talented, he and his brothers showed promise. “We learned real quick.” The teacher had recitals at rural schools, taking his best students to perform at them. He began to feature the Barrett boys, because of their skill and ability to play together.
Hadley’s first public music performances after the recitals were intermissions between the Saturday matinees at the local theater in North Platte, where he and his brothers played instruments. At age ten, he was playing the ukulele and the banjo ukulele. The boys were paid a quarter each, plus free movies, and they were delighted. “We could watch the movie and buy popcorn and a pop.”
Then he began to learn to play the guitar. His older sister had one that he used, and between his older brother and a neighbor who knew how, and experience, he learned. “I learned mostly sitting in my room at night with a coal oil lamp and picking,” he recalled.
By this time, Hadley was riding bareback horses and bulls and doing more ranch work. He never planned on being in a band. But a man he knew through the rodeo business, a good singer, decided to put a band together, and called Hadley to play. Hadley played the guitar and sang while his brother Mike played the electric guitar.
When the man married, his new wife objected to the band lifestyle. He quit, and Hadley and his brothers took over.
It was the mid 1940s, and the band, called Hadley Barrett and the Westerners, played at dances, county fairs and grandstand shows across Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado. In those days, “those little towns had dance halls, and that was typically the only entertainment those small towns had.” He can’t list all the towns he’s played in. “It would be easier to tell you the little towns we didn’t play,” he laughed.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, as Grand Ol’ Opry stars played across the region, it became customary that their bands did not travel with them; they found a local band, and Hadley’s band was often called. They played for Jim Reeves, George Morgan, Little Jimmy Dickens, Don Gibson, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, and more.
The band was huge, Hadley recalled, “a lot bigger than we realized at the time.” It was also cutting edge in some of its practices. Band members wore matching outfits, they had a public announcement system, and they would talk between songs, announcing that their next song would be a waltz, for example, or announcing a birthday or anniversary. Hadley also bought a bus with which the band traveled.
During all this, he was still ranching at home. Having been the last of the Barrett kids to marry, at age 22, he was running the home place with his dad’s help, working for other farmers and ranchers, playing with the band, and rodeoing. He’d begun to make contacts in the rodeo world, which would lead to his next career.
He was friends with Joe Cavanaugh, a rodeo announcer and bull rider, who always found a fill-in while he rode his bull at rodeos he announced. Joe knew Hadley had experience in front of a microphone, so at the Arnold, Neb. rodeo, he called on Hadley to help. The second performance, Joe had the flu and couldn’t talk. The committee asked Hadley to fill in, and “that was the first full-fledged rodeo performance I announced,” he said.
As a result, rodeos contacted him, asking him to work. He was in the same predicament as Cavanaugh: find someone to announce while he got on his bareback horse or bull. But that didn’t stop committees from hiring him. He announced almost every amateur rodeo he could get to: from Nebraska to Kansas to the edge of Colorado.
At this time, Harry Waltemuth, committee member with the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte, told Hadley he wanted to hire him. Hadley didn’t have a Rodeo Cowboys Association card; Harry didn’t care. When the RCA informed Harry that Hadley would not be announcing their rodeo, as he was not a card holder, Harry told them that if Hadley didn’t announce North Platte, North Platte would not be an RCA rodeo. “That got everybody off dead center,” Hadley quipped. He still has the letter from the RCA, giving him permission to announce the rodeo without a membership.
Hadley did become an RCA member the next year, in 1965, but it was a worry. At that time, RCA members could only work RCA events, and all of Hadley’s rodeos were amateur. “I had to give up pretty good contracts,” he recalled. “You had to wonder if you’d make a living.”
By this time, the band activities were beginning to decrease. Hadley booked rodeos so far in advance it was difficult to know when a dance would be scheduled on top of a rodeo. And it didn’t work well if the front man, lead singer and guitar player couldn’t show up. The band dissolved in the mid 1980’s.
It didn’t take long for his rodeo career to grow. “The first year was really skinny,” he recalls, but that changed quickly. In his fifty years of pro rodeo (now the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), he’s announced nearly every big rodeo in the country: from Sidney, Iowa, to Greeley, Colo., Cheyenne Frontier Days, and the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte since 1965. He’s been the PRCA’s Announcer of the Year four times, and has announced the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo four times and the National Steer Roping Finals as well. He was the television announcer for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo from 1980 through 1990, and from 1994 through 2004, and he’s called the action at the Canadian Finals Rodeo seven times.
In 1993, he left North Platte and moved to Kersey, Colo. His rodeo career had grown to where he needed to be near a big airport. For a while, Hadley’s son Trent took care of his cow herd, but eventually he sold it. “I always considered my rodeo career as a part time job. I was basically a rancher who had this sideline of announcing rodeos. It took a long time to come to my senses that the ranching was my sideline, and the rodeo was my banker for the ranch.”
“Now I’ve gone to the dogs,” he jokes. He and his wife, Lee, raise white Golden retrievers, and he laughs that he is her “most affordable maintenance man.”
Hadley and his first wife Clarice have three children: Trent, who lives on the Barrett place north of North Platte, Michelle Corley, married to rodeo announcer Randy Corley, and Kimberly Jurgens. Lee’s children are Travas Brenner and Katie Brenner; Hadley and Lee have an adopted daughter, Taleah Barrett.
And he’s still going strong. He continues to announce rodeos and enjoy friends in both rodeo and the music world. “Rarely does a week go by that someone doesn’t say, ‘we used to dance to your music,’ or ‘you played at my mom and dad’s prom.’”
And the legend hasn’t quit. He keeps up a busy rodeo schedule and loves the friendships he’s made. “The friends, that’s where the real value is.”