Russ Wolfe married a rancher’s daughter from Kansas. After Russ came out of the armed services in World War II, he moved to Colorado Springs, where his father- in- law had bought another cattle ranch. Russ cowboyed for his father- in- law, then in 1953 he decided to get a string of horses, invite people out to the ranch, and serve them dinner.
For after- dinner entertainment, he hired some local musicians to perform western songs. That was the beginning of the Flying W Chuck Wagon, which celebrated its 50th year in 2002.And that’s why the Flying W Wranglers advertise themselves as “the second oldest western singing group” (the Sons of the Pioneers being the oldest).At the end of the 1953 season, Russ got rid of his horses and concentrated on building his chuck wagon and entertainment.
Along the way he constructed some buildings, until a whole western town with museums was in place at the Flying W. Today, during the summer season, about 1,400 people come each night seven nights a week to have dinner and be entertained by western music. Those first musicians who played “were mostly folk musicians,” said Vern Thompson, who’s been a Flying W Wrangler for twenty-five years. “Then Russ hired Cy Scarborough, Babe Humphrey, Chuck Camp and Buck Teeter, and they’re the real ‘originals’ for the Flying W Wranglers.”
These were all musicians dedicated to western music and who lived and breathed the cowboy life. After those men left, they each formed a chuck wagon of their own: Cy Scarborough formed the Bar D in Durango, Colorado, Babe Humphrey formed the Bar J in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Chuck Camp formed the Triple C. That’s not to say that there’s been much turnover at the Flying W. “In 50 years, we’ve only had 22 members,” states Thompson. “And in the 25 years I’ve been here, we’ve only had to replace two guys.” Vern Thompson grew up in Texas and left home at 16 to play music. By 22 he’d had enough of the traveling.
He’d been in rock ’n’ roll and country bands and was friends with Denny Peter, the bass player with the Flying W Wranglers at the time. Denny invited him to join the group when there was an opening and Vern did. Denny wasn’t a front man, so when he left Vern took over leadership of the group.
The Flying W Wranglers consist of Vern on guitar and drums, fronting half the show; Scott Vaughn also plays guitar and drums and halfway through the show switches with Vern and fronts the show; the fiddle player is Joe Stephenson; Ronnie Cook plays lead guitar, mandolin, banjo and dobro; and Wes English plays bass. Everybody sings.
“We’ll play 330 to 350 shows a year,” said Vern. “During the summer season, we play every evening. That season runs from the middle of May until the end of September. Then in the Winter—October, November and December—we’ll play two shows each on Friday and Saturday nights. Colorado Springs is a convention town, so sometimes we’ll get the convention out to the Flying W and do a show.
We do the same thing in the March- AprilMay time.” The group is hard working and rock steady. “In 25 years, I’ve only missed one show,” said Vern. “Scott has only missed two shows, and that’s because his son, who played linebacker for Colorado State University, was playing in bowl games.”
Although western music had some lean years, the Flying W Chuck Wagon never really did. “I think what really kept us going was that we did family entertainment,” said Vern. “More than anything else, I think people want good, clean entertainment and that’s what we’ve always done. We’re all Christians and we believe in family entertainment.”
The group has done albums for 50 years, which they sell at their performances. They signed with Brentwood Records in Nashville and released a gospel album on that label but continued to produce albums in their studio at the Flying W to release on their own label.
The Flying W Wranglers love what they do. “We’ve gotten pretty corporate,” said Thompson. “We have profit sharing and a retirement account and we play for good crowds every night.” The only drawback, said Vern, is that “most people still come here expecting to hear a country band playing. We spend the first 20 minutes of each show convincing folks that we’re the real deal and that western music is worth listening to.”
The Flying W Wranglers may spend the first 20 minutes winning over the crowd, but at the end of their show there’s no doubt they’re singing to an audience of converts to western music.
SOURCES: Green, Douglas B. Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy. Nashville: Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Thompson, Vern. Phone interview with the author, December 2002.