“It’s this little picturesque, white church with a steeple,” said James Hobbs, tenor, lead singer, rhythm guitar player and founder of the Wranglers, a Western music troupe based in Alto, five miles north of Ruidoso. “We start the Christmas tour every year at that church, which seats about 100 people and is the local place of worship for the ranchers there. These cowboys will come in with their hats in their hands and sit down in the back. I got a call from a lady who wants to bring her 97-year-old mother to the show at the church this year.”
The Flying J Wranglers’ “A White Mountain Christmas” program includes Western music, traditional Christmas music and some songs, such as Roger Dale’s “Tonight’s Christmas Eve,” that are both. Humor and reverence for the season add both laughs and moments for reflection to the show.
“We want people to come in and we want to lift them up,” Hobbs said. “We want to build on and reinforce that Christmas spirit, keep it going.”
The first stop in the intimate confines of the Tinnie Baptist Church sets the tone for the tour, which comes to Albuquerque on Wednesday, Dec. 4. The Wranglers’ Albuquerque show, sponsored by the New Mexico chapter of the International Western Music Association, starts at 7 p.m. at the African American Cultural Center, 310 San Pedro NE.
Hobbs said this is the eighth year the Wranglers have done their holiday program in Albuquerque.
“We always inject new songs,” he said. “This year we are doing ‘Queen of the Rodeo,’ by (late movie cowboy and singer) Rex Allen Sr. And we have an original song I wrote, ‘Together for Christmas,’ that we will be doing in Albuquerque for the first time. And then we just hang on to some songs that we just know we are supposed to show up and do.”
Like going home
Hobbs, 66, has deep roots in New Mexico. His great-grandfather, James Isaac Hobbs, founded the city of Hobbs when he homesteaded there in 1907 and named the settlement.
James Hobbs of the Flying J was born in Lovington, but grew up with his mother in Farwell, Texas, a town on the Texas-New Mexico border. Farwell is just across the line from Clovis and Texico.
“Music was always important to me,” Hobbs said. “One of my first memories was singing the music in this little Church of Christ in Farwell.”
He was introduced to Western music, specifically music by the Sons of the Pioneers, in the late 1970s.
“When I heard that music, it was just like I was going home,” he said.
Hobbs worked in a cowboy band in Estes Park, Colorado, from 1977 to 1980. In 1982 he and his wife, Cindy, an accomplished Western music vocalist and champion yodeler, founded the Flying J Ranch in Alto.
Open to the public Monday through Saturday from the Friday before Memorial Day through Labor Day, the 11-acre ranch offers Western-style family entertainment – pony rides, roping, panning for gold and pistol shooting with a .44-caliber six-shooter that fires wax bullets.
“We try to facilitate bringing families together – two to three generations,” Hobbs said. “The Flying J Ranch brings out the kid in everybody. They get out in that setting that hearkens back to the Old West and those old movies. You see mothers showing kids how to throw a lasso. They are learning together. We have a sign that tells them how.”
A day at the Flying J is capped off with a Western-style meal served on tin plates in the big show barn and a Western music show with singing, yodeling, fiddling, banjo-plunking and some jokes.
“We sing songs like ‘Cool Water’ and ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky,’ ” Hobbs said. “We play to between 150 and 600 people a night and to ages from eight months to 80.”
When the ranch shuts down in September, there’s maintenance work to be done – painting, mowing, fence building. And then comes December and the Christmas tour.
Besides James and Cindy Hobbs, the Flying J Wranglers include –
• Jayson Jones, who sings baritone and plays bass guitar, mandolin and fiddle.
• Tim McCasland, who performs on guitar, banjo and dobro.
• Corinna Ripple, a fiddler who helps with harmonies and can sing lead, too.
• Greg Meeks, a Western baritone singer.
The group’s Christmas tour, now in its 19th year, is making 11 stops this season. Besides Tinnie and Albuquerque, the group is performing at Artesia, Hobbs, Las Cruces and Roswell in New Mexico, and in Midland, Breckenridge, Quanah, Amarillo and Lubbock in Texas.
“I think we have been at the Cactus Theater in Lubbock every year, and we have probably been at the Little Theater in Amarillo 15 years,” Hobbs said. “We have been there 38 years at the Flying J and we have had people come from all 50 states. But mainly our crowds come from Texas and New Mexico and when we go out on the Christmas tour, (the audiences) are like extended family.”
At the Tinnie Baptist Church tonight, Hobbs may sing “A White Mountain Christmas,” another song he wrote. Cindy may do one of her comic Christmas skits and will likely sing “Mary, Did You Know?”, a favorite among the tour faithful.
“After the show, we will all go over to the old Tinnie school, which has been restored and is a community building now, for food and to celebrate Christmas and being together,” Hobbs said. “Everyone brings their unique perspective to Christmas. But Christmas is about being together.”