Late rodeo announcer Hadley Barrett remembered for entertainment and kindness
A legendary voice of rodeo was stilled in early March.
The voice of Hadley Barrett which started singing country songs with his band, “Hadley Barrett and the Westerners” at county fairs and dances across Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado, and then progressed to calling rodeo action at some of the nation’s biggest rodeos, became silent on March 2, 2017.
Hadley Barrett, age 87, died of heart failure at University Hospital in Denver on the second of March.
The North Platte native grew up the youngest of six children of C.J. and Estella Barrett, on the ranch ten miles north of town. His mother, better known to the community as “Mom Barrett”, and his dad, were always welcoming other children to their home. “It seemed like a lot of the time,” Barrett said in a 2015 interview, “that we would have a less privileged kid my age or my brothers’ age, on the place.”
He boarded with his older sister in North Platte when it was time for high school, but quit after a year. “I was a country kid, and I had never been away from home. I wasn’t accustomed to the city kids, so I (quit school and) went to work.”
He worked out for area farmers and ranchers and helped on his parents’ ranch as well.
As an eight year old, Hadley’s parents signed him and his brother Mike up for music lessons. Barrett never knew quite why his parents did that, and at fifty cents a lesson per boy, it was a financial stretch to do it. But he and his brother were good musicians, and during intermission during the Saturday matinee at the theater in North Platte, he and Mike would play, Hadley the banjo ukulele then the fiddle, and Mike the guitar. It was a big deal to play for the intermission. “We got free movies and 25 cents a piece,” he remembered. “We could watch the movie and buy popcorn and a pop.”
In his later teens, Barrett and his brother Mike joined with another cowboy, a singer and electric guitar player, to form a band. But when the man got married and his wife didn’t like the band idea, Hadley and Mike took over.
He was sixteen or seventeen at the time, playing at legion halls and dance halls at little towns across the area with his band, known as “Hadley Barrett and the Westerners.” In the 1960s and 1970s, the band played with Grand Old Opry stars. When the Nashville acts toured, at the time, they wouldn’t bring their bands with them, instead relying on local bands. Barrett’s band played for the likes of Jim Reeves, George Morgan, Little Jimmy Dickens, John Gibson, Carl Perkins, and more.
The band was huge, Barrett said, “a lot bigger than we realized at the time.” In 2015, he said, “rarely does a week go by that someone doesn’t say, ‘you played for my mom and dad’s prom,’ or ‘we used to dance to your music.’”
The band played countless venues across Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado: “it would be easier to tell you the little towns we didn’t play,” Barrett said. Dances were “typically the only entertainment those small towns had. We played them a lot.”
The band incorporated new ideas into its music. They carried a P.A. system, which very few bands did at the time. Barrett also talked to the audience, something else no bands did. “We’d say, ‘here’s a waltz tune,’ and we’d announce anniversaries or birthdays.” The band also dressed alike and even had its own bus.
Then rodeo came calling. Barrett had ridden barebacks and bulls, and, in those days, the announcer often competed, so announcers, knowing he was comfortable behind a mic, would ask him to fill in while they rode, roped or bulldogged. In Arnold, Neb., in 1951, when the announcer Joe Cavanaugh, also a bull rider, got sick. Barrett was asked to take his place.
He started announcing rodeos, riding his bareback horse or bull, and then working the microphone.
He worked “every amateur rodeo I could get to,” he said, from Nebraska to Kansas, to Colorado, and then oftentimes his band played after the rodeo.
It was in 1964 that he began announcing pro rodeos, almost accidentally. He was friends with Harry Waltemuth, a committee member with the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte. Waltemuth wanted to hire Barrett; Barrett didn’t have a Rodeo Cowboys Association card, but Waltemuth didn’t care. When the RCA informed Waltemuth that Barrett would not be announcing their rodeo, as he was not a card holder, he told them that if Barrett didn’t announce North Platte, North Platte would not be an RCA rodeo. “That got everybody off dead center,” Barrett panned.
It took off from there, even though “it was a scary thing for me,” Barrett said. He had to give up good amateur rodeo contracts. “You had to wonder if you’d make a living.”
Through all this, Barrett was still ranching. As the youngest child, he was still at home when his siblings had moved out. He played with the band, announced rodeos, and came home to help his dad ranch.
The band’s activity slowed down, in part because it was difficult to book shows and rodeos and be at both. One of his last events was for his daughter Michelle’s wedding to rodeo announcer Randy Corley, in 1983. “It had gotten to the point that I was booked too far out, and missing far too many of the band dates, due to rodeo. You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep.”
By 1968, he was announcing the National Finals Rodeo, and throughout his rodeo career, announced some of the biggest shows in the nation and plenty of the middle-sized ones as well: Sidney, Iowa; Greeley, Colo.; Cheyenne Frontier Days, Burwell, Neb., and North Platte. He’s been the PRCA’s Announcer of the Year four times, and has announced the National Finals Rodeo five times and the National Steer Roping Finals three times. He was the television announcer for the National Finals Rodeo from 1980 through 1990, and from 1994 through 2004. He’s called the action at the Canadian Finals Rodeo seven times.
Barrett never forgot his ranching roots. Even though he moved to Kersey, Colo. in 1993, he still had strong ties to North Platte, the rodeo he had announced since 1964. “He was the hometown kid that grew up ranching and rodeoing, and playing music,” said Jack Morris, chairman of the Buffalo Bill Rodeo. “He was a real showman, and he picked a lot of that up with the music, playing for dances.” Barrett always had ideas for how to make the rodeo production better, Morris said. “He’d bring to the table things that were for the fans. It wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about him to be in the spotlight. It was for the fans, to enjoy the best two hours of rodeo we could possibly put on.”
Barrett was widely respected among the rodeo family for his honesty, his professionalism and his generosity. He was inducted into the PRCA’s Hall of Fame in 1999, and announced rodeos on horseback up until about ten years ago.
He announced Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell, Neb. as well, and the committee loved working with him. “He was a gentleman, and he knew his job,” said Dale Seidel, a long-time committee member. Having grown up on a ranch, Barrett knew the ranch crowd, which is who fills the stands in Burwell.
Pro rodeo clown Lecile Harris knew Barrett from when they worked together for the first time at a rodeo in Bertrand, Neb. in the early 1960s. He loved working with Barrett. “He was so easy to work with, and when you did an act with him, or when you were outside the arena, everything was natural. There was no fake voice, feelings, emphasis or timing. It was all real.” Harris, who has been clowning since 1955, said Barrett was authentic. “That’s what the crowd received, that natural “Hadley.” There was no cover. And that’s what made him so easy for everybody to work with. It didn’t make a difference if it was a committee, a rodeo clown, an act, or sound or music people. That’s what separated him from the herd.”
The last time Harris worked with Barrett was last August at the Larimer (Colo.) County Fair in Loveland, at the Budweiser Event Center, where Barrett’s funeral was held. “Going back into the arena for the services, I don’t feel like it’s going to be easy.” Harris was one of the people who spoke at Barrett’s service.
Last year, following the North Platte rodeo, Barrett sat down with the committee to confirm future dates and a contract. “As long as he wanted to announce,” Morris said, “if we needed to crane him up in that crow’s nest, we’d do it. He had that twinkle in his eye, that grin like he always did.”
Trent Barrett, one of Hadley’s children, lives on the home ranch north of North Platte. A team roper, he was very close to his dad. “He wasn’t just my dad for me, he was my rodeo buddy, he was my fishing buddy. He stood up for me at my wedding. I was in business with him, and there was never an unfair or bad moment. We were the best of friends. He was the perfect father for me.”
Trent’s sister, Michelle, married Randy Corley, who co-announced five rodeos with his father-in-law. The two worked North Platte, San Antonio and Waco, Texas, Caldwell, Idaho, and Puyallup, Washington. Barrett got Corley started in the announcing business, and Corley loved announcing with him. “The best part of working with Hadley was he’s so smooth. Nobody was more positive than he is. And it’s good to work with someone like that. It keeps you grounded.”
Trent talked to his step-son Jake Pelton last week after Hadley’s passing. “I was standing with one of my boys, and I said, ‘rodeo will never be the same for me.’ Jake said, ‘it’s never going to be the same for any of us.’ That’s very true.”
Barrett had just finished announcing the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo and was scheduled to announce Rodeo Austin (Texas) when he passed.
A memorial service was held for Barrett at the Budweiser Event Center in Loveland, Co. on March 6. He is survived by his wife, Lee, of Kersey, six children, Trent (Rebecca) Barrett, Michelle (Randy) Corley, Kimberly Jurgens, Travas (Alaina) Brenner, Katie Brenner, and Taleah Barrett, seventeen grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.
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