He has arguably sold more rodeo tickets than any cowboy in the history of the PRCA, was nominated by the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and has won Entertainer of the Year 15 times. Meet John Payne, the notorious One-Armed Bandit. He is making his second appearance at the Hamel Rodeo this year. During his last performance 4 years ago in 2014, he herded two massive bison around the ring at the Corcoran Lions Park. The audience watched in awe as he led the two beasts onto his huge custom trailer, then fired off his six shooter in his only hand while still mounted on horseback. Over the loud crowd cheers, I heard someone exuberantly shout, “Oh man, this is a real wild west show!”
I was lucky enough to catch up with John at Inn Kahoots later than night after the rodeo and this is what he had to say. “I’ve been ridin’ 60 years and nine months. As soon as I could hold my neck stiff, they had me on a horse. I had 3 older brothers and they kept trying to kill me but it never happened. I was born and raised on a ranch and there was nothin’ to do but ride horses. That was our entertainment. We didn’t have no internet. We didn’t have no colorin’ books. All we had was horses that we swam up and down the creek.”
John said his favorite part of the rodeo business is, “Seein’ the committees work their butt off all year long trying to enhance a place for the general public to come along and have a good time. Them people work their butts off for a year and get nothin’! If I can put a smile on their face and make them forget they just put in 8 hours and didn’t get paid enough, it makes me happy.”
I first saw John earlier that day on my way to work. He was parked out in front of Hamel Building Center in his iconic trailer and pickup truck with giant steer horns mounted on the grill. He was selling tickets right on the side of Highway 55. “I said I’m gonna spruce ticket sales up. When they hire me, I want them to make money off of hirin’ me. I don’t want them to lose money. All I wanted to do was remind everybody the rodeo was in town and they were gonna see a helluva fine act if they just come out. Hopefully I drawed a few of them in there. When I walk around this town and all of the businesses have got rodeo posters hangin’ up and everybody’s got Hamel Rodeo shirts on. I like to see that.”
As the night grew later, John offered up a little moonshine while we hung out by his trailer filled with all sorts of unique and peculiar treasures from Native American headdresses to a fake arm he greeted me with while laughing wildly. When I asked how John got his start, he said he went broke in the cattle business – apparently owing $100k to a guy in ‘86 – so he started entertaining rodeos. It took him 12 years to pay it back. He quipped, “I told him I would pay him back. I just didn’t tell him when.” So it started….”Back in Oklahoma in 1987, when I told a stock contractor his act sucked and he turned around and told me, ‘well we’ll just let YOU be the entertainer next year’ and I said, ‘I’ll be here.’ And no money was discussed. I come and did 3 performances the next year. I didn’t get a penny. And then I went home and started ranchin’. And the phone started ringin’ with people sayin’, ‘HEY are you that one-armed guy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s One-Armed Bandit!’ And they said, ‘oh yeah, one-armed bandit. Can you come to our show?’ And I said, ‘well yeah I can- but I might have a little money.’ First thing you know, everybody and their dog was callin’ me. And I got better. I’m not satisfied with stayin’ the same. I wanna improve things. I wanna leave mother earth better than when I found her. And if that’s sellin’ rodeo tickets or pickin’ up trash…. If I see any dang trash around my trailer, I’ll pick it up. And if I see anybody throwin’ trash outta their pickup, I’ll tell ’em about it. What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. Some of these cowboys get out and throw hangers down and I say, ‘HEY, you dropped a hanger there. Pick that coat hanger up’. I’m a hard-core, redneck, oaky cowboy and dang proud of it!”
I asked him what his favorite rodeo was and he responded, “I ain’t got no favorite rodeo. I’ve got a favorite type of rodeo. The kind where the whole town turns out for the rodeo. Posters everywhere. I like a bar. Close…..To my room. I like the rodeo grounds close to a bar. I like some good eatin’ places around close, like they have here in Hamel. So this would be my favorite type of rodeo.”
He finishes by telling me about his bison. “I put the buffalo in the show for one reason. Before rodeos was a sport, buffalos was the main ingredient for the wild west shows. They deserve the right to be in the rodeo. The buffalo has fed a struggling nation traveling west. We ate buffalos. We wrapped ourselves up in their hides. We used their bones for tools. The buffalo has donated a lot to our success as United States’ citizens. So my hats off to the buffalo. I wanna educate people and I wanna entertain them at the same time.”
Instead of bison this year, it sounds like John Payne will have some of his famous Longhorn-Watusi cross steers. Google the breed; their horns are of mythical size and are sure to be a sight to see along with John Payne’s one-of-a-kind level of showmanship. John told me how excited he is to return to Hamel and hang out with the new friends he made in town while enjoying a drink or two at the local bars and helping raise money with a great group of volunteers; the lifeblood of the Hamel rodeo: He described his anticipation as, “Just like coming home to paid vacation”. The town looks forward to seeing you perform at our rodeo again John and if we’re lucky catch a lager and a laugh at Inn Kahoots a little later.