When he opens his mouth, you are sent to another time.
Wayne Brooks just has one of those voices.
Could be the Old West, could be a Folger’s commercial from 1972, but it darn sure doesn’t feel like 2017.
It is rich like mahogany, thick like molasses. He says it’s one of the few things God blessed him with, “a pretty decent voice.” Sure wasn’t his riding, as the former Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association short-timer calls himself “the best 3-second bareback rider that ever was.”
He laughs, and it sounds like an old truck hiccupping.
His dad sounds the same, his uncles, too. This deep bass. A lullaby in his hands would be a sleeping pill.
“Welcome to the 92nd annual La Fiesta De Los Vaqueros!” he booms into his microphone high atop his perch in the press box of the Tucson Rodeo grounds. “How you feeling out there? Make a little noise. Look at this crowd today! Welcome everybody, we’re so glad you’re here.”
Two hours later, he’ll put yet another performance in the books. A five-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association announcer of the year, Brooks signs off and takes a gulp of water. For a man who’s voice is his livelihood, water is his salvation, like a man wandering the desert.
He’ll be on the road 240 days this year, a full two-thirds, and though it’s only February, his voice is a bit hoarse, almost gravelly. Smoky. In rodeo, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
As a child, Brooks was taken by Rex Allen, the Arizona Cowboy, an actor, singer and all-around showman who also narrated Disney nature and Western programs.
Born in Prescott, Brooks fell for the cowboy way. But it’s not as if he yearned to use his voice himself. Didn’t even think it was special.
No, he sort of fell backwards into this.
Years ago, a rodeo at Estrella Park outside Phoenix was left without an announcer. Someone had bailed at the last minute. A woman walked around eavesdropping on conversations, tapping people on the shoulder. “Hello!” she’d say, and “Hello,” they’d squeak back, and she’d move on.
Then she heard Wayne Brooks.
“She said if you’ll announce our jackpot today, we’ll give you a free practice horse,” he said. “That was 20 bucks at the time! I said, sounds good. No clue what I was doing.”
At the time, he was a young bareback rider on the PRCA and Arizona circuit. Not a very good one, he’ll tell you, but he “soaked up the lifestyle” just the same.
“To compete in the rodeo world you have to be in the top 5 percent from a physical fitness standpoint, being rock solid, where you can take the beating and get up the next day,” he said. “I was never that tough.”
But he did have this voice, and boy, a passion for the rodeo.
He barely did more than announce the names of the contestants that day, but a seed was planted. A number of weeks later, the president of the Arizona high school rodeo paid him $100 to announce the event, and, “I thought I was never going to see another poor day. I was rich.”
He was maybe 24, and as time went on, he thought, “Good grief, I could pay some of the bills by doing this.” Rodeo at that point was not a full-time gig — he worked construction, drove a truck, “whatever to make a buck” — but he says he wouldn’t trade that time for the world. “The greatest fun,” he calls it. “We were there for the beer and the fun and the girls and the partying,” he said.
Eventually he settled down, married a beautiful woman named Melanie, had two daughters and moved to Casa Grande. He started picking up more and more gigs, especially in the winter, when he could work his regular jobs and announce on the weekends.
One spring, it had to be 1990 or ’91, Brooks says, he and Melanie sat down and hashed it out. She was a teacher and homemaker who could take off for the summer, the kids were young, and they figured: He could stay in Casa Grande for the summer, or they could go on the road and make four times as much.
“Like any blue-collar, hard-working family, that was like found money,” he said. “You can work doing whatever for $10 a hour or this job and make $500 a day for two or three days. It was like Christmas. I had no idea they paid for people to talk, to brag on their friends. No idea.”
It took about 10 years of that annual summer grind for Brooks to line up enough regular gigs to give it the full go.
Nearly two decades ago, Brooks got his start in Tucson announcing the rodeo’s royalty banquet, dubbing the rodeo queen. Long-time general manager Gary Williams said he just wanted the committee to hear him a little. He took over full-time duties for the rodeo more than a dozen years ago and considers Tucson among his favorites.
“To this day, I still sometimes wake up and am surprised I’m in Tucson, or Salinas, or Reno,” he said. “I’m still not even 100 percent sure how it happened.”
“Hey, blind hogs find acorns, too.”
To watch a Tucson Rodeo performance in the hands — and voices — of Brooks and barrel man Justin Rumford is to watch Laurel and Hardy reincarnate. Abbott and Costello in spurs. Farley and Spade, only both are likable.
There is a dash of irreverence in their otherwise saddled-down humor. It’s a little subversive. Rumford talks about being at a rodeo in Colorado for a week and they joke about the, umm, high altitude.
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in Colorado stays in your system for 30 days,” they riff.
They’ll manage 30 performances a year, a quarter of the schedule or so, turning little girls in pink cowboy hats into silly putty.
“We work together well because we’re just two regular dudes,” Rumford said. “We don’t have a fake voice, anything fake. We’re who we are, having fun together.”
Theirs is a dance, much like a bullfighter teasing a bull, weaving in and out of trouble. In a politically hostile climate, they know their audience but don’t pander to it.
They are unabashedly Western, and Brooks frequently talks about the military, the cowboy lifestyle, rodeo heritage. But between the music and the Justin Timberlake references, it’s clear they have modernized what can sometimes be a rather bland show.
“Wayne does a very good job of understanding the different demographics,” Williams said. “There are some rodeos he does where you’ve got a bunch of ranchers and it doesn’t matter what he does, they just sit there. If you try to play down to what you perceive is the level of the audience, it’s going to bite your butt.”
Williams, who’s known to spin a yarn or two, recalls one such occasion.
“A very famous barrel man worked a rodeo in Arkansas for the first time,” Williams said. “He thought he would try what he perceived was Southern humor — ‘How do you compliment a rodeo fan from Arkansas?’ Announcer said, ‘I dunno,’ and he said, ‘Nice tooth!’ There was dead silence.”
Brooks and Rumford are careful to never target the audience, and to aim their sights on bigger targets.
“We never say anything political, religious, racial — we try not to say anything at all to offend anybody,” Rumford said. “That’s why so often we try to make fun of each other.”
Rumford, who tears off his rodeo gear to reveal a skin-tight Evil Knievel outfit for a comedy motorbike routine, bears the brunt of it.
“I’ve known him since he was 10, used to announce for his dad, and I remember when he and his little sister Haley, a past rodeo secretary of the year, would lay on the grass and do leg wrestling,” Brooks said. “They’re great communicators. Fabulous communicators. You can take him anywhere anytime any day, take him off an airplane, stick him in arena, and he’ll do the job.”
Most important, Brooks said, is for the two of them to have an open dialogue with the audience, typically half of which is first-time rodeo fans.
“In rodeo, we have an opportunity to take our fan base and bring them in to our family,” Brooks said. “What I’ve learned from my predecessors is I want these people to walk away feeling they’re part of the group. That they can be a cowboy today.”
Brooks is a cowboy today, yesterday and forever.
He has the scars to prove it.
“When you’re 20-something, you don’t realize the pain that’s gonna come back when you’re 40-something,” Brooks said.
His shoulder aches, courtesy of a wreck on a bareback horse down near the border. Tore his rotator cuff, and, “It’s shot,” Brooks says.
He’s been in a wreck or two himself, but he’s also cursed with the unenviable task of sometimes ushering a half-novice audience through horrific sights.
“Reno, Nevada, 10 years ago, a six-horse hitch with 2,000 pound Percheron horses, whirling around the arena, and one of the horses stumbled and fell and it was just like wadding up a piece of paper. All six horses went down, hitch, leather and lines, people flying off of the wagon. The worst wreck you could ever see with animals involved.”
He remembers the time bullrider Cody Hancock got kicked by a bull in Clovis, California, outside of Fresno. Took his ear off, Brooks said. “You don’t realize how tough these players are until you see eight or 10 of them kicking around the dirt looking for an ear and then saying 10 minutes later we can’t find it, let’s go on.”
Tucson Rodeo Committee chairman Jose Calderon chimes in.
“That’s why cowboys don’t wear earrings,” he says, as Brooks and Williams laugh.
He handles these rough crashes with dignity and respect for the rider and the animal, having been there before.
“In 2017, more now than ever, we as cowboys hold our heads up and are proud of the tradition and heritage that surrounds it,” he said.
If it sounds like a commercial, don’t be surprised: Brooks also does voice work, making use of his gift.
He may have even passed it on to his son, Ace.
Ace is 15 — he was born on 9/11; Brooks remembers being in the Scottsdale hospital when the nurse checked Melanie’s blood pressure as the buildings crashed down — and his voice is changing. Who knows if it’ll settle in the deep pit like his father’s.
“Until you’re 20 you have no idea,” Brooks said.
It sure is a good thing he found out, though.
“We couldn’t have a better representative than Wayne,” Williams said. “He is studious, he knows his stuff, and he has a passion for it. You can’t fake that passion.”