Sporting a handlebar mustache, leather vest and colorful bandanas, Bruce Brannen looks like he stepped right out of the Gene Autry and Roy Rogers films he loved as a child. But today, this renaissance cowboy -- who ropes, rides, paints and writes poetry -- is bringing the old west to life for everyone from sophisticated art collectors to wide-eyed school children.
|Scenes depicting life in the old West are Bruce's favorite subjects. They include real-life cowboys like the ones in his oil paintings and cartoon characters like those in his new children's book.
A naturally talented artist, Bruce said he got his start when his parents gave him a pen and paper to help keep him quiet in church. Even then, his favorite subjects were the cattle and horses that roamed his grandfather's ranch, which has long since been engulfed by the city of Montgomery.
"My grandfather had registered Hereford cattle when I was growing up, so I was what you might call a stockyard rat," Bruce said. "I was at the first rodeo they had in Montgomery, and when I saw somebody roping, I was ruined for life."
Bruce's grandfather, B.B. Plowden, encouraged the youngster's Western flair by buying him two practice calves. Bruce's roping skills improved, and after graduating from Lee High School, he attended college at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, mainly so he could enter more rodeos.
"I went there to rodeo more than anything else," said Bruce who majored in art. "Getting an education was just a bonus for me."
After graduation, Bruce returned to Montgomery where he taught school for 33 years. He retired a few years ago from Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School where he taught drafting and engineering for most of his career and spent the last two years teaching art.
Nowadays, Bruce is back in the saddle, working alongside his wife Vernelle and faithful horse, Smoke, in the couple's 2B Ranch Wild West Show. When he's not performing, this real-life Buffalo Bill can be found at his "home on the range" in the town of Pike Road, where colorful images from the American frontier take shape with each stroke of his paintbrush.
"I just really love painting the horses, the calves, the bulls, the cowboys - all of it," Bruce explained. "It wasn't until I married Vernelle that I started to try new things."
Bruce's artwork adorns the walls of cattle barons, rodeo cowboys and art lovers throughout the world. His canvas may be the typical cloth type, or it could be the skull of a bull. His tastes are as varied as the subjects he illustrates.
"As we began to travel to art shows, people would ask 'Don't you have anything besides cowboy stuff'," Vernelle said. "So I would take photos of different things I thought people would like to buy. It opened up a new market for his artwork."
But it was Bruce's artistic talents of another sort that changed the Brannens' lives forever.
It was 1994, and Troy State University's theater department was producing the "Will Rogers' Follies," Bruce recalled. Dr. Phil Kelley, who was coordinating the show, called Bruce and asked if he could perform the trick-roping act needed for the play.
"I told him I wasn't a trick roper, that I wasn't even that good of a roper, period," Bruce said. But after they met, Kelley asked Bruce to join the show, adding that he could rope better than anyone else they had.
"I guess that got me hooked," Bruce said. "I loved performing and even though I didn't do anything fancy with a rope then, it was so exciting and so much fun."
From there, his passion grew, and he spent more time twirling a rope instead of catching cows. He took some lessons and, as his skills improved, so did the demand for his entertainment. He was a hit at local birthday parties, Bible schools and other events. Bruce began to attend Wild West clubs and conventions where he learned more about trick roping, knife throwing, whip cracking and gun spinning. He's even taken some yodeling classes and was asked to star in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in Missoula, Mont., in July 2006.
"During our show, I do the trick roping, and Vernelle does the shooting," Bruce said as he twisted his mustache. "And every now and again, the Lord sees fit to send me a poem."
A new avenue for Bruce's talents developed when he combined his skills as a teacher and a trick roper. His Wild West show is in big demand for summer reading programs around the state. Already, he's booked for 35 such shows this summer.
This year, his bag of tricks includes a new book he's written to enhance the summer reading program shows. "Bucky Catches The Reading Bug" was written and illustrated by Bruce.
Bruce admits his current career hardly seems like work. He loves it so much that he describes it as "the dessert" of his life.
"I just wish I had started all this earlier," he said. "It takes me longer to learn things now, I think. But wow! I get to play cowboy and paint pictures - I wouldn't trade jobs with anybody. I feel liked I'm blessed unto bursting. I couldn't live a better life, and I'm trying to be a good steward with what God's given me."