Life don’t deal no sure bets,
But he’ll live his life with no regrets.
He coulda been a lawyer, been a millionaire,
Roundin’ up the clouds as a pilot in the air…
There’s no guarantee, just day-to-day,
But he’s gonna make a living… The cowboy way
Just like the cowboy described in his song lyrics above, Johnny U could have been – and has been – successful doing a lot of different things in his life. But all he ever really wanted to be was a cowboy.
Here’s a man who was a college track star, a high school math teacher, a rodeo cowboy and country music artist. Most recently he’s become an entrepreneur, restaurant owner, host of his own local TV show and a real estate agent.
His life, just like his songs, has included loves had and loves lost, lessons learned and lessons taught, dreams realized and dreams dashed.
Throughout his 53 years, as both his spirit and ego have evolved, the only constant in Johnny U’s life has been horses. His love of horses helped him connect with his father. It led him to become a professional rodeo cowboy. It’s what inspired him to write several of his songs. Today, Johnny’s yearning to spend more time with his horses is the driving force behind his desire to excel in the real estate business.
You were born and raised
on that Snake River Canyon,
Yes, that’s where you learned
to be free.
All the 4-year-old ranch boy from Shoshone ever wanted was a herd of horses. He would go out to the pasture and tie a rail between two cottonwood trees with bailing twine. He would then carefully select a variety of small tree branches – the thin, smooth sticks were race horses; the thicker ones were work horses. Each one had a string tied around it for reins and little Johnny rode his stick horses every day.
He worked like a man
since he was 12 years old,
Before the morning light
he’d saddle up a green broke colt.
Put the biscuits in his pocket
Dad and Mom had baked,
And with a spirit wild as
his young horse,
He’d ride and
work the range.
Johnny learned horsemanship, integrity and the value of a hard day’s work from his father, who was also named Johnny. Father and son became best friends, confiding in one another, never judging, always understanding. An honest and sincere man, the elder Johnny made a living as a rancher, but the family never had a lot of money.
Notwithstanding, Johnny’s dad always believed he was the most fortunate man alive. “I’ve lived in the best part of life as any human being can imagine,” Dad would say. “I was raised in the horse age and here they are putting a man on the moon. If I were to die right now, I can’t imagine it getting any better. This has been a great life.”
Nothing was better for the boy than to ride in the saddle alongside his father and best friend. The man was everything Johnny ever wanted to be.
After high school in Shoshone, Johnny attended Idaho State University on a track scholarship. Following graduation, he became a high school math teacher. But it wasn’t the algebra or geometry that motivated Johnny.
“My favorite part of teaching was the counseling,” Johnny says. “Some kids have come back and said, ‘You saved my life because you let me spend time to visit with you.’ That is the best thing.”
During his years of teaching, Johnny competed in local rodeos. Then, in the fall of 1983, Johnny began down a new road. He and his wife divorced and he quit teaching. “I was too young to have a midlife crisis,” he says. But in a way, it was. In his late 20s, Johnny knew if he wanted to follow his dream of riding horses to rodeo fame, he was running out of time.
“I figured if I’m going to do this, I gotta do it now. I wasn’t getting any younger,” Johnny says. So he hit the professional rodeo circuit, made some money and was on his way. During his early rodeo years, Johnny Urrutia became simply known as, “Johnny U.”
I’ve walked through valleys,
stood on mountain tops,
Seen a pretty face or two.
Sometimes I lingered
long enough to fall,
Sometimes I just
enjoyed the view.
Between riding horses in the rodeo and playing his guitar, Johnny U began to reconnect with himself. He wrote his first song after his divorce as a way of coping.
“When I was going through these adversities, I would write a song about them,” he says. “So my first albums were really sappy. People thought, ‘Geez, this guy is depressing.’ But I didn’t write the songs to put them on albums; I wrote and sang them so that I could throw them away and move on. It was music therapy.”
Johnny met with more adversity when knee, shoulder and wrist injuries forced him into surgery and out of rodeo.
“Maybe it’s good that I didn’t know then what I know now because maybe I would have skipped all that adversity and wouldn’t have learned a thing,” Johnny says. “I’m really comfortable with reasons for things not working out because I just don’t believe in coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.”
I’m goin’ to Tennessee,
Goin’ to chase my dreams…
I’ve got to live the dream,
To find out all that I can be…
During his recovery, Johnny struck a music deal with Dodge Rodeo and became their national representative. For the next 15 years, Johnny U and the Dodge Country Band toured the nation 300 days out of the year. The deal with Dodge catapulted Johnny U’s music career and he went on to record 10 albums. His first single, “He’s a Cowboy,” charted in 1984. His music was especially hot in Europe, where he had six top-10 songs. He nearly always attracted the best musicians to play in his band. Coupled with his good looks and genuine cowboy charm, it wasn’t long before Johnny U had a loyal fan base.
“It always bothered me to sign autographs,” he says. “I always thought it was vain to sign a picture of myself. I didn’t want a Fan Club, so we called it a Friendship Club.”
Over the years country music evolved as rock-and-roll cowboy music became the contemporary sound and peaked in popularity. But Johnny U has always stayed true to his roots.
“I’m very western and very cowboy. That’s who I am. That’s what I do best.”
Everybody wants to be a cowboy,
No one wants to ride the range.
They all want to wear
the spurs and glitter,
They don’t want to know the pain.
Growing up on the ranch in Shoshone, Johnny had learned to be a real cowboy. He didn’t have to pretend, like Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and several other country music stars do. During his time in Nashville, that’s what set Johnny U apart from the rest. He’s a true cowboy singing true cowboy songs.
“Those guys don’t have an idea of what it’s like to go out and break the ice for the stock cows in the winter, or be on a green broke colt when you’re out on the range and it’s about to buck you off. They don’t know that side of cowboy life. Yet, the perception is that they’re cowboys. They can never know what being a cowboy is if they don’t feel that adversity.”
All the lessons Johnny had learned on the range as a young cowboy couldn’t have prepared him for the unique challenge of playing on the road 300 days of the year.
“People would ask me how long I had been out on the road and I’d say, ‘I started three wives and six kids ago.’”
I thought that it was worth the hours
And time away from you
To get ahead…
I almost had everything
That money can’t buy.
In 1998, a series of events made Johnny reevaluate the direction of his life. He was writing songs, hoping to have one picked up by a major recording artist. One night, Johnny was at the famous Bluebird Café in Nashville when his old buddy Garth Brooks walked in. The country music legend was wearing a ball cap and a sweatshirt so nobody recognized him. He and Johnny had a drink and chatted a while when Garth asked, “I’m getting ready to do an album. You been writing anything lately?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think I have anything that’s worthy,” Johnny replied.
“Well, give me what you’ve got,” Garth said.
Just then, somebody recognized Garth and soon there was a crowd a dozen deep harassing the star.
“Hey, I gotta go,” Garth said.
“You got the tape?”
“It’s in my car. I’ll meet you in the parking lot.”
Once outside, Johnny handed his cassette to Garth, who quickly ran across the street, jumped into his SUV and drove away as fans chased him.
At that moment, Johnny U realized something. He reasoned that maybe he would never become a huge star like Garth, but in actuality, he didn’t really want that life.
“Here’s a guy who can’t even have a beer without being bothered. I never wanted to be that guy,” Johnny says. “That guy’s got as much money as God and he can’t buy what I’ve got. What a price he has to pay. And all he really wants is what I’ve got.”
Around that same time, Johnny U’s dad was critically ill back in Idaho. Johnny desperately wanted to spend time with his best friend, his father, while he still had the chance.
“All of this stuff was happening, and my heart just wasn’t there in Nashville.”
You’ll be free as the wind,
In the wide open pastures,
’Cause God let one
cowboy come home.
Johnny came home to Idaho. The walls of his house in Twin Falls are covered with pictures of his family. There’s a Bible on the coffee table, although Johnny claims to be more spiritual than religious. That’s why he was able to make sense of the impending events in his life.
Johnny’s dad had a favorite horse named Candy. When Candy died, Johnny’s dad was heartbroken. One day, while sick in bed, Dad told Johnny he dreamed that God told him He would send Candy down to get him.
The next day, when Johnny entered his dad’s room, he appeared to be asleep. Then suddenly, he sat up, grabbed the bed sheets like they were reins and said, “Whoa Candy! Whoa there!… Okay, get up.” He lay back down and was gone.
But he’d never trade all else,
That God had to give,
For his good horse,
saddle and reins.
All of his pleasures,
some of his heartaches,
Thoughts of his wild yesterdays.
The best of his memories,
peace to his heart
Came back when he
just rode away.
Johnny wrote dozens of songs about his dad’s death because he agonized so much over losing his best friend. What made things harder to swallow was, just two months after he left Nashville, Johnny’s good friends were hanging out with Garth Brooks and co-wrote a song with him. Ironically, Garth also decided at the time to start opening his shows with cowboy singers. Johnny realizes that could have been him, but he’s not looking back.
“I’m where I’m supposed to be,” he says. “That could have been a direction for me, but for whatever reason, it’s OK. All I really wanted to do was be a cowboy. When it all comes down to it, that’s where I probably would have been the happiest.”
Today, Johnny U keeps busy. He is part owner of Johnny’s at Señor Caesars restaurant in Twin Falls and performs there every Wednesday evening. He’s close to finishing the recording of his 11th album. Plans are being made for him to host cowboy western dinner shows locally. He’s in the process of filming a variety show in which he performs and promotes his other entities.
Most recently, Johnny U has jumped headfirst into the real estate business. He’s still doing things “The Cowboy Way” – with the hard work, integrity and wisdom his father taught him years ago between the sage and saddle.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, trying to figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up,” he says. “But I’ve never been without a horse, and I never will be.”
While his life now is busy with family, horses and business, Johnny is enjoying the adventure.
“I think the most fulfilling thing I could do in my life is take all my adversities and struggles and help younger people,” he says. “I look back on all the adversities I’ve had, and I’m telling you, in this last year, I’ve been able to use every one of them to my benefit. I’ve reached a higher level, because of the trials, that I would have never reached without them.”
Someday Johnny wants to slow down and focus on just two things: Counseling youth and riding cutting horses until he can no longer sit in the saddle. Until then…
When someone asked
I’d just tell them with a grin:
Down the road,
’Round the bend.
To listen to and purchase any of Johnny U’s music you can find him at BuckaTune.com