Eastern Sensibilities

How producer John Johnson helped team roping flourish “Back East.”
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How producer John Johnson helped team roping flourish “Back East.”

Johnny Johnson hails from the Appalachian region—in Tennessee where Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina all collide. He brings moonshine to his ropings—JX2 Productions—to pass out to friends and sponsors. It’s become a bit of a calling card for him, making him awfully hard to forget.

“I’m proud of it,” Johnson says of his moonshine roots. Both his father and grandfather were involved in the business as young men. “I’m educated. I went to college and got my degree. If you can embrace who you are, then you can be whatever you want to be.”

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While his parents had horses, team roping in eastern Tennessee was almost nonexistent when Johnson was growing up. Instead, he turned his attention to sports, and eventually played football at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, and East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.

But his brother, Dave, pulled him into team roping and 18 years ago they founded JX2, sensing an opportunity in an underserved marketplace. The vision was to bring a higher-quality production east of the Mississippi, but the challenges and hurdles he faced along the way were nearly insurmountable.

To begin, less than 10% of active ropers live in the Eastern third of the nation and they’re spread thin from Illinois to Mississippi and Pennsylvania to Florida. The cattle situation, Johnson says, is difficult at best, but today gets most his ropers from Chip Phillips out of Alabama.

Next, just as the business was getting some momentum, Johnny’s wife, Penny, suffered serious complications while pregnant with the couple’s second son.

“When my wife was seven months pregnant with Eli, she had a blood clot travel through her brain and got lodged behind a cyst and put her in a coma,” Johnson said. “My wife and second child were fighting for their lives. She is still fighting major issues 10 years later, but fortunately the baby was healthy. We all have our crosses to bear and it’s a daily battle. I have great support from my family, friends and business partners.”

Credit: Courtesy John Johnson John, Mason, Penny and Eli Johnson. Mason won the truck at the JX2 Hillbilly Redneck Truck & Trailer Explosion in Morristown, Tenn., in 2014.

Credit: Courtesy John Johnson John, Mason, Penny and Eli Johnson. Mason won the truck at the JX2 Hillbilly Redneck Truck & Trailer Explosion in Morristown, Tenn., in 2014.

With no other options but to work, Johnson poured his energy into the National Team Roping League—an organization set on bringing higher standards and cohesiveness to the roping scene in the East.

With help of the USTRC, they tackled the extremely tricky problem of scheduling. Both with timing and geographic concerns, the new venture had to be extremely careful on when and where to put a roping.

“We do the best job we can of keeping our schedule geographically apart from each other as much as possible,” Johnson said. “All the producers out here try to work together because we realize we need all the customers we can get. You can’t just jump in a truck and have 150 ropers go 45 minutes down the road. When these ropers go to these events, they travel an average of 300 miles. We need them all. If we have a roping in Nashville, we need people from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio. So it’s a whole different animal.”

Soon, though, the NTRL grew into the largest United States Team Roping Championship affiliate program with over 2,500 members. Today, NTRL hosts 50 ropings with 10 different producers in 12 states, including a half-million dollar finals.

But that’s not the end of Johnson’s enterprises. In addition to straight USTRC events, truck ropings and the NTRL, he also hosts five World Series of Team Roping events every year—one of which is in Cheyenne.

“I’m in a unique situation,” Johnson said. “Since gathering up ropers is such a unique problem in the East, World Series let me combine a couple of my qualifiers in the East with what we are already doing. Of all of the WSTR and USTRC contractors, I’m the only one that either side has allowed to do that. They have been very understanding about my situation here and what we are trying to do by giving ropers in the East multiple options for both associations.”

He also credits sponsors for standing with him through the ups and downs of getting the business rolling. In fact, that may be the trickiest tightrope Johnson has walked: being true to the NTRL, USTRC and WSTR sponsors. It’s an impossible situation that somehow Johnson, the USTRC and WSTR are making possible.

“I have six or so ropings that rival any roping in the country based on a tenth of the membership,” he said. “That’s pretty impressive. Our NTRL finals are always around 2,000.”

Like all cowboys, Johnson did start looking West. In the mid 2000s, he was working with Colorado’s Dave and Mandy Wolfe on team sorting events back East. Some dates and venues opened up and Johnson seized the opportunity to produce ropings in Colorado and Wyoming. Soon, the Tennessee hillbilly was the first producer to host World Series ropings in each state, including the $470,000 Cheyenne event.

“When World Series was first getting started in the Rocky Mountain region, the roping outfit that was controlling that area did not want WSTR anywhere around,” Denny Gentry said. “They were talking lots of trash and scheduling two ropings on the same weekend as any WSTR roping. None of the Colorado contractors wanted to go against that. John was extremely anxious to put on a roping in the West. I explained to him that it would be an uphill climb and he would lose a lot of money to get it going. The first year he put on a qualifier in Golden, Colo., a blizzard came through. He had a total of 40 teams for the entire roping. John pretty much took a blood bath for the first two or three years, but after awhile he begin to make headway in northern Colorado and really found a home when he hit Cheyenne. It wasn’t long until all of the contractors in Colorado were wanting to give it a try. And the competitors that tried to keep us out disappeared.”

Johnson still leans on Mandy Wolfe, Peter Farner and Beau Rappell to make the Cheyenne event happen, but also brings his staff to help produce the event.

“He was determined to succeed and we have really seen the quality of his operation improve over the past few years,” Gentry said.

Other than the Cheyenne roping, Johnson walked away from his Western events to focus his attention back East and keep blazing trails there.

“The NTRL is designed to have local producers put on $40 ropings, run them off a computer and create a minor league of sorts to get these guys to come to these larger ropings,” Johnson said. “It’s a place for them to go and earn money toward the regional shootouts and through that our business has kind of grown. There’s a certain customer out here, just like anywhere else, that has some nice horses and wants to compete for more money against less teams and keep the kids out of it and there’s starting to be more and more of that trend.”

Within the NTRL, Johnson has developed minimum age divisions and VIP status that is growing in popularity—as is the World Series.

“Over the last decade or so the performance of the roper, the kind of horses they ride has all improved,” Johnson says of the changing marketplace. “All the junior high and high school associations are starting kids younger, practice aids are better, ropes are better, people are building their own arenas. The opportunities have just magnified. I’m proud anytime anybody from this part of the country does anything in the PRCA or World Series Finales or USTRC Finals. In the last 18 years, I sure would like to think that we’ve had some impact on that.”

In the meantime, this hillbilly at heart ropes some himself, although he’s had to learn how to be a competitor at his own events. And he coaches middle school basketball (alongside his former high school coach), where his teams—including one with his oldest son, Mason—have racked up an impressive 205-55 record.

Through all the ups and downs, he’s taken his own advice and embraced who he is and done what he’s set his sights on.

“I’m a country guy who’s done something unique,” he says.