“I try to keep things simple,” he said about riding bucking horses and life in general. “It’s only as hard as you make it, and […]
On the Trail with the Clown Family
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
The Harrison family is affectionately known across the rodeo world as the “Clown Family.”
John and Carla Harrison and their four children: Addy, Caz, Billie, who passed away in October of 2014, and Charlee, are regulars at rodeos across the nation.
John, the grandson of world champion bull rider Freckles Brown, grew up in Soper, Oklahoma. When he saw Leon and Vicki Adams at his hometown rodeo at the age of six, he was hooked. “I knew then it looked like fun,” he said, “hanging upside down on a horse. I decided I wanted to do it.” His dad, Wiley Harrison, knew how to trick rope. He taught John in the family living room. “We tore up everything,” John remembers. “I broke lamps, hit the ceiling, knocked the lights out, knocked plaster off the wall. Mom was always cussing us.”
His first real audience was for 4-H talent show when he was fourteen. “I won the talent show and that threw gas on the fire.”
John had seen roman riding done at a rodeo, and decided he wanted to do that as well. He and his dad found a team broke for a wagon, but they “dang near killed me,” he said. “They were mean and kicked, and Dad realized I was going to get hurt.” They located a roman team owned by Vickie Tyer, who had sold them to Cotton Rosser, who was looking to sell them. John sold a few head of cows and over spring break, he and his dad loaded up for California to get them. They paid $10,000 for the team, what his dad considered a large sum. “My dad, a rancher, had never paid that much for horses, and he about croaked,” John laughed.
John spent two and three hours a day practicing his trick riding and roman riding, learning from trick riders like J.W. Stoker, Karen Vold and others.
It was in 1999 that he got his PRCA card. That year, he booked a dozen rodeos for Johnny Walters, doing the roman riding while Penny Walton and Kelly Brock were trick riding. He booked the next two years for Bob Barnes, roman riding, trick riding and trick roping. After that, his career blossomed. In 2002, he went to California and worked for Cotton Rosser and the Flying U Rodeo Co. The next year, he worked for Steve Gander’s World’s Toughest Rodeo tour based out of Iowa.
At this point, John wasn’t clowning rodeos yet, but he wanted to. A buddy in Wahoo, Neb., was putting on a bull riding and asked him to clown it. “Man, I’ll be terrible,” John told him. He borrowed a barrel from Gizmo McCracken, and “that’s what lit the fire,” he said. After a lot of performances and experience, clowning became fun and he became adept at it.
John gives credit to another clown, Keith Isley, for helping him get started. Keith had a trick riding act that he gave John permission to do. “Keith jumpstarted my career,” he said. “That’s truly the reason I am where I am in my career, due to that act.”
It was in Iowa that he met the California girl who would become his wife. Carla was interning with the World’s Toughest Rodeo, doing publicity and working closely with John on appearances and interviews. “I had a crush on her,” John said. “We were both too shy to let each other know it.” After her internship ended, she and John stayed in touch. Carla, who grew up on a cattle ranch near Salinas with a dad who ranch rodeoed, talked to John every night. When he called her, asking her to go with him to the PRCA Awards Banquet where he was nominated for Specialty Act of the Year in 2004, she realized she had an “overwhelming love” for him. They married in 2006.
They are on the road together, along with the kids, as much as possible. “We’re together constantly,” Carla said. “We did everything together, but now that the kids are in school, I stay home while he takes off.”
The Harrisons have diversified beyond rodeo contract work. They own rental properties in Hugo and Soper, Okla. “I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” John said. And he and Carla realize how the rodeo business works. “We talked about retirement in rodeo, and there is none. (Rentals) are something we could do and be gone.” They also own a liquor store in Hugo.
Each fall since 2007, they’ve produced a Wild West show at the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City. They aim for top-notch entertainment with good performers. Performers including Vickie Adams, Blake Goode, Vince Bruce, the Riata Ranch Cowgirls, Melissa Navarre, Jerry Wayne Olson, and others have worked the show. John used to trick rope but found it easier to be producer. They are in the same location for eleven days, a switch from being at a new rodeo each week. “It’s a nice break from rodeo after the summer,” John said.
John and Carla were hit with a tremendous blow in October of 2014 when their seventeen month old daughter, Billie, died of kidney failure. It was all sudden. Carla had been in California with her mother, who was going through cancer treatment. She had just flown home, and John had left for a rodeo, when Billie was life-flighted to a hospital in Texas. She died on October 17. Their faith and their rodeo family got them through the difficult time. “You use that term, rodeo family, loosely,” John said. “When we lost Billie, the way the rodeo community came together, it truly touches you in a way that is unexplainable.” Carla’s mom died four months later. “I spent many hours on the phone, crying with my mom,” Carla said, before she passed away. “I asked her, please, when you get to heaven, hug and hold Billie.” It was tough, Carla said, but she is grateful for others. “I want people to know how thankful I am for the love of others, how everyone poured into our lives. Our family, our friends and our rodeo family came in and surrounded us and uplifted us. I can’t tell you how that lifted us.”
Carla’s main job is wife and mother, but she also is an auctioneer. As a child, she discovered her dad’s old auction books and put herself to sleep, practicing. The family lived thirty miles from where they ran cattle, so on the way to and from cattle, he would help her with the tongue twisters and the speed.
She has sold cattle and farm equipment and still does junior livestock auctions, but her niche is benefits, especially the high-end auctions. She flies to California frequently, sometimes selling as few as a dozen items, but all very high-end. If John is free, he goes with her. “People assume he’s the auctioneer, and I get up, and they’re caught off-guard,” she laughs. Auctioneering is much like rodeo. “I want people to have fun, but you have to control the tempo of what’s going on.”
The couple’s children are Addison, age eight, Cazwell, six, and Charlee, who is thirteen months old. Addy is in third grade and learning to trick ride. Caz, a first grader, has a natural sense of humor, and Charlee, their “newest angel on the ground,” was born in November of 2015.
The “Clown Family” moniker came from announcer Jerry Todd. The kids frequently dress in John’s trademark yellow shirts with red fringe, and John loved to rub his red nose on Addy’s cheeks after a performance. Jerry picked her up and said, “oh, look at the little clown baby.” Carla started using the name on Facebook, in a tongue-in-cheek manner. But it’s grown. Last year in Las Vegas during the National Finals, people she had never met recognized them. “I love it, and welcome it,” she said.
They may be a rodeo family, but Carla jokes that she spends more time in vehicles than anywhere else. “I always tell John, we rodeo, but I feel like we really truly drive for a living. I’m always driving.” When they first married, John was reluctant to let her drive, even though she’d grown up driving trailers. He finally relented, in the middle of North Dakota, at night, when no one else was around. Now she drives most of the time, she joked. “So my alligator mouth has overloaded my little hiney. He went from never letting me drive to now, we get twenty miles down the road and he’s miraculously tired,” she laughed.
Throughout his career, John has been the PRCA Comedy Act of the Year in 2012, 2014-2015, the Coors Man in the Can in 2014, and has been nominated for either the Comedy Act, the Dress Act, or the Coors Man in the Can awards every year since 2008. This year, he has been selected to work the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo as barrelman.
Through their troubles and blessings, John and Carla hang on to their faith, crediting it with getting them through the passing of their daughter. “Without it, I don’t know how John or I could have gotten through.” They look at the positive in everything. “I try to find blessings along the way, even in the worst of times. I think it’s the only way to keep going.”