Rusty Richards of Modjeska Canyon

Rusty Richards, the singing cowboy

By Liz Richell

Rusty Richards was born nearly 83 years ago in Modjeska Canyon, at which time the whole area was the heart of cattle ranching in Orange County. He grew up among vaqueros, cowboys and horses – an atmosphere that intrigued the small boy who, with great admiration for these hard-working men, was determined to follow in their footsteps. When he was just a lad, Rusty mowed and bucked hay, helped with roundups, brandings and gathers. As he grew, he learned to break and train horses, earning his way to a reputation as a “good hand.”

A showbiz career blossoms

An old friend taught Rusty to play the guitar, and his melodious tenor voice was perfect for the old cowboy ballads he loved to sing.  Amazingly, at 16, and quite out of the blue, he was offered his own TV show on Channel 13 under the title “Song Trails with Rusty Richards.” The show had many faithful fans, but ended just a year later when, on his 17th birthday, the star volunteered for the Marine Corps. The Korean War was raging when Sgt. Richards was posted to Japan. To keep up the spirits of those with whom he served, Rusty put together an all-Japanese band. Whenever time permitted, the group would perform in local clubs, such as the CPO Club in Yokosuka, where their audiences would enjoy live music, including country and Western and current numbers.

Upon his discharge from the Marines, Rusty returned to Orange County, where he returned to training horses. He also entered rodeos around the state, riding broncs and bulls. This brought him to the attention of Hollywood, and as a ridin’-shootin’ real cowboy, he got a shot at being a "reel" cowboy and stuntman in many Western films and TV shows. Rusty can count “How the West was Won,” “Rawhide,” “Wagon Train,” “Gunsmoke, Bonanza,” and “Have Gun Will Travel” among others on his resume. During this time, he was introduced to the popular musical group “The Sons of the Pioneers.” A one-song audition for the Sons resulted in an invitation to join these country legends. He became a celebrated member, performing with the group for the next 21 years.

His talent for and love of music is shared with his children. He has performed with his son Jason, and they, together with Rusty’s late daughter Jenny, formed a trio that played many gigs together. Rick and Jason still play their Cowboy Concert annually in San Juan Capistrano to sold-out audiences, and you could bet your bottom dollar that you’ll hear him sing on Silverado Days, an annual Canyon Community event. Richards is a prolific writer of songs and poems, and is also a published author, having penned “Casey Tibbs: Born to Ride,” the only authorized biography of the legendary World Champion Rodeo star.

Awards a-plenty

Rusty has won numerous awards and recommendations for his work, including belt buckles, trophies, and the treasured Ben Johnson Saddle. But his greatest honor will come on April 16 when he will be the recipient of cowboy circle’s most prestigious honor – The Chester A. Reynolds Award, given annually to a cowboy who has shown a body of work and an unwavering commitment to Western ideals and values throughout his life. He will travel with his wife Amy, family members, and friends and neighbors from the Canyon community to the Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City next month.

.. and best of all

When asked if he has a favorite event or story that highlights his career, Rusty says, without hesitation, “Persuading Amy to marry me!” He recounts the 57 years they have shared, and the growth of their family of five children. Amy grew up in Silverado Canyon, Rusty in Modjeska. They are still there.  Rusty says that he would never have been able to follow his dreams without her: “She stayed home with babies and leaky pipes and a dog that wasn’t much help, while I travelled about riding horses and singing songs. I couldn’t have had this career without my Amy.”