Royal Wade Kimes grew up helping his father run cattle on the family ranch in his hometown of Chester, Ark., in the mountains along the Oklahoma border. He gets emotional whenever he recalls the sense of freedom and serenity he felt traveling on horseback through that beautiful, untamed country.
“It’s a shame that every kid in America can’t experience what I did,” says Kimes, 59, who today lives on a ranch west of Nashville, Tenn. “They’ll never be able to look into a painted horse’s big brown eye. They’ll never be able to see the glory of the mountains. I wouldn’t trade that for all the money in the world.”
As an adult, Kimes set his sights on Music City, where he became a successful country songwriter and singer in the 1990s, even co-writing a tune—“We Bury the Hatchet”—with superstar Garth Brooks. But he never forgot the life he learned to love in those mountains.
Five years ago, he decided it was time to help other people get at least a taste of the experiences he had as a child. He founded the Mount Royal Trail Ride, an annual three-day excursion and concert in Chester. This year’s event is set for Sept. 17-19.
Proceeds go to the Meals for Kids “Backpack” program, which ensures that underprivileged children have healthy meals on nonschool days. The program is administered by the Community Services Clearinghouse for children in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
“We actually talk with him all year-round, planning and thinking,” says Rick Forti, the program’s executive director. “He’s always very positive.”
Riders on the Mount Royal Trail Ride travel on a 1800s-style wagon trail through the Cole Younger Pass, named for the notorious bandit who was one of many outlaws who stirred up trouble there. Kimes has a little outlaw in him, too: Members of his family ran with Pretty Boy Floyd and Ma Barker.
Among the perennial riders are Kimes’ wife, Nancy, and several cousins, although he admits his grown children don’t share his interest in the great outdoors. The group camps atop Mount Royal at about 2,000 feet, where Kimes gives an acoustic performance by campfire. The ride back on the following day culminates with a full concert. “We really blow it out,” Kimes says with a chuckle. “It’s the most fun you’ve ever seen, son!”
Kimes spent three years getting permission from landowners and cutting out the trail, which offers some indication of his commitment to spreading his love of the cowboy way of life. He also does so through his music, which over the last decade has been devoted mostly to Western themes—although his most recent release, White Light, is his first gospel effort. He plans to have a new album, Butterflies in Heaven, available soon. “We call my style ‘cowboy country,’” he says.
In recent years, Kimes has expanded his horizons beyond music. He has written several audiobooks with cowboy themes, including A Braver Man. “I don’t know much about the book world, I just like to write Westerns,” he says. “I try to write the kind of things I’d want to read.” He’s a visual artist, too—his drawings regularly command from $500 to $3,000 apiece.
But at the moment, he is focused on planning September’s Mount Royal Trail Ride. This year he’ll be giving commemorative belt buckles to more than 20 riders who have attended the event for each of its five years. “They’re family,” he says proudly. “I’ve had men and women come to me at the end of the ride shedding tears, because it’s given them something to look forward to in their lives. The camaraderie is unbelievable.”
In all his endeavors, Kimes aims to keep alive traditions and ideals that he believes America has been too eager to throw by the wayside. “People are hungry for more than they’re getting,” he says. “I’m seeing the need, and I’m hoping I can be a vehicle to help do whatever needs to be done.”