I JUST WANT TO DIE WITH MY BOOTS ON.
When a bull mangled the foot of country superstar Lyle Lovett, the EMTs needed quick access to the damaged limb. Lyle understood, but his response was typical Texan: “Hey, don’t cut off my boot”. The EMTs understood and wiggled the cowboy boot off. Foregoing the emotional distress for the physical pain was a no-brainer. In fact, Lyle was just channeling his musical ancestor Johnny Cash, who famously said “I just hope and pray I can die with my boots on.”
Jay Kelly, the Boot Man of Waco, more than understands. These days, Jay holds forth at City Ranch Boot Company, which is quickly becoming the Central Texas fixture for those needing to get their boot on. Jay could never have predicted this result growing up. All these years later, his life fits him like the cowboy boots he has been wearing since arriving in Texas.
DREAMS OF CANTON.
Any football kid wants to end up in Canton, Ohio, home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Jay was crazy about football with the right frame for the game. But Jay left Canton at just 18. With the confidence of youth, Jay set out with only $500.00 and the idea that he wanted to make his own way in the world. Jay decided on Texas as a landing spot. The determination and open spirit Jay brought proved more valuable than the cash.
One day Jay was working out in a Houston gym when he crossed paths with someone bound for Canton. Lifting next to Jay was the greatest combination of speed and power to ever grace the field, Earl Campbell. (If you are football fan, hit the hyperlink; if not, take my word for it). The future Hall of Famer looked at Jay’s workout and asked who he played for. Jay responded “no one” and the Tyler Rose knew something was amiss in the football universe.
Campbell put Jay in touch with his college coach, Fred Akers. While Jay did not end up with Akers, the wheels were in motion. Soon, the Canton boy was in Waco, Texas playing for another Texas football legend, Baylor’s Grant Teaff. Jay enjoyed a productive career at Baylor from 1982-1986. Still, it was cowboy boots, rather than football, that was to be Jay’s future.
When Jay left Waco he was considerably more prepared for life than when he left Canton. Jay credits Coach Teaff and his staff for honing his off-the-field potential. Extra motivation to make good came courtesy of the lovely Terry Ann his now wife of many years. Most of all, Jay dedicated his life to Christ while in Waco, a decision he says makes all the difference.
Jay’s energy, engaging personality and commanding presence demanded the he put himself into the relationship business. By 1990, he found the perfect fit, with the John G. Mahler Company. At the time, Mahler was the largest supplier of ostrich and other exotic leathers to the boot industry. Over the next seven years, Jay poured himself into boot culture and commerce.
Commodities drive some business models; the only thing that really matters is supplying the customer at the right price. Other businesses derive value from finding a unique material that others cannot get. Finally, a third category of businesses gain their value from the manufacturing end; what you do with the material after you obtain it.
Where do cowboy boots fit in this rubric? The answer is yes. A great boot appears after the supplier delivers the right materials, at the right price, to someone who knows what to do with it. At Mahler, Jay’s genius for relationships gradually let him build expertise in the whole process. He knew where to get the best leathers, how to get them at a good price and who could use them to turn out great boots.
A MAN OF THE WORLD.
Spend anytime with Jay Kelly and you quickly surmise that he is only comfortable when in charge of his destiny. Despite the fact that Jay and Terry Ann had a growing family, now numbering five grown children and four grandchildren, Jay struck out on his own in 1997. Over the next 20 years, the Jay Kelly Leather Company and its successor company became the foremost exotic leather supplier to the boot industry.
A great boot starts with those leathers. Folks who have never worn high-quality boots do not understand how comfortable they are. The magic comes from marrying that comfort to durability and looks. Over time, Jay specialized in Ostrich, Crocodile and Hippopotamus hides as the best sources for beautiful, comfortable boots.
Boots meant more to Jay than making a living. When he moved to Houston from Ohio, his first gig was security at a Country and Western bar and dancehall. When in Texas, do as the Texans do..so Jay used some of that limited cash to buy his first cowboy boots. From that point on, Jay was hooked.
It would be nice if you could just pick up the phone and order the amount of hides you need. It does not work that way. To start with, the hides are half a world away, primarily in Zimbabwe and South Africa. A great buyer has to know that he is buying responsibly-sourced hides that live up to his standards. Which means plenty of trans-Atlantic travel.
It would also be nice if you could sell your leather just by filling orders off your website. It doesn’t work that way. Customers have specific needs; a great seller knows the customer’s business as well as he knows his his own. Which means even more travel and time away from home. Jay was a traveling man.
FAMILY AND PASSION.
As noted, Jay’s family life was full. Five kids, four of them boys with size. Jay grew tired of missing out. In 2017, Jay sold his share of the business. If you know Jay, however, you know he could not sit still. And that is how Jay Kelly became the Boot Man of Waco.
Jay is extraordinarily proud of all his children; there are no favorites. Except on Saturday afternoons when Clint and Chad Kelly, his two youngest sons, took the field playing for Dad’s alma mater. Another son Colt, and daughter Katelin, graduated from Baylor and make Waco their home. Jay’s oldest son Clay atoned for his decision to attend Texas A & M by marrying a former Baylor cheerleader. So Baylor and Waco exerted a powerful gravitational pull on the Kelly’s.
Combine that with Jay’s three decades in the boot business and a perpetual desire to serve people and you get the City Ranch Boot Company at 1621 Austin Ave in Waco.
Jay and Terry Ann took the jump and moved to Waco full-time. City Ranch enjoyed its official grand opening last month. Want to experience Texas? Head to the ranch.
The headliners are of course the bespoke boots. Jay works with each customer to get them exactly what they want. The specific hide; the right toe shape; the exact fit; and specific monograming and emblems. This is not a cowboy boot; it is your cowboy boot. After all these years, Jay is still getting the best hides; you boot will be comfortable, durable and beautiful. Other than jewelry, you will not keep another piece of apparel as long as you will keep your boots. Jay says let’s get it right.
On top of the bespoke boots, Jay offers off-the-rack boots that are just as beautiful. Other leather goods abound, including belts, wallets, note pads and other great gifts that tell the world you know what the word “ranch” means.
Most of all what City Ranch offers is a chance to spend sometime with Jay. He left Canton almost 40 years ago determined to forge his own path. That path took him to one of greatest football players who ever lived; to playing in the big time himself; all around the world in the business he loved; and ended up in a home and business filled with joy. The Boot Man of Waco has a few stories. Just don’t cut off his boots.