About Utah: Burl Ives 'twin' takes it all in stride in Big Rock Candy Mountain

Published: Sunday, Dec. 11 2011 9:40 p.m. MST

Many people think Terry Briggs, who runs Big Rock Candy Mountain Resort, is a dead ringer for Burl Ives, left.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN, Sevier County — Terry Briggs is no stranger to being recognized. Over much of the first half of his life he was a professional jazz singer, performing in clubs from coast to coast. People other than the IRS have, from time to time, requested his autograph.

But he never expected the kind of attention he's getting now that he's retired from show biz.

Every other day, it seems, someone walks into the restaurant he owns and operates here at the base of Utah's iconic candy-colored mountain, and goes, "Wow! It's You!"

And Terry sighs.

Because he knows it isn't.

"They think I'm Burl Ives," he says. "Then they want me to sing the song."

The "song" is the one that made the mountain famous, or vice versa. "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" was written in 1928 by a man named Harry McClintock, better known as Haywire Mack. As the legend goes, McClintock was a brakeman on the railroad that used to run through central Utah past a mountain so brightly colored it looks like it's made out of candy (but is really the creation of a long-ago volcanic uprising).

He wrote his song, a hobo anthem that fantasizes of a place where, among other things, "the handouts grow on bushes," and "the hens lay soft-boiled eggs" and "there's a lake of stew, and ginger ale too, and you can paddle all around it in a big canoe."

And, best yet, "where they hung the jerk that invented work."

Not long after McClintock's song became popular, some Utah residents lettered a sign and put it next to the volcanic mountain, dubbing it "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Subsequently, it turned into a small resort with hiking trails, lodging and a restaurant.

Like the mountain, the song has enjoyed tremendous staying power. It has been featured in all sorts of movies — most recently in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" — and covered by numerous artists.

But nobody covered it quite like Burl Ives, the singer and movie actor with the distinctive white goatee, who recorded "Big Rock Candy Mountain" in 1949 and turned it into a chart-topping hit in the 1950s.

Ives died in 1995.

But he lives on in Terry Briggs, who could be his much younger twin brother.

Same white goatee, same round face, same twinkle in his eye. Not to mention same soothing singing voice.

Where the story gets bizarre, if not borderline unbelievable, is that before Terry Briggs took over operation of The Big Rock Candy Mountain Resort, he'd never heard of the song, let alone the fact that his look-alike Burl Ives made it famous.

"Pure coincidence," he says.

What are the odds?

Then again, what are the odds of a jazz singer winding up running a restaurant and motel in remote central Utah?

"I never really saw myself doing this," Terry admits. "I love action and thought I always needed to be in the middle of it. But this just gets inside of you, the beauty, the serenity, it touches your heart."

He took over the resort 12 years ago after moving from Santa Barbara, Calif., so he could be nearer his children and grandchildren who live in Utah.

In Santa Barbara, he ran the Sea Cove Restaurant and Jazz Bar for 18 years on Leadbetter Beach. That followed a life on the road when he made his living singing jazz in his 20s and 30s.

He brought the piano from the Sea Cove to Big Rock Candy Mountain. Sometimes his old jazz mates from his touring days drop by for a visit and they'll jam in the dining room.

He also brought the award-winning Sea Cove menu with him, featuring an unexpected array of entrees ranging from jambalaya to calamari to buffalo stew and a whole lot of other choices you can't get in Richfield.

Terry and his wife, Christina, oversee a small staff that includes his brother, Michael, although Michael's availability is no guarantee in the winter "because he doesn't own any long pants."

They're open every day of the year.

"I never have closed. I don't want people guessing whether we're open," says Terry. He and Christina live upstairs. "I'm janitor, chef and CEO," says Terry. "All I have to do is fall out of bed and roll down the stairs and I'm at work."

Over the years, he's immersed himself in the local culture. He even bought an ATV and is an avid user of the adjoining Paiute Trail.

And he's accepted his unexpected dual identity, cheerfully enduring the people who walk through the door, gasp at seeing Burl Ives in the flesh, and exclaim, "I love all your movies!"

"We do look alike," shrugs Terry. "Even if he is dead."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email:benson@desnews.com

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