You can't have a career in country music without playing a few rodeos along the way. That's especially in true in Texas, where live music and bull riding are inseparable.
Photo Credit: Andy Bujanos Photography
Gary Allan compares the rodeo concert experience to a street fair because the whole family comes the show.
"There are so many people, it's like stepping into a different world," he says. "I just played Cowboys Stadium (in Dallas) for the PBR. I'm always shocked by how big the sport is. You probably play to 50,000 to 60,000 people. And I'm doing the Houston Livestock Show [on March 17], which is probably another 65,000 people. I'm telling you, it's like a time warp when you go into these places. They're real cowboys, hard core."
After the roping and riding, the performers often ride in a pickup truck toward the middle of the track to a small rotating stage, which is nearly engulfed by the gigantic venue.
"You definitely feel like you're playing to cameras and lights because you're 50 or 60 yards from everybody," Allan says. "It's a very strange deal. At the Cowboys Stadium, they put up ramps so we could get to the audience, but still, the scale of it is so big."
When Blake Shelton played the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in February, he decided to skip the pickup truck and just stroll to the stage.
"There's something about just walking in there," he says. "You feel like a professional wrestler walking across that dirt. People are shouting, and you can wave and raise hell that way, versus hopping in the truck and driving a hundred feet. It seems way more fun to me. It was more of an ego trip than anything."
He calls the San Antonio event "one of the last true rodeos, as far as the entertainment goes." Noting that rodeos usually have two shows with two different artists each day, Shelton says, "They put them in the round out there and the stage turns in the middle so that everyone can see you. It's a true Texas experience. It's probably not anything like what you'd expect. It's just ... Texas. If you haven't been to the Houston rodeo or the San Antonio rodeo or even the Austin rodeo, in my opinion, those are three of the five last good rodeos to go to."
Alan Jackson says he "grew up riding things that had motors," yet he's a perennial favorite on the circuit. He kicked off this year's entertainment lineup at RodeoHouston on March 2. Over three weeks, the roster offers Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton and Keith Urban, as well as several rock and pop acts.
"I've played that Houston rodeo just about every year that I've qualified to play it," Jackson says. "That's a big show, a lot of fun. That used to be at the Astrodome -- that's the worst sound you'll ever have -- but now it's at the new place [Reliant Stadium], which is a little better. There are 40,000 or 50,000 people in there, and you're out there in the middle of the dirt, going around in a circle."
Asked about the appeal of rodeos, Jackson says, "I think it's like NASCAR. They want to see them crash. I think the favorite rodeo thing is the chuck wagon race, when they race those wagons around. They're crazy, man, those things come apart and people get hurt. They're wild. That's a tough job, being with those bulls and horses. You've got to be tough to do that. They deserve a lot of respect."
Lee Ann Womack, who grew up in Jacksonville, Texas, sang at the Houston event four times between 2001 and 2006.
"They have a full staff all year round, so these people work on that constantly, and they have the best entertainment in the world," she says. "I've always had a great time playing the Houston rodeo."
Asked about her perspective from the stage, she replies, "It's a huge, huge building. You're way far away from the crowd but the energy is wonderful. The dressings are set up with cowhide everywhere. ... A lot of times in venues, you could be in any city because they all look the same. So when you go play the Houston rodeo, it's ... Houston. It's Texas -- from the catering and the dressing rooms, all the way to the show."
The Eli Young Band were the last act on the San Antonio rodeo calendar last month. Coincidentally, they're also booked to open the Austin rodeo on Saturday (March 13). But the real eye-opener will come from their first-ever headlining performance at RodeoHouston on March 19. Although they've only recently had a few country hits on the national chart ("When It Rains," "Always the Love Songs"), the ensemble has gradually emerged as one of the most popular live bands in Texas.
"When I was a kid, I lived in the Houston area and those were my first concert experiences," says Mike Eli. "I saw the Judds and George Strait there. The fact that we have our own headlining show on a Saturday night at the Houston rodeo ... we have those few moments, like playing The Tonight Show, playing the Grand Ole Opry for the first time and headlining the Houston rodeo. These are pivotal moments that we will never forget. People ask about those moments: 'When did you know you made it?' I don't know if you ever feel that way necessarily, but if I was to take any moments, those would be the three."