I’ve been listening to country music for more than 10 years, and up until this point I’ve never felt the urge to wear a cowboy hat. But standing under the insufficient awning at Harrah’s Carnaval Court waiting for Jake Owen to take the stage, as a cold drizzle came down from the sky, I found myself envying the numerous audience members with wide-brimmed hats shielding them from the dampness (if not the temperature). That headgear was a key component of the week I spent attending the huge country music festival that takes over Las Vegas for about 10 days every December.
It doesn’t have an official name or a central organization, but it does have dozens of artists playing at venues all across the city, offering up a wealth of choices for country fans. That’s all thanks to the National Finals Rodeo, which draws thousands of tourists to town but also sells out months in advance, leaving lots of slack for ancillary events to pick up (not to mention all those cowboys looking for something to do at night).
The schedule of country concerts has grown so extensive that the rodeo can seem like an afterthought, especially for people who are more interested in music than cattle-roping. The seven shows I attended this year embraced the heritage and community of country music, and some of them also rocked pretty hard.
Lee Ann Womack
December 2, Orleans
I was expecting a pretty subdued start to the week on the second day of the rodeo at the Orleans Showroom, and that was the case at first. I was there to see Lee Ann Womack, best known for her 2000 pop crossover hit “I Hope You Dance,” not exactly the world’s most authentic country song.
Before the show I chatted with a Womack superfan named Amy, who’d seen her idol 53 times and was wearing a leather jacket covered with autographs from country stars including Womack, Martina McBride and Connie Smith. She’d come to town from Atlanta not for the rodeo but to catch all three Womack shows.
The rest of the crowd seemed less thrilled, and there were more than a few empty seats as the show started. But Womack, looking every bit the Southern beauty queen in her bejeweled shirt and perfectly coiffed blond hair, delivered beyond my expectations, with a set that wasn’t anything like the treacly adult contemporary of “I Hope You Dance.” Womack’s performance was all classic twang and honky-tonk, including covers of songs by Ray Price, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline.
“Y’all do like it real country, don’t you?” Womack asked after opener “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” and the audience responded enthusiastically. She proceeded to run through nearly 90 minutes of real country with such verve and charm that I almost didn’t mind hearing “I Hope You Dance” as the penultimate song of the night.
And Amy? She said it was one of the best Womack shows she’d ever seen.
December 3, House of Blues
The penchant for covers paying tribute to the history of country music turned out to be a theme of the week. The next night at the House of Blues, Miranda Lambert’s all-female trio, Pistol Annies, played its first-ever concert, and while the crowd was generally younger, rowdier and cowboy-hattier than the folks at the Womack show, the respect for old-fashioned country was in full effect.
People sang along as the group walked onstage to Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” and the setup, featuring Lambert and fellow Annies Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley backed by a three-piece, percussion-less acoustic band, had the feel of a back-porch jam.
With just one 10-song album to their name, the Annies needed material to fill out their set, and like Womack, they drew from classic country, including a medley of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker songs to represent each member’s home state. The three women were clearly excited for their first show as a group, and superstar Lambert never took any attention away from her bandmates.
Presley was really the star of the night, hamming it up with goofy dances and funny faces while wearing a sexy leopard-print dress, and all three members got solo spotlights. Lambert even seemed a little surprised that the crowd was full of genuine Annies fans; she played the chorus of “Takin’ Pills” again after the song ended to verify that everyone really knew the words.
Introduced as “Pistol Andy,” Lambert’s husband Blake Shelton showed up for a guest spot on “Family Feud,” which he co-wrote. Roy Rogers’ “Happy Trails” played as the audience was filing out, and by coincidence or serendipity, lounge band Ricky and the Redstreaks was playing the very same song as I walked past them toward the Mandalay Bay parking garage.
December 4, Harrah’s
The following night’s aforementioned cold and drizzle didn’t deter people from filling Harrah’s Carnaval Court for a “surprise” performance by Jake Owen, who’d played two official shows at Green Valley Ranch over the weekend. Posters with Owen’s face surrounded the venue, so although he’d merely been billed as a “chart-topping country star” in show listings, there was no mystery about who would be performing. Owen took the stage with a drink in his hand, and the subsequent performance felt progressively more like watching the drunk guy at a frat party who happens to know how to play the guitar.
For a while, that wasn’t a bad thing—everyone in the crowd was drinking steadily, perhaps to keep out the cold, and the first half of Owen’s set was lively and fun, with as much of a response for his version of Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition” as for current hit single “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.”
But then the playing started getting a little sloppier, and the covers shifted from Conway Twitty and George Strait to, um, Sublime and a truly dreadful version of “Ice Ice Baby” that featured Owen forgetting the words and attempting to freestyle rap. But the drunken crowd ate it all up anyway, and Owen’s easygoing just-one-of-the-bros demeanor helped smooth things over.
Some of that country-music camaraderie would have been nice when I headed Downtown to the Las Vegas Country Saloon two nights later, hoping to discover the alt-country side of the rodeo-week shows. But Phil Alvin, frontman for The Blasters, had taken ill, forcing the roots-rockers to drop off the three-band bill and leaving the show’s country connection a little tenuous. Still, there was one guy in the audience with a cowboy hat and another wearing a T-shirt featuring Willie Nelson’s 1974 mug shot.
A sparse crowd of maybe 30-40 people swelled a bit by the time the headlining Supersuckers took the stage. Their show was pure punk rock, with few country tinges beyond frontman Eddie Spaghetti’s ever-present cowboy hat.
Downstairs at the Fremont Street Experience, a lonely-looking cover band, all bundled-up against the cold, played Garth Brooks and Mary Chapin Carpenter songs as one exuberant tourist danced with a homeless man. That was pretty punk rock, too.
The Dirt Drifters
Mirage, December 8
Those couple of songs from Route 66 on Fremont Street were the only cover-band experience I had planned on, but when I went over to the Mirage’s NFR after party two days later to catch country-rockers The Dirt Drifters, I ended up seeing a lounge act after all.
The Dirt Drifters certainly didn’t resemble the stereotypical look of a country lounge band (you could tell from across Fremont Street that Route 66 would be serving up country hits); no one had a cowboy hat on, bassist Jeremy Little is covered in tattoos, and pedal-steel player Steven Daly has what might be called a hipster beard.
They’re not a cover band, either; their Warner Bros. debut This Is My Blood is one of my favorite country albums of the year, and they’ve been on tour opening for Dwight Yoakam. But at the Mirage sports book, they were reduced to background noise, churning out competent covers while a handful of couples danced and other people socialized, drank and watched rodeo highlights on the giant TV screens.
To the band’s credit, the few original songs they managed to squeeze in sounded entirely at home alongside numbers by Yoakam and Blake Shelton, and it didn’t seem to make a difference to the people dancing. After about 80 minutes, the band left the stage and a host came up to remind people of a drawing coming up at midnight. He encouraged people to grab some free Dirt Drifters CDs and promised the band would be back in 10 minutes, just like any other underappreciated casino lounge entertainers.
Golden Nugget, December 9
Like a lot of aging country stars, Merle Haggard had his backing band help him out so that he didn’t have to perform for the entire show. Guitarist Kenny Vernon sang lead on four songs before Haggard emerged, allowing Haggard to spend only about an hour onstage. But it was a pretty impressive hour, one that everyone in the audience seemed to relish.
Haggard’s voice sounded a little thin at times, and his guitar solos might have been a little rusty, but his charm was in full effect, with jokes about his long career (“When we first started, Steve Wynn was a busboy”) and playful interactions with the audience (when set closer “Okie From Muskogee” didn’t generate enough crowd response, Haggard stopped the song and demanded more enthusiasm).
After the show, the merch table was selling an exclusive live album of one of Haggard’s Golden Nugget concerts from 1966; how many other Vegas performers can boast that kind of continuity?
Mirage, December 10
I ended my week of rodeo entertainment with a little Southern comedy courtesy of Ron White, one of the original members of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Opener Alex Reymundo joked, “I don’t know if it’s rodeo week or Sam Elliott look-alike week,” which could have applied to one particular gentleman in my row at the Merle Haggard show but seemed inaccurate for this typical Vegas audience. Outside the theater, people were taking photos with cardboard stand-ups of rodeo cowboys, and one cowboy carrying his possible cardboard counterpart passed me as I walked in.
Although his cohorts Bill Engvall, Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy have held onto the Blue Collar Comedy label, White has clearly progressed, and other than his accent there was little about his show that could be considered redneck humor. If anything, White is now a white-collar comedian; topics of humor included flying in his private jet, playing at an ultra-exclusive golf course and partying on a yacht in the Mediterranean with Dr. Phil.
Despite his entry into the one percent, White is still affable and self-deprecating, and he had the audience laughing whether he was talking about marital issues or trips to Europe. It was my final experience of cowboy camaraderie, enough goodwill and hospitality to carry me through until next year.