In my cowgirl days, I rode horses bareback for a performance group in Idaho. I still have my chaps and a special place in my heart for the golden voice of Country Music Hall of Famer Don Williams. So I figured I’d fit in with the overflow of National Finals Rodeo fans on Fremont Street for the annual Downtown Hoedown on December 4.
I did not figure it would be so damn cold. Apparently, neither did the out-of-town attendees wearing gift-shop fleeces over their Wranglers. They endured the intense chill for five free music shows on three stages, playing from late afternoon through midnight. I missed the early sets by Joe Diffie, Chris Janson and Chase Rice, but new talent Cole Swindell was singing his heart out on the 1st Street Stage. He’s known for writing songs for the likes of Luke Bryan, Craig Campbell and Scotty McCreery, but he shared that his debut album will come out sometime next year. He performed a few original songs, including playful hook-up ballad “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight,” but he sounded more confident covering hits by Tim McGraw (“Something Like That”) and Dierks Bentley (“What Was I Thinkin’”). Wearing a baseball cap, Swindell still managed to get the crowd of cowboy hats dancing, though it may have had a little to do with all those plastic footballs filled with beer …
Between his set and the night’s closer, Rodney Atkins, I paced Fremont to get the blood flowing. I was impressed that the street performers were out in force on such a freezing night, especially the nuns ripping open their robes to reveal huge, drooping, mostly naked breasts (I say “mostly” because there were red pasties buried somewhere in all of that craziness). They took the place of that guy who struts around in nothing but underwear and cowboy boots, who probably missed out on his biggest night of tips ever. I was hoping to see the Michael Jackson impersonator bust moves to the country beats, but he was nowhere to be found. Instead, a pint-sized Mr. T nodded at passersby down the block from a thin, shivering Superman (note: unless you are actually the Man of Steel, put some thermals under that spandex). From Binion’s to the Four Queens, the casinos were packed with the NFR crowd, some playing table games and others just warming up near the windows looking out on the stage where Atkins would play.
All of a sudden he was there, also in a baseball hat. With “He’s Mine,” the country chart-topper got the audience swaying. One woman looked like she couldn’t decide whether to look at the real thing on the stage or the projection of Atkins floating on the LED canopy above. In both he strummed a beautiful wooden guitar, though the double-necked red number played by one of his band-mates kind of stole the show. In fact, his band and Swindell’s were in such fine form that they almost overshadowed the frontmen, who valiantly battled the cold to entertain those who battled it just to see them.
“Look how good-looking y’all are. Absolutely perfect,” Atkins said before ripping through No. 1 hits “Take a Back Road” and “It’s America.”
“It’s a high school prom, it’s a Springsteen song, it’s a ride in a Chevrolet/It’s a man on the moon and fireflies in June and kids sellin’ lemonade/It’s cities and farms, it’s open arms, one nation under God/It’s America,” he sang, the images of summer taunting me. As I picked my way through the tight crowd, I saw a really old man bobbing his head, grinning and singing along in words that were nowhere close to the ones coming out of Atkins’ mouth. That’s the great thing about country music. Even if you’ve never heard a song before, there’s something about it that’s unfailingly familiar and relatable (kinda like Springsteen).