Eddie Rabbitt couldn't sing.
The late "I Love a Rainy Night" voice had lost his mere hours before he was scheduled to perform at the 1983 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Rosanne Cash carried the matinee, in the days when the rodeo double-billed its entertainers, but couldn't carry the Astrodome by herself on a sold-out Saturday night.
The doctor retained by the rodeo reported from Rabbitt's hotel that the singer "literally cannot say a word," in the words of Leroy Shafer, now the HLSR's Chief Operating Officer. But as luck would have it, there was a talent agents' convention at the nearby AstroVillage hotel, and Shafer and other rodeo officials brought in the agents and started polling them.
Mickey Gilley was in Minnesota, and Merle Haggard was unavailable. Eventually a young agent from Buddy Lee Attractions, which represented young South Texas singer George Strait, addressed E.C. "Dick" Weekley, the rodeo's general manager at the time.
"He said, 'Mr. Weekley, I've got a young kid,'" Shafer recalls. "'He's not nearly as known as those, but he does have the No. 1 song in the United States on country music this week. His name's George Strait.' Weekley said, 'Who?'"
Weekley had heard of "Amarillo by Morning," though, and asked the rodeo team to see if they could round up Strait. Someone reached his wife on the Straits' ranch while George was out riding with the dogs, and she said he was available but didn't know about the band. It was already too late to drive to Houston in time for the show.
"We commandeered one of our executive committee members' jets," says Shafer.
That committee member, Louis Pearce, had lent his plane to former UT football coach Darrell Royal for a recruiting trip, but promised he could have it in Seguin by 4:30. Strait and his Ace In the Hole Band made it to Houston, but not in time to rehearse. Rosanne Cash's husband and manager at the time, Houston native and country star himself Rodney Crowell, said his wife was the bigger star and insisted she go on last.
Strait performed without a sound check and, Shafer remembers, "stole the show. Absolutely stole the show."
Strait would return to the rodeo 20 more times and makes it a lucky 21 this year — closing out the rodeo with a March 17 performance as part of his "The Cowboy Rides Away" farewell tour — but became one of the most beloved entertainers in HLSR history, even back then, because of what he did next.
Crowell wouldn't let him ride out of the arena in the same car as Cash, and there wasn't another vehicle available. Strait secured a horse from another senior rodeo man. The Buddy Lee agent who had found Strait promised Weekley, "He really is a cowboy." Cash did her ride-around and left the arena, then the spotlight came up and the announcer called Strait's name.
"We're all looking behind in the dark to see where the hell he was," Shafer recounts. "He had backed that horse all the way up the Astrodome east ramp, and he had it coming at full gallop. He hit that gate, took it about 30 yards into the arena, set that horse down on its butt, [and] did a Gene Autry rear in the air and waved his hat.
"The crowd would not let him out of the arena," marvels Shafer. "I know he went around the arena four or five times, shaking hands."
These days, when someone cancels a rodeo gig last minute, it's still dramatic, if not something out of a classic Hollywood western. In 2007, his first year on the job, current Managing Director of Entertainment, Market Research and Analysis Jason Kane got word the morning of Rascal Flatts' performance that the glossy country-pop group's lead singer was sick and couldn't leave California.
Kane says he was on the verge of freaking out when Shafer told him to relax. By that evening, the rodeo had chartered three planes and fetched Joe Nichols, Clay Walker and Jack Ingram.
"We went to work and started calling in the chips," says Shafer.
"It was a long day," Kane admits.
Entering its 81st year, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is as popular as it's ever been. In 2012, it set a new RodeoHouston attendance record of almost 1.3 million people; that figure counts only events held in Reliant Stadium. The HLSR overall attendance mark was just over 2.25 million, the second-highest of all time and a scant 5,000 off 2011's record pace. Four concerts — Jason Aldean, Duela/El Original Banda El Limon, The Band Perry and Brad Paisley — ranked among the all-time Top 10, with the first three going 1-2-3.
The rodeo, a nonprofit that reported a total net income of $11.7 million and unrestricted net assets of $182.5 million for the fiscal year ending August 31, 2012, keeps setting records because it does its homework. Its offices in Reliant Center are laden with binders full not of women but of statistics documenting what Shafer calls "about seven different research vehicles" into its audience demographic, from questionnaires volunteers pass out at the gate to online surveys months after the event.
In those binders, Shafer and his staff have determined that entertainment is the top reason someone elects to buy a rodeo ticket roughly 55 to 70 percent of the time, though superstars like Strait or Miley Cyrus can push that figure as high as 80. This makes the talent Kane books a critical part of the rodeo's success. (Season-ticket holders and committee volunteers account for 72 percent of an average night's crowd, the rodeo says, leaving around 20,000 seats to the general public per show.)
One of the main questions the rodeo asks its audience is which entertainers they would like to see the next year. Even still, that leaves Kane with a relatively small talent pool to work with. This day and age, few entertainers in country music or any other genre can draw the kind of mass crowds the rodeo needs for even an almost-full house.
So he starts early, usually in early summer when the survey results start coming back, and works from a list of about 40 names he hopes to have narrowed down to the final lineup by Thanksgiving. (It's 22 performers this year, minus the Strait show.) And, unfortunately, the budget precludes making an offer to a Madonna or a Rolling Stones.
Kane also has to walk a fine line between who's available and who's appropriate. Even something like Spring Break, which became a factor when the rodeo moved into Reliant Stadium and a week or two further into the year, can complicate artists' availability. The rodeo has had great success recently with crossover acts such as KISS, Kid Rock and the Black Eyed Peas, but Kane has to make absolutely sure they agree to give their G-rated, "state fair or festival" presentations.
Still other artists test through the roof with rodeo audiences, but other factors come in.
"Carrie Underwood is the hottest country star that we've never had at our show; it drives our people crazy," Shafer says. "All those little cute animals that those kids show are market animals. They're going to slaughter. She's got an issue with that. She's a vegan.
"We all know that," he adds. "That's her preference, that's fine, but that's a star you'll never see on this stage that we would love to have."
But other than that, the rodeo has learned to never say never. Except about one thing.
"Not performing a show is not acceptable," says Shafer. "It's just not acceptable."
February 25: Toby Keith
February 26: Gary Allan
February 27: Alan Jackson
February 28: Zac Brown Band
March 1: Mary J. Blige
March 2: Brantley Gilbert
March 3: Demi Lovato and Austin Mahone
March 4: Styx
March 5: Lady Antebellum
March 6: Dierks Bentley
March 7: Bruno Mars
March 8: Tim McGraw
March 9: The Band Perry
March 10: Julion Alvarez/Los Invasores de Nuevo Leon
March 11: Jason Aldean
March 12: Kenny Chesney
March 13: Jake Owen
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March 14: Pitbull
March 15: Blake Shelton
March 16: Luke Bryan
March 17: George Strait, Martina McBride, Randy Rogers Band (concert only)