Demand for Willie Nelson's March 18 concert, his first RodeoHouston appearance since 2004, has been off the charts.
Demand for Willie Nelson's March 18 concert, his first RodeoHouston appearance since 2004, has been off the charts.
Photo by Sterling Munksgard / Shutterstock.com

Most Diverse RodeoHouston Lineup Yet Saves Room for Traditional Country

Jason Kane is not the sort of guy who’s easy to rattle. As managing director of Entertainment & Concert Production for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, he sits near the top of an organizational pyramid that last year brought in about 1.3 million fans to the rodeo’s concerts alone. In practical terms, that means he’s in charge of booking entertainers who must be capable of filling a 72,000-capacity football stadium for 20 consecutive nights, or at least come pretty close.

It’s a stressful job under even the most relaxing circumstances, which is decidedly not the case when a performer suddenly drops out just a few weeks before rodeo season officially kicks off with the downtown parade. Yet that’s the exact situation Kane and his staff faced in mid-February, when they learned doctors had ordered Meghan Trainor, the 2016 Grammy winner for Best New Artist, on vocal rest, which meant they needed another artist to fill Trainor’s March 14 spot. They had to locate not only an artist of a caliber similar to the “All About That Bass” singer, but one who was available on relatively short notice and willing to meet the rodeo’s price. They also had to find someone within the hothouse environment of Grammy week, when competition for the attention of booking agents and managers can be especially fierce.

Tall order, but they got it done.

“We are into it now,” says Kane. “I mean, the train has left the station; we are rolling down the track. This show has never gone dark, and as long as I’m here, it’ll never go dark.”

Once he learned of Trainor’s situation, Kane figures, it was all of two minutes before he started working the phones, reaching out to his contacts within the industry to find a replacement. There was some anxiety, he admits. But Kane, who joined the rodeo in 2007, took the news in stride. “I would rather manage this sort of issue three [or] four weeks out rather than manage it day-of,” he says.

That actually happened Kane’s first year on the job, when he managed to corral Joe Nichols, Clay Walker and Jack Ingram to cover for Rascal Flatts. The late Eddie Rabbitt’s own vocal troubles directly led to George Strait’s legendary rodeo debut in 1983, in which he exited the arena on horseback. Here, roughly 72 hours after news of Trainor’s cancellation broke, the rodeo announced that Dallas native Demi Lovato, the onetime Disney Channel star who previously played the show in 2010 and 2013, would fill her spot.

“In the normal process of booking somebody, it can take a matter of weeks before everybody gets familiar with the offer and they know what they’re in for,” says Kane. “In this case, you’ve gotta kind of keep pushing because you’ve got a matter of hours rather than a matter of weeks. So it was relatively quick.”

Trainor’s cancellation brought the number of first-time rodeo entertainers this year down to ten.

Pop/R&B quartet Fifth Harmony, who perform March 17, is one of ten debut acts at this year's rodeo.
Pop/R&B quartet Fifth Harmony, who perform March 17, is one of ten debut acts at this year's rodeo.
Photo courtesy of Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Whether there have ever been this many debuts in a single year is unclear. Last year there were five, and the rodeo keeps enough records to rival any government agency, but that question seems to have stumped them. What’s not in dispute is the impressive diversity of this year’s entertainers. Other 2017 debuts include ubiquitous Top 40 dance-pop duo the Chainsmokers, pop-punk veterans Blink-182, neo-outlaw phenomenon Chris Stapleton, and Go Tejano Day performers Siggno and Banda El Recodo. Holdovers from the past two years, meanwhile, include country-radio megastars Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line and the Zac Brown Band. And lest anyone forget, making his first appearance since 2004 will be the Red Headed Stranger himself.

“We kind of get a handle on what people recognize, what kind of appeal level [exists],” Kane says. “But I think with an annual event like ours, it’s incumbent upon us to find at least something new and fresh every year.”

As diverse as this year’s lineup is, Trainor’s cancellation could have ironically opened up a window for Kane to plug in a type of performer that is conspicuously absent this year: a solo female country star. The problem is, there aren’t that many out there with that kind of drawing power, an issue that country-music fans and insiders alike have been wrestling with for several years now. Of the ones who could, Miranda Lambert played last year, and “mostly vegan” Carrie Underwood doesn’t do rodeos. Even among older entertainers, Dolly Parton and Reba have both played the Houston area within the past three months.

True, a number of female artists in their twenties, many of whom grew up in Texas, rank among country’s brightest young talents right now: Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris and Maddie & Tae, to name a few. Kane says he has been in contact with some of those artists’ booking agencies, and admits that “they’re really close” to being ready, but says ultimately the ceiling for these types of acts as headliners, venues holding roughly between 2,500 and 4,000 seats, remains too low for him to extend an offer…this year. (Look no further than new Grammy winner Morris’s March 24 show at Houston’s House of Blues, the same night as Dierks Bentley at the rodeo.)

“It’s not so much a threshold as it is the development of a career,” Kane explains. “I mean, I often joke to people — people say, ‘What’s it take to get my artist on the big stage at the Houston rodeo?’ And I say, ‘Give me a commercial excuse.’”

Consider the path Chris Stapleton took to his March 9 RodeoHouston debut. The 38-year-old Kentucky-born singer and songwriter has unquestionably been the hottest thing in country music for the past couple of years. But before that, he had been bouncing around Nashville for more than a decade, fronting a bluegrass band called the Steeldrivers for a few years and writing No. 1 hits for Kenny Chesney and Darius Rucker, among others. His debut album as a solo artist, Traveller, was released in May 2015 but remained under the radar — many country stations were reluctant to play an album that sounded a lot more like Waylon Jennings than Luke Bryan — until the CMA Awards that November.

On that night, Stapleton won three awards, including Album of the Year, and delivered a lights-out performance of Traveller’s “Tennessee Whiskey” with guest Justin Timberlake. The next morning, he was a star. Now double platinum, Traveller continues to sell — last week it was No. 7 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums, its 93nd week on the chart — while Stapleton has gone on to play Saturday Night Live and Coachella, and co-headlined a tour last summer with Hank Williams Jr.

“You know, that’s an amazing story,” says Kane. “I look at that guy and I kind of go, ‘Wow.’ I mean, he has done so well. He was doing great as a songwriter; everybody in Nashville loves the guy. They think he’s a genius and, I mean, he is an artist’s artist, okay?”

Kane says he started inquiring about Stapleton’s availability even before Traveller broke. Though he admits to a few reservations at the time about whether the singer’s stage show had “come along fast enough,” he says, the album’s unstoppable momentum, the way it continued to resonate with a widening audience — one Kane knew was right in line with the rodeo’s fundamental identity — put any such concerns to rest.

"As long as I’m here, it’ll never go dark," says Jason Kane, the rodeo's managing director of Entertainment & Concert Production.
"As long as I’m here, it’ll never go dark," says Jason Kane, the rodeo's managing director of Entertainment & Concert Production.
Photo by Max Burkhalter

“Boy, the one thing that I couldn’t get away from is right now this guy is the standard-bearer for traditional country, in the genre,” he says. “At the heart of this market, at the heart of our event, there’s a good appetite for traditional country. I mean, you can see it in how Alan Jackson performs. And that’s the one thing that really gave me the confidence to go, ‘Okay. This is gonna be a good show.’”

The restoration of traditional country to the lineup is easily the rodeo’s biggest course correction this year. In 2016, when the artists with the most seniority were Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley, the rodeo drew some criticism for its lack of, shall we say, vintage entertainers; attendance also dipped about 1,500 fans per show compared with 2015, when the rodeo set a new total concert-attendance record of 1.4 million fans. This year, both the throwback-sounding Stapleton and Alan Jackson, who will play his 22nd rodeo on March 11, have already gone to standing-room only. And even that pales against the demand for Willie Nelson.

At press time, only season tickets and suites remained for the 83-year-old singer’s March 18 show. Speaking to the concerns over Nelson’s health after the illness-related cancellation of a handful of dates earlier in the year, Kane says he recently spoke with the singer’s agent, who assured him the Red Headed Stranger is feeling much better: “All is well, we believe, in Willie’s world.”

“We absolutely are counting on Willie being here with us 110 percent and ready to go,” he adds.
Indeed, Nelson rebounded to play the San Antonio Livestock Show & Rodeo on February 16, when he debuted a new song called “Still Not Dead.” Kane says he’s a little surprised at the heavy demand for Nelson’s tenth appearance, but then again he isn’t.

“I mean, he’s an icon,” he says. “He’s a Texas icon. At a rodeo. At the largest rodeo in the world. I mean, all of that to me [is] perfect logic.”

“The only thing I would say about Willie is it’s no surprise that Willie did good, but it was a big surprise to me that he did so good,” adds Dan Cheney, the rodeo’s chief operating officer. “That’s probably been the biggest surprise of my career so far, to see him be the leader in this pack that we have, this group of artists. Like Jason says, it speaks to the diversity of our audience.”

That audience, Kane points out, is a reflection of the rodeo’s mission to be “an eight-to-80 event.” And while Nelson, Jackson and Stapleton may be leading the sales pack this year, not far behind them are new-country favorite Luke Bryan, who plays his sixth rodeo March 16 (also SRO), and New York-based DJ duo the Chainsmokers, perhaps the rodeo’s most radical booking in its 86-year history. Certainly pop acts have always stood tall in the rodeo’s lineup — its alumni include Elvis Presley, the Jackson 5 and Beyoncé, after all — and in that context, the DJ duo behind radio-saturating tracks like “Roses” and “Closer” simply represents the next step in the younger rodeo audience’s ever-evolving tastes.

“Nobody can deny the power of EDM or dance acts,” says Kane. “But again, for an event like ours, eight to 80, I was looking for the most commercial version of that, and these guys certainly are. I mean, they’re putting out hit records that are getting played on the radio, people are familiar with them and I think they’re an exciting act. But again, it’s not so niche that it can’t play in a big room like ours.”

The Chainsmokers also figured into something else Kane and his team weren’t necessarily expecting: They and two other 2017 RodeoHouston performers — fellow first-timer Sam Hunt (March 13) and another Houston institution, ZZ Top (March 21) — wound up among the many acts playing the myriad private parties and public events around Houston connected to Super Bowl LI. (Luke Bryan also sang the National Anthem before the game.)

But even that curveball doesn’t seem to have had made much of an impact. A few days after our initial conversation, a cautious Kane said, “We don’t know what effect [the Super Bowl] will have on ticket sales for the individual performances.” Still, as of February 27, the rodeo reported that overall sales for individual performances were up nearly 13 percent over 2016; the Chainsmokers have now also gone SRO. Asked earlier for his thoughts on the source of such strong demand, Kane didn’t hesitate to turn over the variety card one more time.

“I mean, gosh, if you can’t find a show that you like in this year’s lineup, then you must not be a music fan,” he said. “And hey, if you come to one, why not come to two? And if you come to two, why not come to three?”

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