I live too far away from the coasts to care about Coachella all that much, and have done far too much time in both the ACL and SXSW trenches to get too excited about anything that happens in far west Houston anymore. So instead, I have started looking forward to the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo's annual entertainer lineup announcement, which was announced early, early Monday morning, much more than any piece of news regarding those other three festivals.
But like other critics do with those three events (sometimes obsessively), I have come to enjoy reading each year's rodeo lineup like tea leaves to see what it "says," not only about the rodeo itself and the State of Music in 2013, but the city of Houston as well. And the 2013 talent could be the strongest lineup in the rodeo's history, almost across the board. Yeah, I said it. Speaking objectively, it's hard to find a weak spot anywhere.
I assume tweens will do what tweens tend to do and be delighted with the Demi Lovato/Austin Mahone twofer. This year's classic-rock spot, Styx, might make some people laugh, but the Styx that came to The Woodlands in May of last year showed an abnormal amount of pizzazz and theatricality for the graying-rocker set.
This year's country artists are either at the top of their profession or some of the hottest rising stars in Nashville. I personally think Jason Aldean comes off as a massive tool, but he owns the rodeo's current single-night attendance record. Toby Keith might not be to my taste either, but the man can sell some Ford pickups, not to mention albums. Respect to the moneymakers.
Kenny Chesney I have made peace with after last year's Reliant Stadium show and his cutting Charlie Robison's "El Cerrito Place," by one of my favorite Texas songwriters. (More on that in a bit.) Kenny's tour partner Tim McGraw won me over for good last year with the unstoppably awesome "#TRUCKYEAH." The old, old men of the bunch, Alan Jackson and Gary Allan, are right as rain.
Among the younger set, Lady Antebellum may not be all that country, but musically and emotionally speaking, who could really argue with Fleetwood Mac in cowboy boots? The Band Perry are verging toward crossover-hit territory themselves with "Better Dig Two," and both Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley wouldn't be in country music at all if not for Waylon Jennings.
Brantley Gilbert shares the same sort of predilection for hard rock as Aldean without seeming quite so odious about it. Only Luke Bryan is a little meh, mostly because I thought his "Country Girls (Shake It for Me)" was the one country song that most needed to go away last year.
More to the point, country takes up only two-thirds of this year's rodeo, 14 nights out of 20. Its diversity is spreading, not diluting. Mary J. Blige has already given one of the greatest shows in Reliant Stadium history at 2010's rodeo. And there's already no question that Go Tejano Day with banda up-and-comer Julion Alvarez and norteno veterans Los Invasores de Nuevo Leon will sell out. The real question is whether the rodeo should consider adding a second Go Tejano Day, maybe during the week.
In a way, it already has. Pitbull may prove to be one of the smartest bookings the rodeo has ever done. The Miami singer/rapper manages to squeeze pop, hip-hop, Latin music and big-beat EDM into one family-friendly perfect storm, a "long, hot and frenetic dance party," as our own Marco Torres wrote of Mr. Bull's August 2012 Woodlands show. Also, Marco noted, the ladies looooove him. Bruno Mars is likewise brilliant, and may prove to be the most electric rodeo performer since The Jackson 5 all the way back in 1973 and '74. Seriously. He's got a lot of Michael in him.
In fact, the only thing -- only, only, only thing -- the rodeo lineup is short on is somebody from its own backyard, or rather the Texas country/Red Dirt universe. Unlike past years, which have featured Pat Green, Robert Earl Keen, Kevin Fowler, Eli Young Band and Miranda Lambert, this year's rodeo is 100 Texan-free, right up until the Sunday-night concert-only performance with George Strait, Randy Rogers Band, and Martina McBride. (The show is an option for rodeo season-ticket holders.)
It would be wrong to read too much into this. No doubt it's a scheduling issue as much as anything else, and three or four of those artists could well be in the 2014 lineup. And The Hideout, the no-cover on-site saloon where the liquor flows and the two-stepping goes, features a string of solid Firehouse Saloon-type favorites such as Max Stalling, Bart Crow Band, Jamie Richards and Ryan Beaver, plus a sweaty set of zydeco from Keith Frank the same night as Blige.
But one thing this year's schedule definitely means, without question, is that Houston really has grown too cosmopolitan and diverse to think it can count on Texas music in the rodeo lineup.
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Boy, isn't that a bittersweet thought? I guess it's a good thing the rodeo has Strait looking over its back fence.