Could Alternative Country Work at the Rodeo?

RodeoHouston starts up again Tuesday, with a sure-to-be sold-out show by a group that makes critics cringe worse than about any other, megaplatinum Nashville ­country-pop lightweights Rascal Flatts. Yow. It does get better: Closing out three long weeks later is ZZ Top.

In the interval, between 1.5 and 2 million people will file through the gates of Reliant Park, and the overwhelming majority of them will end their evening at Reliant Stadium watching either some of today's hottest pop acts (Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift), Music Row's latest great white hopes (Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban) and top-tier country stars who show no signs of slowing down and seem to be here every year (Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn).

What's missing, some people contend, is the kind of music that used to be commonplace at the rodeo. Some people call it honky-tonk; others are content with country — but only after disqualifying the likes of Toby Keith and Lady Antebellum from that category.

"You'd think the Rodeo would at least have one token country music day in a whole month, but all they've booked is the same old tired, stale country-radio acts or stuff like Pat Green," Under the Volcano owner Pete Mitchell told the Houston Press's William Michael Smith earlier this month. (Green plays Reliant Stadium March 19, during the rodeo's annual "Spring Break Stampede.")

Mitchell has responded by booking his own "anti-rodeo" series every Wednesday in March: homegrown honky-tonk queen Miss Leslie & Her Juke-Jointers March 4; L.A. twanger Mike Stinson March 11; Gourds co-frontman Kevin Russell's gnarly alter ego Shinyribs March 18; and (after the rodeo is over) Nashville rebel Phil Lee March 25. These are the sorts of artists the rodeo should at least be chasing for its auxiliary venue the Hideout, he told Smith.

Mitchell may have a point. Whereas in the past the rodeo has booked honky-tonk heroes such as Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Bush and Jesse Dayton — who produced Stinson's latest album — into the Hideout, this year there's nobody with similar appeal for fans of acts whose fiddles are still louder than their guitars.

First of all, this may be due to sheer logistics. In previous years, the Hideout was located in the Reliant Astrodome, which could accommodate thousands, but the Dome has fallen into such disrepair rodeo officials were unable to secure the necessary permits to use it as a venue this year, and were forced to move the Hideout into a tent on the grounds. They're also mindful that many people go into the hideout for other reasons than to see whoever happens to be onstage.

"One issue is the fact that it's a big bar," says RodeoHouston Entertainment Director Leroy Schafer. "People are coming there to drink and maybe to dance as much as see music."

(For the record, there's still some pretty stiff twang at the Hideout this year. Noise recommends "London Homesick Blues" author Gary P. Nunn Tuesday night; Hill Country two-stepper Jason Allen March 11; San Antonio honky-tonkers Two Tons of Steel March 12; and Beaumont's Zona Jones March 21.)

Noise is a uniter, not a divider, so this push and pull between the mainstream and the fringe got him thinking that perhaps there could be a third way. What about a third stage featuring artists such as Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, Drive-By Truckers and Lucinda Williams? Besides enjoying near-permanent residencies on Under the Volcano's jukebox, they can all draw sizable, even sellout, crowds to local mid-size venues Verizon Wireless Theater, Warehouse Live's Ballroom, Meridian and House of Blues. Moreover, many are already in this neck of the woods in March thanks to SXSW.

Noise ventured to the rodeo's offices in Reliant Center — which look like every good Texan's idea of heaven — last week to pitch them on the idea. Schafer and head talent buyer Jason Kane weren't exactly blown away, but they didn't laugh him out of the room either.

"I don't think that's beyond the realm of possibility," Kane said. "In some ways, you're talking about acts we have looked at."

One thing standing in the way is facilities. Especially with the Astrodome out of commission for who knows how long, space is at a premium during the rodeo. Venues such as Reliant Arena or the Reliant Center's exhibition areas are already spoken for by the livestock show, student art exhibitions, merchant booths and so forth.

"If we had a 2,000-seat auditorium, we'd be doing business," Kane said. "Unfortunately, we don't have that yet."

Furthermore, it would be wrong to assume the rodeo has flat-out blackballed anything not in heavy rotation on KILT or KRBE. This decade alone, Americana A-listers like Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam and Emmylou Harris have played Reliant Stadium. So have up-and-comers Cross Canadian Ragweed and Kevin Fowler, as well as outlaws Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

That said, the rodeo folks make no bones that theirs is a mainstream enterprise. Nor should they. Kane says that for extended concert series, Venue Today magazine ranks the rodeo second only (anywhere) to the State Fair of Texas in total attendance. Damn Dallas.

Across the tracks in alt-country, what few superstars there are (with maybe an exception or two) are already listed above. There are, however, plenty of people who write songs — many songs — about how fucked-up the war is, what a warmongering jackass our former president was and how abysmal things are economically.

Thing is, those are about the three things a whole lot of rodeo-goers don't want to think about, because a) they are much likelier to have a relative serving overseas; b) they probably voted for the poor bastard; and c) they felt — are feeling — this economic earthquake earliest and deepest. (Despite the current downturn, Schafer expects little to no drop in rodeo attendance this year, because fairs and rodeos are affordable, and many people who might otherwise head out of town on Spring Break stay home and come to the rodeo instead.)

Besides, there's a good chance that even if the rodeo did ask Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams to play, they'd get a politically spurred, but polite, 'no thanks.' But at the same time, if for some totally bizarre reason those artists suddenly sold a million or two albums, the rodeo would definitely at least ask.

Besides, there's still a few people out there lefties and conservatives can agree on. For example, how badass would it be next year if Neil Young plugged in for a tripleheader of his brand-new scratch-blues "Fork in the Road" ("You can't eat hope"), "Cinnamon Girl" and "Rockin' in the Free World"? Plus "Cowgirl in the Sand" and maybe Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth"?

You're telling Noise people wouldn't pack Reliant Stadium for that?

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray