This was my first rodeo. Before Friday I had never been to a rodeo let alone the rodeo.
While I might have been there to cover the post-rodeo entertainment, it was also my chance to get the full rodeo experience. Compare me to the food critic excited about Olive Garden coming to town if you must, but I'm not afraid to admit I was pretty stoked. As a fan of fried foods, potential animal-on-man violence, and carnivals the rodeo seemed like it might be my kind of place.
The big surprise was how un-country the entire thing felt. Sure there were guys in belt buckles and cowboy hats, but there were also guys in Hawaiian shirts, wifebeaters and Ed Hardy gear. At times it just felt like a bigger, louder version of the carnivals you see in various mall parking lots across the city.
At least until I entered The Hideout.
Friday afternoon, in a completely different part of the city, a security guard gave me the hard sell on why I should check out The Hideout. He gave me a little bit of history, talked about how they had reached capacity multiple times during this year's rodeo, and the great music I'd get to check out. I'm not a country music fan but his enthusiasm seemed genuine, so I thought I'd give it a chance.
When I think of country music, I think of the county fairs that happen like clockwork every year in the communities that surround my hometown of Victoria. Bands set up in parks or the town square, buying your beer with tickets instead of cash, celebrating the good things in life like having the world's fastest turkey -- country might be John Deere and John Wayne to some people, but not to me.
I'm not saying The Hideout perfectly replicates that small-town feeling, but it is the closest thing to that country spirit I found at the rodeo.
It was the first time I had seen anyone two-step all day. It was the first time I had really seen anyone dance. The crowds for the stadium shows might have been excited and they might have sang along, but there was very little movement.
Even the girls brought onstage specifically to dance didn't seem quite that interested in moving to the music.
Yet here were people excited to have a dance floor. Saturday night, they didn't even wait for the live music to start before they were out dancing.
And how was the live music? While I might not be a country music fan or aficionado, I thought the performances were solid and gave the crowd what they wanted.
John Slaughter had a pretty difficult task ahead of him. While he cut his teeth as a member of the Roger Creager Band, he hasn't been doing the solo thing for very long. On top of that, the stadium entertainment wasn't a country act and the crowd was on the sparse side as his set started.
That didn't stop him from going out and putting on a good show, which got better as more people arrived from the stadium. I don't know if he's going to be a force in Texas Country, but he's a good-looking guy who throws down some pretty good licks on the guitar and fiddle.
Max Stalling feels like he's been around forever. Want to know how easy going he is? He hasn't updated his press bio in two years. He didn't have anyone to work the merch table while he was playing.
He had a band, his songs and a good sense of humor. He even thanked Brad Paisley for opening for him. He benefited from that Paisley performance over in the stadium, pulling a much bigger crowd on Saturday night.
Since it's a tent, The Hideout didn't always have the best sound, but that was OK. Even the couples who weren't there to dance could look past some reverb if it meant getting away from the chaos of the carnival for a few minutes.
So what did I take away from my two day trip to the rodeo? Well, I learned that fried cookie dough is legit, calf scrambles are hilarious and the spirit of country is alive and well, even if it's relegated to a tent in the shadow of the Astrodome.
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This might have been my first rodeo, but as I rode the Metrorail back to downtown I felt pretty confident that it wouldn't be my last.
I look forward to being able to say "This isn't my first rodeo."