Rodeo Retrospect

The last service at Houston's secular cathedral has ended. The Eighth Wonder of the World can now officially be regarded as a mere waste of parking space, awaiting the inevitable word that our forlorn Olympic bid has gone the way of Enron. The mother church of our collective dreams, where we worshiped at the altars of Saints Earl, Bum, Willie and Nolan will heretofore be a useless relic until the dynamite does its work.

At least its send-off was apt: George Strait is the embodiment of rural Texas and by extension the rodeo. But the evening can't be said to have gone off without a hitch, at least not that part that preceded Strait's riding in on a pinto to the strains of a vampy rendition of "Deep in the Heart of Texas."

Main Street still makes for a depressing approach to the Dome. (A street that begins downtown at the feet of a jail complex, is torn to shreds along virtually its entire length, and terminates in a garish orgy of pawn shops, no-tell motels and fast food joints is our boulevard of dreams?) Parking was a mess. Lines were long, especially those for the rodeo volunteers and badge holders. And it was bitterly cold. In fact the preconcert retrospective extravaganza was held up for nearly 45 minutes to allow fans to get out of the icy norther and into their seats.

Once under way -- save for a few moments when host Naomi Judd and her surprise guest, a duded-up George Bush (the elder), engaged in cornball Hee Haw humor with some mawkish and unnecessary wordplay from Judd ("it's great to see the community come in unity"; when did Naomi decide she was Jesse Jackson?) -- the opening ceremony was dignified and informative. Kenny Rogers, Mac Davis, the Gatlin Brothers, Judd and Charley Pride were garlanded with Lone Star Legend awards, as was Strait later in the night. Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Reba McEntire chimed in with video greetings. A quickie film brought the youngsters in the crowd up to speed on rodeo history, from its days in the Coliseum to its future in Reliant Stadium. A few of the legendary cowboys and rodeo clowns also were given a bath in the limelight. After a rambling, off-key rendition of "God Bless America," the ceremony was over, and the 70,000-plus crowd, said to be the largest ever in the Dome, awaited George.

Taking a leaf out of the WWF's book, Strait first appeared on the Jumbotrons, cantering around outside the Dome on his pony. He galloped away from this soon-to-be-dry hole, and symbolically rode over to the sparkling new stadium. This little film could not have been shot live, for impossibly quickly after the final reel, Strait and steed appeared on the Dome floor.

After a tasteful little display of horsemanship, Strait joined his nine-piece band on stage and set into Rodney Crowell's "Stars on the Water." His own hits, which he mined nearly completely, made up most of his two-hour set. One highlight was "Murder on Music Row," the recently penned anti-Nashville, anti-schlock country diatribe, which was greeted with much more warmth by the audience than it was by the two 93Q honchos strutting around the Press Club in their cheesy wool jackets. To salute the Man in Black, Strait opened his three-song encore with a cover of "Folsom Prison Blues." And if anyone ever asks you in a bet what was the last song played from the Astrodome stage, you can tell them it was the well-chosen "The Cowboy Rides Away."

Strait didn't ride away, though. He stood on the stage grinning from ear to ear while his band kicked out the jams. In what I and some others thought was a spontaneous move to suit the momentous occasion, he hurled his black Stetson into the madding crowd below. But an old-timer nearby disabused us of our romantic notions. "Oh, he does that every show," he laughed.

George Strait's music is the Texan Dream set to sound. Its siren song is enough to make even a Texas city slicker want the life that comes with it: you know, the ranch somewhere past the Brookshire exit where the Greater Louisiana we call home gives way to true Texas, complete with barbecue pit, horses, a well-stocked gun rack and a decked-out new Suburban (black or white) with a good stereo and cold a/c.

Strait's a little long in the tooth now, but youth was never what he was selling; dependability, honesty, resolve and laconic bravery are Strait's themes. What has always set him apart from his many failed clones is the fact that Strait is the only real cowboy among them. He's the man Gary Cooper wished he could be, so it's no surprise that Cory Morrow and Pat Green will always fall short of his benchmark.

Some rock and roll journalist once wrote that a Rolling Stones show was the ultimate gig, because every woman in the house wanted to sleep with the band and every man in the house wanted to be the band -- or at least kick their asses. It's similar at a Strait show, but different. Even though it's obvious that most of the women would like a crack at him, none of the men want to kick George's ass. Instead, they act like him, dress like him, even sing along with him to their wives.

All things considered, the fact that this was the last night of the rodeo in the Dome was fairly anticlimactic. Few tears were shed. No memorable words were spoken. Two rodeo fans, a father and son named Evans, though a little saddened, were less than crushed by the imminent move. "I remember the rodeo in the Sam Houston Coliseum," said the elder Evans. "I can remember reaching out and touching Roy Rogers's hand as he rode past. I can remember being sad when they moved out of there, too. This isn't the first time this has happened."

"But," he added, "I'd hate to see 'em tear it down."

The 22-year-old son shared his father's sentiments. "I can remember coming here for 18 years with my grandparents, and they've both died, and they were like my best friends. Those are precious memories to me. It's like my whole childhood is erasing itself. Everything that I'm used to is getting more power, moving up, moving on," he said. "But it's been a major ride, and like the song says, 'The road goes on forever and the party never ends.' Well, this road has ended, but the party's gonna keep going right across the street. Hopefully, in eight years, when I'm 30 and I have my kids, I can tell them to turn around and look right over there, that's the big dog right there."

Perhaps it's fitting that Racket, old Domer that he is, may not be allowed to cover the first night of the rodeo in its new home. Not that he wants it that way. Racket loves the rodeo. But he got into a little scrape with rodeo security, and he's been banned for next year.

As Racket worked his way through the unruly and cursing Gold Badge VIP and volunteer throng -- the result, no doubt, of the rodeo's inexcusable unpreparedness for the record crowd -- to the joyfully lineless media-credential entrance, a ticket taker asked him if he could help a woman and her family. She and her four grown children wanted to jump the line, which would have been especially nice for the member of their party in a wheelchair. The ticket taker said I could escort them one at a time the 50 feet from the credential entrance to the turnstile, counting each of them in turn as the plus-one on my pass. The handicapped daughter and two of the sons went in without incident. After all, the lady who checked the media credentials was in on the "scam," as was the lady at the turnstiles.

Not so their superior. Racket was on his way back to the crowd to convey the last of the family into the rodeo, congratulating himself on fulfilling his good-deed quota for the day, when this power-mad functionary demanded Racket's rodeo press badge.

"I'm gonna see to it that you don't get accredited next year," he said, lividly scratching Racket's name and credential number into his little black book of ne'er-do-wells.

"But one of them was in a wheelchair, and they all had tickets anyway," Racket protested. (Racket had neither the time nor the inclination to implicate this martinet's underlings in the caper. If he was this harsh with the media, how would he deal with his staff?)

This feeble blather didn't impress the media gatekeeper. "I don't care," he said. "I'm still gonna see to it that you don't cover the rodeo next year."

And that's why Racket feels free to call the Dome by its real name, and not the Reliant Astrodome, as our power company insists (see "News Hostage," by Richard Connelly, February 14). After all, how can they strip Racket's credentials now? He's already lost them for letting a handicapped woman in out of the cold.

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