Country Music

The Rodeo Sticks to What Works, But Opens the Door to Change

Give the folks at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo credit: whatever your opinion of this year’s lineup, they’ve got to have some pretty thick skin. Every major news outlet in town linked to the list of entertainers on Facebook shortly after it was revealed just after midnight Monday. Later on we spent a few hours scanning all the comments, on newspaper and TV-station pages alike, and to say the reviews were “mixed” would be putting it kindly.

This being 2016, many people didn’t even bother to use words; grimacing and bawling emojis outnumbered the smileys with hearts for eyes by a considerable margin. Among those who preferred to be verbal, common complaints included “sucks,” “no country music,” “too much bro country,” “more Texas country,” “where’s Alan Jackson?”, “who’s Jason DeRulo?” and our favorite, “San Antonio’s is better.” It’s sort of like the game we play with the Texans, pretending to get excited about their chances of making the Super Bowl every year and then pretending to be disappointed when they crap out in the first round of the playoffs, if they even make it that far. In this case, Houstonians love to complain about the rodeo lineup, and then turn around and set another attendance record.

Something worth thinking about, because quite a few people sure were on Monday, is what the lineup might look like if Chris Stapleton’s breakout performance at the CMA awards in early November had happened a few months earlier. After that night, his album Traveller shot to the top of both the iTunes and Billboard country charts, where it remains today. But at that point the rodeo would have been in the very end stages of finalizing its 2016 lineup. Stapleton, who will appear on Saturday Night Live this weekend, has emerged as a lightning rod for rodeo critics this year for a few reasons: he looks and sounds the “real country” part, no question about that; he’s hot, with the No. 1 country album in the U.S. for several weeks running; and he’s also closing out San Antonio’s rodeo on February 27.

That event, which kicks off February 11, is nothing to sneeze at either. According to the San Antonio Business Journal, last year's SA Rodeo pulled in an estimated 1.65 million people in 18 days, buoyed by eight record crowds and 17 sellouts in 21 overall performances. San Antonio even shares five entertainers with RodeoHouston this year: Chris Young, Pitbull, Billy Currington, Brad Paisley and none other than Jason DeRulo. Several other 2016 SA Rodeo acts, including Hunter Hayes, Martina McBride, Toby Keith, Trace Adkins, Brantley Gilbert, Gary Allan and even Alan Jackson, have all been on NRG’s revolving stage in the recent past.

However, concerts at the San Antonio rodeo happen in the AT&T Center, home of the Spurs, which seats 19,000 people. And 1.65 million is a lot of people, but it’s still more than 800,000 shy of Houston’s overall attendance of nearly 2.5 million last year. San Antonio's paid-concert figures were unavailable (Houston's was 1.378 million), but the most the AT&T center could possibly hold across 21 concerts is a shade under 400,000. Here's where it gets a little complicated: San Antonio’s rodeo is three days shorter but adds weekend matinees, and overall has 20 performers; Houston has 21 acts but 20 performances thanks to the double bill on Go Tejano Day; things even up thanks to Pitbull’s two shows on February 13. (Whew.) Anyhow, the difference is about 40,000 people per performance, which happens to be the difference between filling a basketball arena and a football stadium.

To do that takes some serious airplay and, for better or worse, country radio still belongs to the likes of Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. Even RodeoHouston newcomers Cole Swindell and Brett Eldredge have a handful of Top 10 singles under their belts. Stapleton, by contrast, may sell records — according to Billboard, Traveller was the fourth highest-selling country album of 2015 as of late November, with about half the sales of the leader, Bryan’s Kill the Lights — but has had a harder time convincing radio programmers than record-buyers; his latest single, “Nobody to Blame,” is currently stalled just outside the Top 20 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.

Acts like Stapleton, Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson may have been on the tips of critics' tongues for the past couple of years, but it’s still a long way from there to filling an NFL stadium. Same goes for the number of top Texas country acts playing both the Hideout tent and World’s Championship Bar-B-Que this year: sure, it would be nice to see one of our own in the big-stage lineup, like Turnpike Troubadours are in San Antonio, but if one of them made enough of a splash on the radio like Eli Young Band did a few years back, they would probably be up there too.

That said, it’s fairly obvious that the winds are shifting within country music right now, perhaps even enough to blow more airplay towards the likes of Stapleton and Simpson. It’s still a big if, but the rodeo lineup managed to set a new attendance record last year even as the local economy was clouding over. The 2016 entertainers account for nine of the rodeo's Top 20 all-time single-show attendance marks, so perhaps it can be forgiven for playing it a little safe as oil prices continue to plunge and the regional forecast grows even gloomier. But still, "playing it safe" is a funny thing to say considering more than 25 percent of this year’s entertainers are first-timers — and considering next year is already not that far away.
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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