This coming Sunday (March 18), the 2018 edition of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will come to an end – with Garth Brooks bringing the Texas crowd to life the same way that he did back on Feb. 27. The 20 nights of entertainment — along with livestock competitions, and hundreds of vendors specializing in anything fried, including Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — is one of the biggest entertainment events in the United States each year. That’s been the case since the first Rodeo was held – over 80 years ago (starting in 1932).
With lineups that have included Country Music Hall of Famers George Strait, Willie Nelson, and Reba McEntire over the years, the event provides close to three weeks of entertainment at NRG Stadium. However, one aspect of the Rodeo that hasn’t gotten as much attention is that the event is very much a charity event that has raised over $450 million dollars in scholarship funds over the years. That’s a figure that looks staggering – even on paper. But, when you put a face on such an endeavor, it takes on an even greater meaning. Just ask Joel Cowley, the Rodeo’s President and CEO.
“I see myself as a product of the very thing that the Rodeo is about,” he told Billboard from his office. “I was born in Wyoming, and lost my parents at a young age. My father went hunting with some friends when I was eight, and got lost in a blizzard, then I lost my mother to cancer a year later. So, my brothers and I were taken in by our grandparents in Colorado. At the time of his death, my grandfather had been a 4-H leader for forty-six years. He knew how valuable that experience was. It surprises some people, but I was painfully shy and not very large. So, athletics was not a very big confidence builder for me. But, it was through showing livestock – that was where I developed my self-confidence. That led me to go out for livestock judging, where I had to stand in front of experts and explain why I placed the animals the way that I did. That was incredibly transformational to me in my personal development. That led to a scholarship, which I paid for half of my undergraduate education with my scholarship. With grandparents on a fixed income with two brothers, I know the value of scholarships and what they mean. So, the ability to host the world’s largest livestock show with nearly 20,000 4-H and FFA entries, knowing someone is benefiting from the very activities that helped develop me, and the fact that we’re giving out about seven hundred and fifty scholarships a year is a deeply personal thing for me.”
That spirit of giving is something that comes over the city of Houston each year. Cox Media’s Johnny Chiang, who programs powerhouse radio station KKBQ, says the Rodeo is something that the whole city rallies around in a huge way.
“The whole thing is run by volunteers, and it’s for scholarships, so it’s for charity. You walk around and you see everybody with little gold badges – volunteers, sponsors, vendors, they all have them. You have generations of Houstonians that have served on committees, they are the ones that put the rodeo together. It’s a badge of honor. Unless you’ve been here, it’s a hard thing to describe,” he says.
“It’s hard to put into words what this event means – not just to Houston, but to the country music format, and Texas in general,” says Chiang, one of the top radio programmers in the business. “I moved here from Los Angeles in 2000. I heard about the Rodeo, and I thought ‘Ok. It’s a big deal. It’s a lot of nights of rodeo and then a concert.’ But, it took me about two years to really understand what it’s all about. It’s not a country thing. It’s a Houston thing. From January, when the entertainment lineup is announced, all the way through late March – everybody in Houston thinks they look good in western wear,” he says with a smile.
One aspect of the Rodeo which sets it apart is that the sound system and the stage are there in Houston – which means that there is no major set-up tasks to be taken into consideration by the crew for each artist, making it a slam-dunk proposition, states Jason Kane, Managing Director of Entertainment for the Rodeo.
“What I try to impart to agents and those in the management world is ‘This is a low to no-risk day for your artist. We’re going to take care of the production, the staging, everything you need. You come in, you perform, and we’re going to present you in a way that you’re going to be proud to be showcased of in front of your fans,’” he says, adding that the presentation itself changed this year with the addition of a new state-of-the-art staging system. Weighing 360,000 pounds and running 126 feet long, it’s one-third of the size of the football field that the Texans play on from August to January inside of NRG. Kane says that replacing the old stage — which had served the Rodeo well since the 1980s — was a decision that worked perfectly.
“I think it’s been phenomenal,” he asserts. “Talking to our production team, and Omar Abderrahman, our production manager that we contract with every year, he’s seen a lot of this, and I asked him for his honest assessment because he’s seen so much. He said ‘I’m not sure it could have gone any better. These are all prototypes. All these people build are prototypes.’ He tried to give me the caveat months ago before the stage rolled out of Pennsylvania. He said ‘This is a very technical build, and you guys are going to expect it to come out of the box and work perfectly. That’s understandable, but that’s not always the case.’ It was the case this time, due to the professionalism of Tait Towers (sound company), and the partnership we’ve had with them all the way. They understood exactly what it was we needed to achieve.”
And for a show that has the reputation as being one of the top country music live destinations of the year, the Rodeo didn’t disappoint. Names like Blake Shelton, Little Big Town and Chris Young dazzled fans. But one might have noticed a few names from outside the format — such as OneRepublic and Alessia Cara — on the lineup this year, adding to a recent history that includes such superstars as Bruno Mars. Kane says mixing up genres is something that he says he continues to look at – while stressing the obvious.
“Country will always be the base of what we do. That goes back to Gene Autry. He was the first rodeo star here. Not only did he sing in the movies, but he provided the stock. Country music will always be the foundation of what we do. After all, we are a rodeo. That’s our nature. But, to really reflect the diversity of this community, we’ve got to reach out past that,” he says.
Cowley says the reach of the Rodeo is such that it all works – with the help of the event’s crew, which works tirelessly to bring the event together beginning each January. What is his favorite part of the event?
“I love going to the Championship selections – whether it’s an animal selection, or school art champion selection, where the young people are being rewarded for their efforts, and in some cases, it might be a decade of effort to get to that point to where they are receiving life-changing sums of money that will help them in regard to their education. I love going to the scholarship banquets in the off-season, and seeing the look on the young people’s faces, but also their parents, who are usually the happiest people, when they get $20,000 scholarships. Those are planned. But, I love the things that just strike me in the moment. One morning this week, I was walking into the farm – which is an interactive display, and there was a family taking a photo next to a cow. The look on this young lady’s face just stopped me, because she was just so thrilled. Those things that catch me off guard are so special.”
And, it’s those off-guard moments that have added to the aura of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo over the years. In the early 1980s, sickness forced Eddie Rabbitt to drop from the line-up at the old Astrodome. That slot went to a rising local artist named George Strait – who would make headlining the event a yearly ritual for over three decades. Last year, Old Dominion had to cancel, giving their slot to another performer with ties to the Lone Star State – Cody Johnson. Not only did he perform well enough to be invited back, he became the first independent artist to sell out the show ever – with over 75,000 tickets sold. Making a comparison to Strait might seem like a stretch, but Chiang says the thought has crossed his mind a time or two.
“I don’t think it’s an insult at all to make that comparison. He is George Strait (here) right now. I think his influence is going to reach out to other parts of the country, but last year’s moment was reminiscent of George Strait getting his slot because he replaced Eddie. I think that was Cody’s moment, and eventually, the rest of the country – outside of Texas, are going to get him.”
Who is this Cody Johnson – and what is it about him that can sell 74,177 tickets to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with only two entries onto the Country Airplay chart? Find out on Monday – and trust us, it’s not just a Texas thing.