With the return of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, country music fans can expect an abundance of concerts to get in loads of boot-scooting boogying. From Dec. 6-15, the NFR has sanctioned more than two dozen music and comedy opportunities, which will appeal to both die-hard aficionados and the relatively uninitiated. With this in mind, here’s a cross-section of performances, from the most-anticipated to a few you may have otherwise missed, to assure the most out of your NFR musical experience.
Keen on Contemporary:
There are plenty of big names in town, in no small part due to the American Country Awards (Mandalay Bay Events Center, 5 p.m. Dec. 10, $40-$134.25). It’s the best place to catch the superstars of the genre in one place. Slightly more digestible bites of country big-timers include LeAnn Rimes who, after some recent tabloid controversy, will be showcasing the mea culpa single, “What Have I Done?” from her new album Spitfire, (LVH, 10 p.m. Dec. 13-15, $49-$70). Also no stranger to recent controversy in the media, you might want to check up on the legendary Randy Travis to see how he’s holding up … or standing up (Golden Nugget, 10 p.m. Dec. 13-14, $43-109). ACA co-host Trace Adkins, who does appear to be a stranger to controversy, shows how it’s done with grit, grace and gravitas (Riviera, 10 p.m. Dec. 15, $58.50-$93.25).
For the Old-to-New Schooler:
Much like downtown embodies classic Vegas, many of the acts performing at the Golden Nugget Showroom represent some of the old-school county purebreds of yesteryear. The Charlie Daniels Band is living country history that should receive karaoke royalties for their hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (10 p.m. Dec. 9-10, $43-$109). Likewise, The Oak Ridge Boys, the band behind the 1981 No. 1 hit ‘Elvira,” are the perfect example of a period where country started to become something more than just what was played on AM radio (10 p.m. Dec. 11-12, $43-$87). And what rodeo week would be complete without two-time PBR champion Justin McBride (with Daryle Singletery) keeping things rodeo-real (The Mirage sportsbook, 10:30 p.m. Dec. 13-14, free)? Looking for newer acts downtown? The Fremont Street Experience is kicking off the NFR in town with its “Downtown Hoedown,” featuring more recent hit-makers Dustin Lynch, Jana Kramer, Uncle Kracker and Clay Walker (Fremont Street Experience, 6:45 p.m. Dec. 5, free).
The current crop of industry fresh faces presenting genre-bending musical mash-ups are on display for the country-curious. The Dixie Chicks may have left center stage in country-pop culture, but the female duo Miss Willie Brown is ready to fill the gap with impressive country-rock chops and an “up for a party attitude” that has made them the darlings of the industry (The Mirage sportsbook, 10:30 p.m. Dec. 6, free). The rockin’ LoCash Cowboys get into the Gold Buckle Zone, MGM Grand’s pop-up rodeo party, with what might loosely be described as “hick-hop” (MGM Grand’s Gold Buckle Zone, 11 p.m. Dec. 7-8, free). And songwriter-turned-performer Jamey Johnson is crushing it with moody and meaningful songwriting, placing him at the forefront of the next generation of outlaw country (Riviera, 10 p.m. Dec. 14, $42.24-$76).
For Those About to Rock:
Not everything cowboy has to be country, and there are a couple of standout concerts for those looking for something besides a Nashville twang. Texas blues-rock bad boys ZZ Top smoke things up (House of Blues, 8 p.m. Dec. 5 and 7, $89.50-$180) and Journey, with Loverboy opening up, is fully prepared to help you relive any “bitchin’ Camero” memories (Planet Hollywood, 8 p.m. Dec. 7, $57-$142).
A Fest for the Fans:
There’ll be plenty of rodeo-related attractions popping-up around town, and Cowboy Fanfest promises to be a major multifaceted draw. Located at the Las Vegas Convention Center, it will treat rodeo fans to food vendors, exhibitions and special activities such as Mutton Bustin’, Rodeo 101 clinics and interactive booths that test your wrangling skills. There will also be two live music stages showcasing emerging country acts, such as Academy of Country Music artists David Nail, Chris Janson, Chris Young, Aaron Watson and Sarah Darling, and there’ll even be a battle of the bands (1:30 p.m. Dec. 6-15, free, NFRExperience.com).
The Rodeo Clowns:
Music isn’t the only cultural contribution coming to town during NFR. Blue-Collar Comedy vets Bill Engvall and Ron White know how to put some giggle in your giddyup. Engvall’s everyman persona is best known for family-friendly observational humor, like his classic “Here’s Your Sign” bit. Scotch-soaked and cigar in hand, White hurls more stinging jabs at working-class life. (Bill Engvall, Treasure Island, 9 p.m. Dec. 7 and 14, $48.35-$77. Ron White, The Mirage, 10 p.m. Dec. 7-8, 14-15, $60-$80).
If you only have enough time to take in just a few concerts scheduled during the NFR, here’s three must-sees guaranteed to be sawbucks well spent.
• Merle Haggard: He is on the list of all-time country royalty. To see his performance is to take part in a tutorial in both the gears and the guts of this uniquely American musical form. (Golden Nugget, Dec. 7-8, $119-$208).
• Lee Brice: He has penned songs for country greats from Cowboy Crush to Garth Brooks, coming into his own as a performer since his debut album in 2010. The consensus in Music City is that he is just the kind of boisterous-yet-serious good ol’ boy to take over the Brooks mantle. (MGM Grand’s Gold Buckle Zone, 11 p.m. Dec. 15, free).
• Soul2Soul with Tim McGraw & Faith Hill: Although country’s ultimate power couple have toured together in the past, the intimate (and scaled-down) setting at the Venetian casts the married duo in a light fans have never seen them in before: up-close and personal. And unlike their standard road show, get ready to hear them cover some of their personal favorites, including (gasp!) rock. (The Venetian, Dec. 7-8, 14-15, $183-$302.50).