Las Vegas DJs have spent more than a decade focusing on Top 40, hip-hop and now electronic dance music, changing with the times as necessary. Twenty minutes into his set at the Hard Rock Hotel’s Backyard Pool Party (site of Las Vegas’ original poolside bacchanalia, Rehab), DJ B-Radical’s eclectic set reflects that mix. Justin Bieber is a clear favorite, and Martin Solveig’s “Intoxicated” reflects the scene at the bars. And somewhere in between Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and Usher’s “Yeah,” the DJ squeezes in “House Party” by Country Music Awards-winning Sam Hunt, who had four tracks in Billboard’s Top 100 Hot Country Songs chart, including No. 1 and No. 3 last week. Later in the set, Thomas Rhett’s “T-Shirt” makes an appearance.
With the top dance-music stars tied up in residencies split between two nightlife groups (seven of the Top 10 in DJ Mag’s Top 100 poll are signed with Hakkasan Group, three with Wynn Resorts), counterprogramming has become vital for resorts looking to attract younger concertgoers. And some of those are reaching out to country music, a genre long represented in Las Vegas by legacy acts, to bring in new audiences.
“Rehab is going strong with the EDM stuff, and in the past it was on the hip-hop side,” says Chas Smith, vice president of entertainment at the Hard Rock. “And we’re seeing such a strong following on the country side that we decided that one day a week, we’ll do a country mash-up, but also tie in pop.”
Hard Rock Hotel has been booking country music acts for The Joint since Kenny Chesney helped open the renovated venue in 2011; this year, it’s already hosted Chris Stapleton, the only performer in 2016 to play both the indie music trendsetting Coachella Music & Arts Festival and its country sibling, Stagecoach. On July 1, the resort also welcomes Dee Jay Silver back to its poolside party, after the DJ and producer’s recent run on country superstar Jason Aldean’s national tour. But the genre is making inroads throughout town. The Cosmopolitan, traditionally associated with dance music at Marquee and the indie rock sounds of its poolside concerts, brought Grammy Award-winning The Band Perry to the Chelsea in late April and will welcome 24-year-old star Hunter Hayes in August. The Foundry at SLS Las Vegas launched its Neon Cowboy Country series (sponsored, in the interest of full disclosure, by Vegas Seven parent WENDOH Media) in May with the duo Dan + Shay.
These are not the undeniably talented, but older-skewing resident artists of years back such as Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw or Faith Hill. These are the artists on the charts, on country radio and on the minds of younger fans today. (That said, Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood bring their world tour to T-Mobile Arena for six shows in June and July, and superstars Reba McIntire, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn have a resident show with nine July dates at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.)
“Over the last three years, country music has been more out in the forefront of [pop] music and culture,” says Fedor Banuchi, the Cosmopolitan’s vice president of entertainment. “You’ve got pop stars singing country songs on the Grammys.”
One development that has helped establish country music as a viable draw here has been the introduction of two festivals dedicated to the genre. The American Country Music Party for a Cause has gone from its inaugural two nights at The Orleans in 2013 to—after spending last year in Arlington, Texas—a three-day affair at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds this past April. And in 2014, the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival came to town with one of the highest-profile lineups of stars that the city had ever seen with Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton as headliners, and Dierks Bentley and Hunt also on the roster.
“The first [Route 91] was a huge surprise to some to see the reaction, not just from the tourists who came to town for the event, but from the locals that were showing up,” says JoJo Turnbeaugh, senior vice president of programming for iHeartMedia and program director for country music station The Bull 95.5-FM.
But the biggest reason for country’s infusion into Las Vegas’ music mix may be the genre’s transition itself. Newer artists have watched the crossover success of artists such as Taylor Swift, who has gone from 16-year-old country music prodigy to worldwide pop superstar. Now, a tour through country radio involves acts with pop (Hayes), rap (Hunt), rock (Eric Church) or jam band (Zac Brown Band) influences. And younger fans who listen to music on streaming playlists rather than genre-defined radio or television stations are more likely to have a country song or two on a playlist, making transitions (such as B-Radical’s) between artists the likes of Beyoncé and Hunt easier to understand.
“We had The Cure here the other night,” Banuchi says, “and I looked around and recognized a lot of the faces that were here for Eric Church.”