Rodeo Austin offers a country alternative to mid-March madness

Updated March 07, 2016

The fact that Rodeo Austin overlaps with South by Southwest every year is telling about the demographics of the Austin area.

Downtown at SXSW, national media focus zooms in on one of the biggest events of its kind in the world. And yet all that attention hasn’t made Rodeo Austin unviable in mid-March, thanks to the event’s appeal to an almost entirely different audience.

For as much as SXSW strives to present a broad array of styles and genres across its thousands of musical performers, contemporary country has never been its strong suit. That’s where Rodeo Austin comes in.

Setting up camp on the eastern edge of town, the long-running event draws significant attendance from surrounding rural areas. Attendees come as much for the bucking broncs, the livestock show and the carnival as for the musical entertainment.

Yes, the lineup includes an occasional nod to pop upstarts for the youngsters and classic favorites for the seniors. But the bulk of the shows at Luedecke Arena reflects what gets played on modern country radio.

Forever an exception is hometown hero Willie Nelson, long since abandoned by mainstream country stations but never by country fans. Fresh off receiving the prestigious Gershwin Prize last year and sporting a new album of Gershwin staples titled “Summertime,” Nelson continues his annual tradition of kicking off Rodeo Austin’s fortnight of concerts on Saturday.

Another prominent surprise on the schedule is the March 22 appearance by Smokey Robinson, who usually figures more likely to appear at SXSW (he gave the music conference’s keynote speech in 2010). At 76, the former Miracles frontman has earned his living-legend status, and he enjoyed a resurgence with 2014’s “Smokey & Friends,” which paired him with the likes of Elton John, Cee Lo Green and John Legend on many of his greatest hits.

Other outliers include classic country singer Tanya Tucker (March 20) and pop acts Grouplove (March 14) and Andy Grammer (March 16). The rest of the schedule skews toward the middle of the country road, though there’s still enough variety within the genre to give fans a fair range of options.

Perhaps the best of the bunch is the Mavericks (March 13), singer Raul Malo’s left-of-center outfit known for incorporating many influences into their broad-appeal sound. Rising to prominence in the early 1990s, the group recently reunited after a 10-year hiatus and got a couple of Grammy nominations for last year’s album “Mono.”

Other Rodeo bookings whose careers took root in the 1990s are Diamond Rio (March 21), whose initial Nashville country sound took a turn toward Christian music in later years, and Gary Allan (March 15), who hit a peak around the turn of the century with the platinum albums “Smoke Rings in the Dark,” “Alright Guy” and “See If I Care.” Coming along slightly later, distinctive singer Josh Turner (March 25) turned heads with his 2003 debut “Long Black Train” before his 2006 disc “Your Man” went double-platinum.

The lineup also include a couple more recent arrivals in country-pop singers Cam (March 19), whose breakthrough came with last year’s hit “Burning House,” and Brett Eldredge (March 23), who has released two albums on the Nashville Atlantic label.

Rodeo Austin also makes a concerted effort to feature Texas and regional acts. Two clear ringers this year are the Eli Young Band (March 24), from Denton, and the Josh Abbott Band (March 17), from Lubbock. Although the Turnpike Troubadours (March 18), a repeat from last year’s Rodeo roster, hail from Oklahoma, they’re well-established on the Texas roadhouse country circuit. And closing out the Rodeo again this year is Austin’s own Kevin Fowler (March 26), neatly providing local bookends to these two weeks out on the edge of town.