COUNTRY STARS & RODEO CHAMPS ROCK NEVADA

For 10 days every December so many country stars pour into Las Vegas that Nashville's electric company registers a dip in power usage because of all the empty houses. That's because during December's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo every casino and honky-tonk in Vegas books a country act. And this year Vegas police spotted Terri Clark changing the world famous WELCOME TO LAS VEGAS sign to WELCOME TO NASHVILLE WEST. (OK, maybe it was just someone who looked like Terri.) Rough rider: World champion Dustin Elliott of Tecumseh, Neb., hangs on.

Performing in the gambling mecca this year while the best cowboys on the planet compete in the Wrangler NFR were Terri, Keith Urban, Big & Rich, Trace Adkins, Gretchen Wilson, Phil Vassar, Craig Morgan, Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Lawrence, Randy Travis, Gary Allan, Sara Evans, Clay Walker, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Pat Green, Ricochet, Katrina Elam, David Lee Murphy, Trent Willmon, Miranda Lambert, Billy Dean, Rhett Akins, Johnny Lee, David Kersh, Daryle Singletary, Blue County and Chad Brock, plus comedians Bill Engvall, Larry the Cable Guy, Rodney Carrington and Ron White.

Here's how the 10 days of the rodeo - seen by 175,658 fans in Vegas' Thomas & Mack arena and millions more on ESPN2 - unfolded this year.

PRE-RODEO EVENTS
Concerts at the Fremont Street Experience downtown include a performance by Mark Chesnutt. Outside of The Saloon, Mark talks about his Savin' the Honky Tonk CD.

"It's about drinkin' and cheatin', " notes Mark, "the kind of country music I grew up listening to, like George Jones and Merle Haggard, and not these feel-good, fuzzy positive love songs that a lot of folks are calling 'country' now."

The Honky Tonk Tailgate Tour's Daryle Singletary, Rhett Akins, David Kersh and Chad Brock also rock downtown.

Daryle remembers singing the national anthem at the 1999 NFR. "The anthem wasn't televised, so my mom back home couldn't see me at the rodeo. Then me and my tour manager noticed the riders would come to the rodeo commentator and he'd talk to them - on national TV. So I called my mom. When the rodeo stars would be on TV talking - I was right behind them on my phone, talking to mom and waving to her."

Rhett grins. "My favorite NFR memory was the night in 1995 I went up to Merle Haggard's Vegas hotel room. He wanted to hear some songs I'd written, so I played 'em. And when I left he gave me advice I've followed carefully -'Don't keep your dope and your change in the same pocket.' "

Chad Brock - who scored a No. 1 with "Yes!" - laughs, adding, "The NFR will forever be a part of my life, because my wife and I found out she was pregnant with our daughter Kennedy while we were in Vegas during the 2001 rodeo."

DAY ONE
David Kersh, who hit the charts with "Goodnight Sweetheart" and "Another You," performs the opening song at the rodeo. And 119 contestants began competing for gold buckles and the record $5.1 million purse. "Growing up in Humble, Texas, I went to a lot of rodeos," declares David. "But the NFR is the Super Bowl of rodeos."

After her show at Boulder Station casino, Terri Clark explains that rodeos played a part in her career in Canada. "We had big rodeos in both Calgary and Medicine Hat where I grew up. When I was 16 I sang at a party for Cody Snyder, a world champion bull rider from Medicine Hat. And I sang at a lot of rodeos early on, and I still love playing to rodeo crowds."

Her new single, "I Think the World Needs a Drink," is from her upcoming album due this spring. "The album has a lot of traditional country songs on it," notes Terri.

Before going onstage at the Golden Nugget, Randy Travis talks about his love of horses. "I've been riding since I was 3. I grew up on a farm where we used horses to work cows. I've ridden a lot of bucking horses, 'cause I broke and trained them. And," chuckles Randy, "the main command I want to teach a horse is 'Whoa!' "

Randy's latest single is 'Four Walls,' " a great story song. "It's about a wonderful lifetime love," he explains.

DAY TWO
Bull rider Dustin Elliott of Tecumseh, Neb., racks up impressive rides, after Tracy Lawrence opens the rodeo with "Paint Me a Birmingham." And Miranda Lambert, the third-place Nashville Star talent show finalist, opened for Tracy at Mandalay Bay's House of Blues. "This is my first time in Las Vegas," admits Miranda, "But I didn't want to come here before three weeks ago - when I turned 21! Before that it wouldn't have been any fun."

So how much gambling has she done?

"I played the nickel slots and won $30. So I'm ahead."

Her debut single, "Me and Charlie Talking," is a family affair. "I wrote it with my dad and one of my good friends, Heather Little."

DAY THREE
After wowing his Las Vegas Hilton audience, Pat Green, whose recent hit was "Wave on Wave," reveals, "I love Vegas, but Vegas during the NFR is extra friendly. Cowboys and casinos are a fun mixture.

Pat explains his current hit, "Don't Break My Heart Again," got its start from a classic Western movie. "I was watching Badlands with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. So many great visuals in that film got me to thinking about a song. I wrote about half of it, then Wade Bowen and I knocked it out. It's one of the best songs I've ever been a part of."

DAY FOUR
Over at the arena, saddle bronc rider Billy Etbauer of Edmond, Okla., is a standout. And Billy Dean, who had hits in the '90s, including "Somewhere in My Broken Heart" and "Billy the Kid," rolls into town on a mission. He's a Wrangler endorsee helping to make the NFR dream of 4-year-old Madison of Boise, Idaho, come true through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

And Billy is back on the charts with the touching "Let Them Be Little," a song he wrote with Lonestar's Richie McDonald. Billy's new CD is set for a late-March release.

Over at New York-New York casino, Billy is livin' large. "Cowboys and rodeos are at the core of country music," he notes, leaning against a slot machine. "We've dropped the 'western' from country and western, but we'll never lose the western part of our country music heritage."

DAY FIVE
Craig Morgan opens tonight's rodeo with "Almost Home." And it's clear team ropers Speed Williams and Rich Skelton, both from Llano, Texas, are on track for gold belt buckles.

"I love to ride horses and I love to rope," declares Craig, "but I'm not a cowboy. But cowboys fascinate me. They are so athletic, so determined, so agile."

Shifting subjects, Craig notes, "Vegas is a fun place to visit, but I like being in the woods too much and hunting too much to stay in Vegas for very long. Aaron Tippin called me during turkey season to ask what I was doing. I said I was on the road. Aaron laughed and said I needed to get my priorities straight - that a man shouldn't work during hunting season."

DAY SIX
Barrel racer Kelly Kaminski of Bellville, Texas, makes strides to claim her NFR destiny. And at Gilley's in the New Frontier casino, Johnny Lee - whose signature song is "Lookin' for Love" from the movie Urban Cowboy - is continuing his destiny.

"Thank goodness we only play Gilley's in Vegas once a year - 'cause it takes me the rest of the year to get over it," chuckles Johhny. "Thousands of cowboys and cowgirls are in town - and it seems during the ten days of the NFR they all find their way to Gilley's. A bunch of the acts in town - Keith Urban, Ricochet, Bill Engvall - get up on the stage with me. Last year even Donald Trump was here. And no one gets to bed before five in the morning.

"I'm a fan of rodeo champs," declares Johnny, whose latest CDs are The 13th of July and the just-released Christmas album Santa Claus Is Lookin' for Love. "Yesterday I met world champion bull rider Tuff Hedeman - and when I shook his hand it was like grabbing hold of a two-by-four!"

Ricochet - with hits like "What Do I Know" and the No. 1 "Daddy's Money" - took a break from their performances at the Stardust to catch the innovative Blue Man Group show at the Luxor. "What an incredible blend of music and theater that attacks the senses," notes lead singer Heath Wright. "It's a mind-boggling show that catches you off guard," declares bassist Greg Cook.

DAY SEVEN
Clay Walker sings the national anthem before the night's competition, and Trent Willmon sings his debut single, "Beer Man," to kick off the rodeo.

"Rodeo cowboys are my heroes," reveals Trent. "Being at the NFR has been a dream of mine since I was little. I rode bareback broncs in high school, but I can count the times I made it to the buzzer on one hand. Most of my time was on the ground!"

Trent's new single sprang from the divorced singer's own life. " 'Home Sweet Holiday Inn' is about my daughter, Montana. When she was about a year old, her momma decided to move to Arizona, a couple of thousand miles away. So I've spent most of my daughter's life traveling to where she was living and getting a hotel room."

DAY EIGHT
After performing the opening number at the rodeo, Blue County, aka Aaron Benward and Scott Reeves, talked about their new single fitting Vegas like a boot. It's "Nothin' but Cowboy Boots." Aaron grins, "It's the perfect song for Vegas during the biggest of all rodeos." And Scott adds, "It's great that for 10 days every December there's a 'country music dome' dropped over the city and everything here is related to country music and rodeoing."

Over at the packed Orleans showroom, Clay Walker introduces his longtime bud and world champion rodeo star Joe Beaver during his concert - and the crowd explodes with applause. Then Clay dedicates "A Cowboy's Toughest Ride" to Joe.

After the show Clay notes, "Joe is a unique person. He has a lot of respect from all the cowboys because he's a multi-world champion. He's a down-to-earth guy."

DAY NINE
With the rodeo nearing its grand finale, steer wrestler Luke Branquinho of Los Alamos, Calif., seems unstoppable. And so is the fun Phil Vassar created when he sang his catchy "I'll Take That As a Yes (The Hot Tub Song)" to open the rodeo.

"I love rodeos," declared Phil, "and this is the Big Daddy. It's great to watch the cowboys take on the livestock, plus hanging out with my fellow country singers in Vegas is a lot of fun."

On a bridge above the famous Las Vegas strip, David Lee Murphy reminisces. "My first trip to the NFR was in '95 and it was the most fun I've ever had in Vegas. The 'cowboy feel' gives exciting energy," reveals David, whose hits include "Party Crowd" and "Dust on the Bottle." He says his new song, "Inspiration," is special because he wrote it for his wife.

DAY TEN
Over at the Silverton casino, Trace Adkins - whose new single is "Songs About Me" - leans against the glass of the casino's new 117,000-gallon saltwater aquarium. As he watches two "mermaids" swim behind him, he laughs, "My buds and I were talking earlier about how great it would be to be married to a mermaid. She could dive into the water and come up, point to a spot and say, 'Honey, the fish are over here.' And you could cast your line right to the fish!"

At the end of the Wrangler NFR, four previous world champions - all-around titlist Trevor Brazile of Decatur, Texas; team ropers Speed Williams and Rich Skelton; and saddle bronc rider Billy Etbauer; join five first-time titlists - bareback rider Kelly Timberman of Mills, Wyo.; steer wrestler Luke Branquinho; tie-down roper Monty Lewis of Hereford, Texas; bull rider Dustin Elliott; and barrel racer Kelly Kaminski - in the winners' circle.

With the 2004 Wrangler NFR in the record books, the tour buses of country stars stream out of Las Vegas and the classic WELCOME TO LAS VEGAS sign returns to normal. Hey, Terri, did you pick up that WELCOME TO NASHVILLE WEST sign?

- LARRY HOLDEN

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