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Boot scootin' country music and the pounding sounds of rodeo action – it's a heady mixture that drenches Las Vegas every December with the annual kickoff of the granddaddy of all rodeos, the 10-day Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. And each night, when the cowboy dust clears from Thomas & Mack Arena, herds of country music-loving rodeo fans head out to casino showrooms to hear country's brightest stars.

"The NFR raises the sport of rodeo to a different caliber of competition," declares Charlie Daniels, appearing at the Fremont Street Experience.

"Seeing the very best cowboys compete against the very best livestock is like watching the World Series of rodeo."

Charlie knows rodeos. He's competed in team roping events and even won a coveted belt buckle for his prowess. And other country performers with their names flashing on the Vegas casino marquees know rodeos firsthand.

"When I was 10 years old," reveals Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn, "I asked to ride a young Brahma bull that belonged to a rancher friend. Without hesitation, they let me. Needless to say, I didn't last long. But I was taught not to fear things. Looking back, I don't know how healthy it was. But it's how cowboys, to this day, approach life."

Randy Travis, an avid horseman, competed in local rodeos. "I rode horses and calves, but no bulls," he assures. "You know, if a horse throws you, he'll move away from you. If a bull throws you, he wants to hunt you down and kill you!"

Chris Cagle is aware of what a bull can do. "When I was a kid, I rode bulls for a little while," he recalls. "But when I got stomped pretty bad one time, Mama put an end to my riding."

While riding a horse in the shadow of the rodeo's arena, Darryl Worley reflects on his own rodeo background. "I used to team rope and that was fun," he says "Heck, I really like going to music concerts and other events – but I'd rather go to a rodeo than anything else."

But this year's strongest country music/rodeo connection comes with newcomer Tommy Shane Steiner and his brother, Sid Steiner, a champion steer wrestler. On the final night of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event, Sid is No. 5 in the competition.

With an amazing 3.3-second ride, he wins the world title! Tommy, who struck radio pay dirt with "What If She's An Angel," probably thought an angel was watching over Sid.

"When he got down on that steer so fast, I felt like he had it," notes Tommy. "The people around me probably thought I was nuts, 'cause I did kinda go crazy!"

Sid smiles. "Winning was better than any dream I ever had," he admits. "And for Tommy to see me do it made it even more special. Right after my run, I was hugging him, Dad, Mom, my wife Jamie and my 11-monthold daughter, Steely."

Other country stars performing in the showrooms include Trick Pony, Gary Allan, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Phil Vassar, Joe Nichols, Anthony Smith, Chris LeDoux, Ricochet, Little Big Town and Asleep At The Wheel, plus comedians Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Rodney Carrington and Larry The Cable Guy.

All the stars spread out during their off hours to find fun in Vegas.

Trick Pony – Ira Dean, Heidi Newfield and Keith Burns – checks out the high-tech Star Trek Experience at the Hilton Hotel. As they visit with Klingons on the Starship Enterprise, they reflect on how their current single, "On A Mission," would mold their own deep-space expedition.

"We'd be on a mission to bring good times and honky-tonkin' music to all the galaxies," reveals Heidi. "You hear music in Star Trek and Star Wars, but it's far-out pop. Every planet needs country music, and we'd take it to 'em."

Keith nods in agreement. "I'd be on the same space mission that I'm on every day here on Earth," he adds. "To boldly go where no man has gone before."

Ira laughs. "I have to say 'ditto' to what Keith said. It's perfect." At the Orleans casino, Darryl Worley walks into a cavernous meeting room to perform at the ProRodeo League of Women's annual NFR fashion show. "I've never played a gig with this high a concentration of women," he confesses, adding with a sheepish grin, "very pretty women."

Minutes after singing "Family Tree" and his other hits, Darryl gets caught up in the hoopla of the fashion show dancers. Suddenly, he hops onto the runway and breaks into the "Worley Wiggle," a dance he sometimes does in concert. The ladies go wild!

There are also wild things going on at a Brooks & Dunn craps table. "Our Vegas shows start about 10:30 at night," explains Ronnie, "so we're usually still running on adrenaline for a couple of hours afterwards. We'll find a discreet table and play craps. We like that game because it's social. We set a budget and limit ourselves to a certain amount of money we'll let ourselves lose, and we'll congregate with friends around the table. We like to 'high five' and act boisterous. You have to be fairly quiet with most other games."

Ronnie and Kix aren't at all quiet as they help Robyn Bullion hit it big at a Hilton roulette table. She wins $1,400. Robyn's there because $50,000-plus SUV? "You know it's yellow," laughs Kix. "I don't want anybody to miss it!"

Kix also had a great time on the golf course. "I played at a club so exclusive you cannot pay to play there – you've gotta either win or lose a bunch of money in the casinos," he explains."Or," he adds with a grin, "be a mediocre hillbilly singer!"

Chris Cagle's latest single is "What A Beautiful Day," but he didn't quite have one himself. "I had $200 earmarked for gambling," he explains. "I spent more than two hours at the craps table. When I looked down she won CMT's "Most Wanted Live Hit It Big In Las Vegas With Brooks & Dunn" sweepstakes, which included seeing her name on the marquee lights at the Hilton and the Brooks & Dunn show.

Robyn isn't the only lucky one. "I hit a $500 jackpot on a slot machine at the Las Vegas airport," Kix crows. There's probably no Vegas connection, but Kix did buy himself a Hummer not long after his return to Music City. And what color is the I had my left pocket full of green chips, my right pocket full of red ones and I had two rows of black chips in front of me. I was up about $7,000. Eventually I gave it all back. But I had fun."

Joe Nichols fared better. "I won $1,500 playing baccarat," he beams. "That's my game!" So Joe didn't go home thinking Vegas was "Brokenheartsville." But when he tours the Luxor's King Tutankhamun's Tomb and Museum, laden with priceless Egyptian treasures, he knows his winnings wouldn't stretch very far in the architectural-artifact market!

Over at the luxurious Mandalay Bay casino, newcomer Anthony Smith is dining in Aureole, a unique restaurant where gorgeous "wine angels" wearing harnesses soar around a four-story wine tower and fly selected wines right to your table. "Aureole is an amazing experience," declares Anthony. "It's like fine dining meets James Bond and Mission: Impossible."

And the Mandalay Bay's incredible Shark Reef aquarium has the members of Little Big Town – Jimi Westbrook, Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Roads and Karen Fairchild – marveling at the exotic sea creatures (including 12 species of sharks) swimming over their heads!

To unwind between the nightly NFR rounds, the Steiner brothers roar around Vegas on souped-up motorcycles. Sid's eye-popping machine is a customized Texas Chopper that he takes with him from rodeo to rodeo.

In a bit of booking serendipity, three members of the popular Blue Collar Comedy Tour – Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry The Cable Guy – are performing at separate casinos.

The fourth comedian, Ron White, is doing a gig in New York. "I guarantee we'd rather be performing together," admits Jeff. "We've become the Redneck Rat Pack."

At the Paris, Jeff's knocking audiences dead with new bits and, thank the Lord, more 'you might be a redneck if' one-liners. Here's two: If your parole does not allow you to own sheep … and If you work without a shirt on, and so does your husband … well, you know what you might be!

In three years of touring, the Blue Collar quartet has performed to almost half a million folks. And now a hilarious documentary of the tour, The Blue Collar Comedy Tour, has just been released. (Catch the movie's story in the next Country Weekly.) Relaxing at the Monte Carlo, Larry The Cable Guy explains that even though he and Ron opened for Jeff and Bill on the tour, he has a different take on the situation. "Those guys did a great job closing my show," he quips.

While Bill Engvall and his beautiful wife Gail drop coins into slot machines at the Stardust, Bill reveals that he just rode a bull. "I did a show at the Colorado Springs Rodeo," explains the comedian, whose latest album is Cheap Drunk: An Autobiography. "They wanted me to ride out on a bull – and I did it! And, even though it was a tame bull with a saddle, I was sweatin' every step it took!" So don't count on seeing Bill bull riding in next year's NFR.

"Those days have passed for me," he affirms. "You know, gettin' old sucks," he pouts. "Nowadays I make noises getting into bed!"