Arizona cowboy Cody Hancock rides bulls. It's something that he loves to do and that his father did before him. It's also how he makes a living. When Hancock, a national champion, is asked why he's riding in the Justin Boots Bucking Thunder Tour, he says, a little too quickly: "It's real good money."
So it is, with a pot of $40,000 for just four events: bull riding, saddle-bronc busting, bareback riding and barrel racing. For Hancock, who lives near Show Low, the Phoenix kickoff is also close to home. But, the national champion hurries to add, "It's just a good event. I think it's a good idea. . . . We kinda need to get the younger generation involved in rodeo."
So, too, thinks Alan Jacoby of Ovation Entertainment, whose Scottsdale company conceived Bucking Thunder as extreme, crossover entertainment. To wit: This is not your father's rodeo. Just 12 riders -- the world's best -- will compete in each event, with the top three contestants returning for a "sudden death" final round. High-tech staging imparts a glossy professionalism to the tour. In Phoenix, the maiden competition will conclude with a concert by Chris LeDoux, the bareback champ turned country music star who is performing here for the first time in two years.
"We've been on the cutting edge of the sport of rodeo for a long time," says Jacoby. "What we're doing with this is combining fans' favorites in one event. It makes for good entertainment."
In other words, mundane rodeo sports like calf roping and penning -- competitions that still have immediate, practical ties to the real world of cattle ranching -- have been jettisoned in favor of faster, riskier, bloodier events, themselves pared to keep things moving at a sound-bite clip. Nostalgia aside, it's not a bad idea; conventional rodeos are paced slower than baseball. But it begs the question: Have cowboy traditions succumbed to MTV sensibilities?
LeDoux, whose music has for several decades mirrored the morphing world of country and western -- a genre that has traded Johnny Cash for Shania Twain -- is a good example of cowboy culture in flux. A small-time, underground sensation, LeDoux sold tapes out of his pickup truck until Garth Brooks paid homage to him, a decade ago, in the hit "Much Too Young." That mention was the rodeo cowboy's cue to adopt a pop-music sound, and it worked -- he's now a mainstream success. His fans don't see a conflict. They still describe him as "the real deal."
They may be right. As ranching loses its economic viability, fewer people have access to its customs and lore. Perhaps rodeo now is doing what it always has -- reaching to immediate experience for its inspiration.
Besides: "Rodeo," Jacoby notes, "is America's original extreme sport."