Houston: Where Opera Meets Rodeo

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo officially kicks off today. The rodeo is known for bringing some of the biggest country music acts to town — but this year they're teaming up with an unusual partner — the Houston Grand Opera. Several classically trained musicians were commissioned to write country songs for rodeo events.

Daniel Webbon and Samuel Hunter are in the Master's and PhD programs at the UH Moore's School of Music.

They're also two of  four musicians tapped by HGOCo — the community outreach arm of the Houston Grand Opera — to compose several tribute songs to the rodeo.

They're both wearing plaid shirts, which they say is a coincidence, and are cradling guitars as they talk about the creative process of composing.

Sam Hunter grew up in North Carolina, where country music was an early influence in his life.

"My parents were both bluegrass musicians. My dad actually did that for a living before he had kids and became a CPA, it was quite a career change. But it meant that I grew up listening to classic bluegrass bands -- Doc Watson, you know, Johnny Cash."

The four musicians worked on song ideas individually and then collaborated on the final cuts.

Hunter says they pored over pages of information about the rodeo and read interviews from bullriders, livestock exhibitors and volunteers to draw inspiration for the music.

"There's one song in particular that's a very clear Johnny Cash homage and has the Johnny Cash walking bass line and some of the text is spoken."

Johnson: "I might be putting you on the spot, would you play a little bit of that one right now?"

"Um, sure, no I'd be happy to. You think you can do a walking bass line?"
"Is it in D?"
"It's in D."

Daniel Webbon, who grew up here in Texas, was the one in the group most familiar with rodeos, but he says it was still a strange experience to compose for the event.

The musicians were given manuscripts written by HGO lyricist Kelly Finn and by former Houston First Lady Andrea White.
They were tasked with turning the text into lyrics, including one story about a woman who raises llamas.

"And she's been part of the Houston rodeo for years and she's kind of known as the Llama Lady."
"And it's in E, right?"
"Yeah."

Webbon and Hunter say most of the music they do is cerebral and complicated, so the experience of working on something mainstream was a pleasant departure.

"You know I think we actually surprised ourselves a little bit, like oh we weren't as bad at this as we thought we would be."

"Cause when we took the project, and this is the honest truth, we got out of the first meeting and we looked at each other and we thought I'm not sure about this."

"Yeah, what have we gotten ourselves into."

"But it has turned out to be a spectacular experience and I think all four of us would do it again in a heartbeat."

Altogether, the group finished six tribute songs. Visitors can hear the songs performed at various times on the grounds between now and the end of the rodeo.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...