Magazine, Sports

The OK Corral Comes to Town: Nashville’s Love Affair with all things Rodeo

Even little cowboys and cowgirls enjoy the Franklin Rodeo! / Photo by Tom Thomson

Steer wrestling is a popular event at the Franklin Rodeo / Photo by Tom Thomson

Steer wrestling is a popular event at the Franklin Rodeo / Photo by Tom Thomson

Cowboys and country music go together like…well, cowboys and country music. Every country singer has their Wranglers, every cowboy sings along to George Strait in his truck. Even the legendary Reba McEntire credits the rodeo for giving her “her start” in country music with her performance of the national anthem at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Can you think of any more iconic lifestyle than a cowboy’s that has been memorialized more often? They’re sung about in country songs, they’re brought to life on the big screen in movies like “Pure Country” and “8 Seconds,” and they’re emulated in every storefront on Lower Broad with Wrangler jeans and cowboy hats.

But so much more goes on behind the scenes of a cowboy’s way of life. It is not simply riding off into the sunset, playing the harmonica beside a campfire under the stars. Today’s modern cowboy lives a life of determination, teamwork and dedication.

Cowboys will be on full display at Franklin’s Rodeo celebration, held each year in May. The Franklin Rodeo is celebrating its 65th year in 2014. In fact, says Bill Fitzgerald, the Franklin Rodeo’s executive director, the rodeo is the “longest running event in Williamson County and the largest rodeo in the state of Tennessee.” Over 16,000 people flocked to Williamson County in 2013 to enjoy the three-day event, helping to raise the total amount of money donated to worthy causes to $2 million over the life of the Rodeo.

Many of the livestock competing at the Franklin Rodeo also qualify for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas / Photo by Tom Thomson

Many of the livestock competing at the Franklin Rodeo also qualify for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas / Photo by Tom Thomson

As an event hosted each year by the Franklin Noon Rotary Club, the Rodeo brings nationally ranked cowboys and livestock to the South for a rare glimpse into the cowboy way of life for our increasingly metropolitan part of the world. “We are not a community of cowboys and farmers anymore. We’re a community of office workers, factory workers – you name it. We’re a community of working people, whether it’s white collar or blue collar,” states Fitzgerald matter-of-factly.

“We don’t see the horses in the pastures or the bulls or the calves or the cowboys out there rounding the cattle up anymore on horseback, so we go to the rodeo to see it and get entertained and have a night out with the family.”

This year’s “night out with the family” will treat the audience to a professional outfit of NFR-qualified contestants. “Last year, we had 15 NFR contestants that came to Franklin…, (and) we had 27 horses that went to the NFR that the cowboys competed on,” says Fitzgerald. “We have sanctioned with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and the PRCA brings all of our contestants. They’re all professionals. This is what they do for their living.”

“With us working with animals and people – that’s two athletes that are working together,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s unpredictable as to what’s going to happen, and we can’t take that out of it. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s extreme. We can’t tame [the animals] down. They have a mind of their own, and they’re athletes, just like we are.” This high level of competition ensures that our Franklin Rodeo will be an event not to be missed.

Rodeos provide thrills and excitement aplenty, but it is one of very few activities that put solid teamwork on display front and center. “Right now, rodeo is the fastest growing extreme sport out there. It’s taken over NASCAR. It’s taken over all the extreme sports. It’s good, clean family fun and entertainment, so everybody wants to go to the rodeo,” states Fitzgerald.

Cowboys gather for a heartfelt prayer at the 2013 Franklin Rodeo / Photo by Tom

Cowboys gather for a heartfelt prayer at the 2013 Franklin Rodeo / Photo by Tom

The teamwork evident at each and every event is impressive. “You think you’re watching one person work, but you’re watching a whole team of people – not to mention the people that are behind the chute, loading the horses, loading the bulls, loading the calves or steers. It’s a huge, whole team effort,” relates Fitzgerald. “Take a team rope. There’re two people, two horses, a cow or a steer, and then the gate man that’s going to let ‘em out. They all have to be working in the right direction, working together for them to score.”

“It’s a team effort. When the cowboys nod, the guy’s got to open the gate, the other guy’s got to pull the gate, and the flank man’s got to flank him in order to be successful. If one part fails, they all fail.”

This team spirit is an admirable quality that the rodeo provides its audience. Observing the fun, the noise and the action is one thing. Taking away a rough-and-tumble lesson on the importance of teamwork is quite another. Young admirers of the cowboy can take home some important lessons here. “You don’t go out all by yourself and be a winner,” relates Fitzgerald.

Young boys and girls, all admirers of the mighty cowboy, can take part in some of the action themselves. One of the most enjoyed parts to the Franklin Rodeo is the “Mutton Bustin’” competition, where children ages 5 to 7 can try to hold onto a sheep for as long as they are able. “They are so into it. They’re so psyched up, just like the regular contestants. And the smiles on their faces, the joy in their hearts from doing that!” smiles Fitzgerald.

Yet another aspect to the rodeo that fans of all ages enjoy is the parade put on by the Franklin Rodeo each year. “It’s a huge draw in downtown Franklin. It’s great for our community,” states Fitzgerald. “Kids and adults all love a parade. They love to see the clowns, and they love to see the horses.”

For Fitzgerald, the opportunity to provide wholesome, enjoyable activities for the whole family is an important aspect to the Franklin Rodeo. On the evening prior to the start of the events, the Franklin Rodeo is hosting an event for the first time this year. The “Franklin Rodeo Experience” will give fans the experience very few ever get. “We’re going to have the arena open to the public. You can come get down in the dirt and actually see where the action happens. You can go behind the chutes, see the livestock and talk to the cowboys. You can have your picture made in the chute if you want!,” enthuses Fitzgerald. “We’re going to have food trucks there for people to have dinner. We’re going to have some music, maybe have some line dancing. Everybody will have a good time and get some dirt on their shoes!”

Even little cowboys and cowgirls enjoy the Franklin Rodeo! / Photo by Tom Thomson

Even little cowboys and cowgirls enjoy the Franklin Rodeo! / Photo by Tom Thomson

For some die-hard cowboy fans, large or small, this is a chance of a lifetime to meet their heroes up close and personal. “All the old movies and TV shows, with cowboys shooting them up, banging them up, dragging them behind the saddle?” reflects Fitzgerald. “Everybody thinks cowboys are rough, they’re mean, they fight, because that’s what movies put in our heads.”

But the truth is far from the iconic image of the tough and mean cowboy. “It’s a brotherhood. It’s a family. It’s a good, clean way of life,” states Fitzgerald honestly.

“Some of the best friends I have are cowboys.”

The 65th Annual Franklin Rodeo is scheduled for May 15 through 17 at the Williamson County Agricultural Expo Center, with the Parade scheduled for May 10 in downtown Franklin and the “Franklin Rodeo Experience” on Wednesday, May 10. For more information, please visit www.franklinrodeo.com.