A treasure trove of ‘classic country music’ at Golden Nugget during NFR 2023

Reporter Matt Bailey spent the better part of a week backstage as the storied Las Vegas resort staged concerts with country legends for the National Finals Rodeo crowd

If you find yourself in “Rodeo Vegas” for the National Finals Rodeo, be sure to check out the Golden Nugget for some of the best classic country artists performing nightly during the rodeo.

No, this is not an ad. It’s just facts. Thanks to showroom Director David Gille (and his saint of a wife Jamie), I had unfettered access to the concerts at the Nugget all week long. In the audience, backstage, and in the dressing rooms. Beginning at 10 pm each night, the acts performed for roughly 90 minutes apiece.

Due to some commitments earlier in the week, my first concert was Ray Wylie Hubbard on December 10th. The Texas country music icon delivered a rowdy set of his hits, and songs he wrote for and with other artists. From the weird and funny “Rabbit” and “Snake Farm.” Of course, he performed “Up Against a Wall, Redneck Mother.” His carefree hillbilly attitude shone from the stage as he played with his talented guitarist son by his side. Hubbard closed his 14-song set with “Desperate Man.” If that song sounds familiar, he wrote it with Eric Church, who was so taken with the song, that he named the album after it (And flew Hubbard home to Texas first class.)

The band called Little Texas from Nashville took the stage on my second night (Dec 11th) at the Nugget. They ran through their banner list of 90s hits, with original member Porter Howell taking over for Tim Rushlow on lead vocals. All four members of the group are original to the band from 1988. This includes drummer Del Gray, who returned after three years away to battle cancer. He’s in remission.

The band moved through their songs, with Howell trading off lead vocals with Dwayne O’Brien. O’Brien displayed his vocal chops on the Eagles’ cover of “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” He was asked by Don Henley to perform the song on Common Thread, the tribute album that ultimately reunited the Eagles in 1994.

The group moved effortlessly between traditional country and rock, with a jamming “Tush” marking the middle of the set. Of course, everyone was on their feet for the grand finale of their biggest hit, “God Blessed Texas.”

The next night was Rodney Atkins. The great thing about the Nugget showroom is that it allows the artists to be a bit more laid back in presentation. It’s not a rowdy club venue like they usually play, and it’s smaller in terms of the theaters these acts can fill. So Rodney Atkins took full advantage of the living room feel and told stories about his most popular songs. “It’s America” followed a harrowing story of an IED exploding just miles away while Atkins was on a USO tour. Atkins talked about his young son innocently cursing while muttering his hit “If You’re Going Through Hell” at the kindergarten lunch table as the inspiration for “Watching You.” He also admitted to a protective side before singing “Cleaning This Gun.”

It was a great night of real country music from the early 2000s, the kind that bridged the gap between the neotraditionalist 90s and the trainwreck of bro-country and kept fans of real country music consuming the genre.

My interview with Atkins can be seen below.

David Lee Murphy proved he’s more than “Dust on the Bottle” during his 20-song party at the Nugget showroom. The crowd did not want him to leave the stage, and he did not want to leave it either. He powered through a set comprised mostly of songs he’d written for other artists. “Here and Now” and “Pirate Flag” made popular by Kenny Chesney, “The More I Drink” by Jason Aldean and others. He called the audience to crowd the stage for the set-ending “Dust on the Bottle.” I, of course, ran backstage and watched it from the wings, singing at the top of my lungs.

The show was a fantastic retrospective of his career as a writer and performer. “Party Crowd,” “Loco” and “Waylon and Willie (and a Bottle of Jack”) are also solely DLM songs. The latter is off of his 2018 record No Zip Code, co-produced with Chesney.

Before his concert, I had the chance to talk songwriting and perform with Murphy in the legendary Frank Room at the Golden Nugget Showroom. Check it out below.

On my final night at the Nugget, I got to see David and Howard Bellamy, known professionally as The Bellamy Brothers. The pair plowed through a 23-song set in just about 90 minutes, with barely a break in between songs. Known for their mid-tempo songs full of wry wordsmithery, the Bellamy Brothers opened with “Feelin’ the Feeling.” They continued through “Sugar Daddy” and “I Could Be Persuaded.” Mid-set rocker “Rip Off the Knob” had the capacity crowd on its feet and dancing along as the icons played and sang.

The Bellamy Brothers are the most-nominated duo in country music history and have remained so for decades due to their music standing the test of time. The Bellamy’s closed with two of their biggest hits, “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body” and “Let Your Love Flow.” The response was so overwhelming that they returned for an unplanned encore of “No Country Music For Old Men.”

I love seeing the country music shows at the Golden Nugget during NFR. Director Gille books incredible legends each year that either keep a very light touring schedule in smaller regions or don’t tour at all. But there are two reasons they come to Vegas: first is their relationship with Gille, who has had an incredible career for decades in live entertainment. But the main reason, I heard repeatedly while backstage in the historic halls of the Golden Nugget, is that these artists do it for the cowboys. The men and women “in the hats” who live the authentic Western lifestyle are the ones who are the backbone of these artists’ careers. There’s no bigger concentration of that community than at Rodeo time in Las Vegas. And its cool to see these stars giving back to that crowd.

Matt Bailey
Matt Bailey

Matt Bailey is a media producer currently located in Washington, DC. He has worked as a writer, producer, and host in a variety of mediums including television news, podcasting, daytime television, and live entertainment. He joined The Music Universe in 2016. Since then, Bailey has traveled across the country to review hundreds of concerts and interview some of music's biggest hitmakers. Bailey truly believes in the unifying power of experiencing live music. To reach him, please email matt@themusicuniverse.com.