In this edition of Bells & Whistles there will be no analyses of The Slap, no hot takes on Yeat or Iayze. Instead, Millan takes us to the rodeo.
A Moment of Clarity at The Great Southland Stampede Rodeo
We park in a flat prairie. The sun is bright, the wind heavy, and everyone is wearing cowboy boots. Spring is rubbing its eyes open here in Georgia; the grass is a darker shade of green, and tonight’s weather is on the warm side of chilly. It is the perfect evening for a rodeo.
The general admission entrance has a line back to the porta-potties, so my photographer and I dart around to a lineless side entrance designated for “SPONSORS ONLY.” We approach three women, early 20s, who are dressed in full uniform: shiny white cowboy boots, bell-bottom blue jeans, black Texas collars, shiny white cowboy hats, and faces caked in bronze makeup.
“Hi, we should have two press passes. One for me, one for my photographer.” I nod to Julian.
“Great,” one of them says, “who are y’all with?”
“Nobles? The beverage company?”
“No ma’am, No Bells, the internet blog.”
“Oh, okay, just give us one second…”
The three of them hunch over their laptop and whisper amongst themselves.
“Uh,” I butt in, trying to relieve them of suspicion, “I’ve got an email from Moria saying they’d be here for us.”
“Oh, Moria? Here you go.”
We’re given two black wristbands and make our way in.
I didn’t intend on covering The Great Southland Stampede Rodeo this weekend. But after two hits from a friend’s medicinal joint, and a short rumination on the state of music journalism & veritable coldness of life, I shot a late-night email to Mano with the idea. He said—and for the sake of this article I misquote—that I could “take the reins.” Probably out of sleep deprivation. Or just that he finally buckled and decided to indulge one of my many questionable requests. (Ed. note: It was both.)
This is the one time a year the rodeo comes to Athens, Georgia. Beforehand, I was anticipating something incredibly redneck and rowdy. That is until I went on the event’s website and read the strict NO ALCOHOL policy.
I was right in the middle of a 5 pm pregame at Julian’s Soviet-bunker apartment when I got this news. Spliff in mouth, I asked my buddy, who had never been to a rodeo before, what he was expecting. “Well, I was really excited about the liquor, but now I’m just thinking about how bad it’s gonna smell. The horses and cows.”
Julian is a 6’3 21-year-old of Hungarian descent and Québécois roots. He has bellowing eyes and an unaffectable affectation about most things. He has never had social media, and for the past two months, has devoted himself to studying early 20th-century political movements in the Ukrainian underground. Besides the fact that he doesn’t know how to work a simple Canon, I figured he’d make for the perfect rodeo photographer.
So here we stand, boots in the dirt at The Great Southland Stampede. The press passes offer much less than I envisioned, not giving us access to “the back” or allowing an interview with Jake Wilcox, professional rodeo clown. We walk around a bit instead.
There’s a big dirt arena with bleachers on each side. Tonight is their third sold-out event in a row and everyone walks so damn slow. Almost no one is on their phone. And for two hours, I shit you not, the crowd just sits in their seats with aluminum cans of soda and watches a John Deer tractor drive in circles. “I wanna interview that tractor driver,” I half-heartedly say to Julian. Here’s how I imagine that would go:
MILLAN: So, you like drivin’ that tractor ‘round in circles?
TRACTOR DRIVER: Yep, guess I do.
MILLAN: How long do you usually do it for?
TRACTOR DRIVER: Well, that depends on the conditions. Tonight it’s pretty dry, so, just an hour or two.
MILLAN: Well, alright then.
TRACTOR DRIVER: Well, alright.
MILLAN: I’m writing an article for No Bells.
TRACTOR DRIVER: Isn’t that the blog that interviewed Hyperpop Daily?
Every conversation I have here is strictly A to B. I ask, they tell. A simple transaction of information. I talk to two friendly people named Kaitlyn and Elena running a merch stand. The morning before, they put on a rodeo for all the elementary school kids in the district. Stands packed with screamin’ little shits laughing to tears at Jake Wilcox, professional rodeo clown. That’s why Kaitlyn loves the rodeo—it just makes people happy. I ask Elena the same question. She says “Tradition,” and doesn’t elaborate. “Well, alright then, thanks,” I say, and make my way back into the slow-moving sea of people.
I find myself staring at a complex system of clipboards pasted on a fence. I ask the guy next to me what it is. He explains that it’s the rodeo scoreboard that lists the events and each contestant’s ranking. Turns out this friendly fellow is none other than Josh Hefner, professional steer wrestler. A nice, stout rodeo man who was more than happy to speak with me.
MILLAN: How’d you get started in the rodeo?
JOSH: Grew up doin’ it, my dad always did it growin’ up.
MILLAN: Where at?
JOSH: North Carolina.
MILLAN: What’s your favorite thing about the rodeo?
JOSH: Uh, camaraderie. Friendships you build throughout the sport by travelin’ up the road every weekend. You meet a lot of good people. I’ve made a lot of lifelong friendships.
MILLAN: How do you like life on the road?
JOSH: It’s fun, man. Shoot, you get to go a lot of places, see a bunch of stuff, and get to compete to try to win money. We’re kinda like gypsies.
Julian and I wander off to where the horses are hitched up. While snapping some shots of the landscape, I lean over and say, “ya know, not too long ago these horses were runnin’ free across these hills.”
“The horses don’t want no part of this business,” he responds. Damn right.
I guess I’m a mix of confused, bored, and underwhelmed. I was expecting something more noteworthy. I mean, this is Trump country. And there are a thousand people in camo and cowboy boots awaiting a livestock circus. But no, I’ve received only gentleness; only short but dedicated conversation; only good ol’ fashioned family-friendly fun; only a strong yet distant sense of community. The No Bells TikTok department is gonna chew me out. What sort of content can they make out of this? A video that says “Hey, we went to the rodeo. It was fun. The people were nice.” (Ed. note: said TikTok is already in post-production.)
We’ve still got an hour until the thing even starts. Showed up way too early, but this is what everyone does. They sit and wait and drink canned soda. And watch the tractor. There’s not really any small talk going on, either. Just country hits blaring out of the speakers and a bunch of ‘Scuse me’s. So, we go to find seats like the rest of ‘em.
It’s packed, and the “press” “seating” “is” “full.” They must not be aware that we have Izaya Tiji’s only print interview. We end up sitting on the lowest row, unable to see anything but the fat concrete slab in front of us.
If you ever find yourself at a great crossroads in life, I recommend waiting for a rodeo to start. All you can do for hours is just sit and think. And that’s exactly what I did.
What the fuck am I doing? was my first thought. The whole intention with this rendezvous was to distract myself from the constant stream of thoughts that flow within a person who is at a great crossroads in life. But there I was, being forced to reckon with them more than ever.
Just sittin’ and thinkin’. Lots of people here know each other. They greet friends with a firm handshake or hug then scurry on back to their families. A little girl, age four or five, drops her ice cream cone on the ground. Another little girl walks over, holds her cone to the distraught girl’s face, signaling that she can have a lick if she wants. The dad cleans up for his daughter. I remember my last time being at a rodeo. It was this exact one. I was eight nine or ten, and went with my Aunt and cousins. I remember begging them to leave because my ADHD-riddled brain couldn’t handle sitting around, just watching a tractor drive in circles. I felt that way now, too. Except I couldn’t even see the tractor. Just a concrete slab. The sense of community I mentioned earlier starts to make sense; this is part of me. Half of me, actually. My momma grew up right around here, and I spent plenty of time rollin’ in the dirt just like these kids.
I reckon with the thoughts that torment a person who is at a great crossroads in life: there are infinite possibilities; death is certain; not living is more dangerous than dying; things will only get harder. The night before, I got a gyro from a pita shop at 11 pm. An old lady walked in and talked to the employee for a few minutes.
“What was she sayin’?” I asked, as the old lady walked out.
“Oh,” the worker replied, “she just told me that the owner of this building died last night.”
“Aw, that’s sad.”
“Yeah, it seems like we’re at a time in life where everyone is gettin’ older, and nobody is gettin’ younger.”
I’m possessed by an urge for something to happen, for a great KERPLAH to occur. I twitch in the calm and sit at peace in the chaos. “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. “One Life” by Danger Incorporated. A balm for the soul when what it needs is cosmetic surgery. “In the Night” by Charley Crockett. Sit still and ask yourself who you are, why that is, what you want, and how you’re gonna get it. Look around and notice a small community’s way of life. Ask yourself whether they have these thoughts too. Tell yourself that they do. Shake it off. The rodeo is about to start.
I find a wedge of seating near an old couple. Julian and I carefully make our way up the stands. Out comes the emcee, or rodeo hype man, or whatever the term is. He lets us know that tonight is military appreciation night, then encourages all active-duty and veterans to stand up.
“LOOK AROUND FOLKS, AT THE REAL-LIFE SUPERHEROES. THESE MEN AND WOMEN STANDING BEFORE YOU RISKED IT ALL FOR OUR AMERICAN, UNRIVALED, MOST EXCELLENT, TIME TESTED, NEVER LESSENED, BRAND OF ABSOLUTE FREEDOM!”
Applause. He keeps the energy up by introducing a Georgia-born sergeant. The officer stands in the middle of the arena in full uniform, issuing a statue-esque salute while the hype man keeps barking.
“TAKE A GOOD CLOSE LOOK KIDS, CUZ HE IS LIVING PROOF THAT NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES!
“NOW, TO HONOR SERGEANT [redacted], I’D LIKE YOU TO TURN YOUR HEADS TO THE BACK ENTRANCE AND MAKE SOME NOISE FOR LADY LIBERTY!”
A blonde woman in American flag jeans, and an American flag button-down rides a horse into the arena, waving a 10×12 foot American flag. The scene reminds me of a video I watched in 7th-grade social studies class, in which Benito Mussolini riles up a crowd of Italians by confirming, in a dozen ways, that Italy is superior. He essentially says the same thing over and over, but the crowd’s energy rises with each affirmation.
The crowd slowly stands to honor both Lady Liberty and the sergeant. It’s packed though, and these are shitty high school football bleachers. The beams start to wobble a good damn bit, and the old guy beside me’s mouth is gaping with worry. The rodeo hype man keeps on rambling about America, so nobody sits. The whole crowd is looking around, palpably skeptical at the lumbar support of these bleachers. I can feel the stands about to buckle and I imagine how this catastrophe would look: only about an eight-foot fall at worse, so no one would die (save for maybe a few elderly who got it bad), but there’d be a pile of incredibly friendly, gun-slangin’ Georgians all stacked on top of each other because their love for Lady Liberty overpowered their resistance to groupthink and flat-out common sense.
The emcee finally tones it down, but we keep standing. He leads us in a group prayer. I like to pray. Then, just as we think it’s okay to sit down, he introduces an old man of one esteem or another to lead us in singing the national anthem. Good fuck. I start beltin’ along with this guy as he shrieks out that old tune. I like to sing. Finally, to everyone’s relief, we sit.
The man of the hour enters the arena: professional rodeo clown Jake Wilcox. He’s in full makeup and spandex, and boy is he FUNNY. The emcee and Jake keep an outstanding bit going all night. The emcee calls the clown dumb, and the clown says, “I’ll have you know that I won the 3rd-grade spelling bee FOUR years in a row!” Lord, what a hoot. The emcee points to some bearded guy in the crowd. “Hey look, it’s ZZ Top!” I start rolling with laughter. One of the jokes is just the emcee calling the clown’s wife ugly. “You know Jake, I saw your wife in the supermarket the other day, and let me tell you, she is uggggghley!” What more do you need? I could’ve sat there and watched those two go at it all night, but it was time for the real action to start.
Without warning, a steer (think of a small cow that can run) bursts out of the gate while a cowboy on horseback follows behind, waving a lasso in the air. He swings it around the steer’s neck, leg, or body as fast as possible. Pretty cool, but doesn’t come close to the next event.
Steer wrasslin. No sport for the dumb, the blind, or the faint of heart. A man chases a steer on his horse, does a Jeff Hardy leap off the horse and onto the steer, then tries to wrestle the steer to the ground as quickly as possible. The first guy took 24 seconds to get his steer pinned, and the comedy duo jeered him:
“Boy, that took longer than my last dentist appointment!”
“I coulda had a nice nap if I knew you’d take that long!”
(Please get these two on Netflix.) The next guy fared better, wrestlin’ his cattle down in just 4.9 seconds. The third guy though, Lord, his steer beat the snot out of him. He tried the same technique as all the rest, grabbing the steer by the neck and the belly then slamming it down. But this steer got right back up and jumped on the cowboy and pounded that sucker in the dirt with its hooves for a good ten seconds. The wrestler got up, clothes all rumpled, and tried to throw some dirt at the steer but missed. From that point on, I found myself cheering for the steer.
The last contestant was none other than good ‘ol Josh Hefner from the interview. He wrestled his steer down in just 4.7 seconds. Imagine that–six hours of driving to sit around all day and compete for 4.7 seconds, just to go back home and do it again next weekend. I mean shit, if my weekend activities consisted of travelin’ state to state to jump off a horse, wrestle an animal, AND make some money, you wouldn’t hear one complaint out of me.
Halftime hits, and, well, Julian and I decide to leave. We’re tired and the sun has set. Didn’t get to see the bull riding, but hey, maybe next time. In the car, those damn daunting thoughts creep up again. Yet finally, I am granted a moment of clarity: I realize that no journalistic quest or great KERPLAH can ease my weary mind. But shit, a nationalist circus led by a couple of grade-school comedians and steer-wrestlin’ gypsies can sure do the trick.