Ready to Ride

Ready to Ride

Thrills and spills have brought the Dixie National Rodeo a half-century of success

Photos by James Patterson

The rider raises his left hand and grips tight with his right, and he and the bull heave and spin in a precarious dance performed to a soundtrack of ’80s rock and shrill cheers. If the cowboy is lucky, this dance ends with a high-pitched beep after eight of the most exhilarating seconds of his life.

Like the tango or the two-step, this dirt-floor dance has been performed millions of times over the years, to the delight of rodeo fans around the world. And just as they have since the first Dixie National Livestock Show and Rodeo was held in 1964, a fresh crop of cowboys will climb into the chute inside the Mississippi Coliseum this February hoping they and their new dance partners will find that elusive perfect rhythm.

Mississippi leaders were really onto something half a century ago when they established this late-winter agricultural extravaganza. Their stated purpose at the time: to highlight the state’s cattle producers and give them a venue to interact with other outstanding cattle farmers from around the country, according to the Mississippi State Fair Commission. But at the same time, they also introduced a new level of rodeo excitement to fans of all ages, and they created a legacy of showmanship that’s only growing as the event celebrates this milestone birthday.

“It’s a longtime tradition with a rich history,” says Fair Commission executive director Billy Orr. “Audiences know they’re going to see a great show.”

Billed as the largest professional rodeo east of the Mississippi River, the Dixie National draws top cowboys looking to win big prize checks along with their shiny belt buckles. Such notable riders as Ty Murray and Tuff Hedeman have stepped into the Coliseum arena over the years, along with up-and-comers from around the country and beyond. In 2013, bareback bronc winner Evan Jayne of Marseille, France, earned $5,900 for his eight seconds, while bull-riding champ Jeff Askey took home the rodeo’s biggest prize of $6,600, according to prorodeo.com.

“The cowboys like our rodeo because they know they’re going to get a quality animal—something they can win on,” says rodeo marketing and communication director Jason Spell. “Everybody’s got a shot at winning, and that’s why they come here.”

But riders, ropers and racers aren’t the only draws at this wildly popular rodeo; each of the eight performances every year also features a country music star who lights up the dusty stage. In the early days, TV stars like Tex Ritter and Ken “Festus” Curtis of “Gunsmoke” wowed starstruck fans, and later years have featured icons like Tanya Tucker, George Jones and Loretta Lynn. These days, crowds are equally likely to be cheering for members of country’s new breed of celebrities, including Lady Antebellum, Gloriana and Easton Corbin.

Legendary rodeo clown Lecile Harris, a native of Mississippi and member of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, can also rightfully claim to be part of the formula for the Dixie National’s success. “I started out clowning in 1955,” Harris said in a University of Mississippi-produced documentary in 2012. “…My style of comedy was really different, and my style of bull fighting was really different.”

At 77 years old, Harris still performs at dozens of rodeos around the country each year. Repeat audiences eagerly anticipate his signature moves and crowd-pleasing skits, which have inspired generations of clowns to follow in his oversized footsteps.

“It used to be strictly all about the bull riding,” says Spell. “But now when you have the caliber rodeo that we have, people come for the whole event because we have so much to offer. It’s a full spectrum of entertainment.”

As if the goings-on inside the Coliseum weren’t enough, the rest of the Fairgrounds will be teeming with high-quality horses, cattle, goats, swine and lambs as part of the 24-day Dixie National Livestock Show. Here, adults share the spotlight with children and teenagers learning the farming life through 4-H and FFA livestock programs. Open shows feature participants ranging in age from 8 to 60 along with their four-legged companions.

Four of the nation’s largest horse shows—highlighting appaloosas, palominos, paint horses and quarter horses—are also part of the Dixie National smorgasbord. The quarter horse show is the third largest in the United States and draws an average audience of more than 4,500 fans to see events including the popular free style reining. In 2014, more than $100,000 in cash and prizes will be awarded to top participants in the quarter horse show alone.

In all, some 45,000 people are expected to fill the Coliseum for the rodeo’s eight performances, with many thousands more visiting the livestock show and barns. Half a century may have passed, but just as the show-stealing bulls never slow down, it’s clear that neither will this unforgettable rodeo spectacle.

“I’ve seen some great bull rides and some great horse rides here,” Spell says. “We put on a good quality rodeo from the livestock aspect, and all of the people involved—from the cowboys to the ladies selling concessions—help to make it something really special.”

The 2014 rodeo will feature 8 performances February 6-12. The livestock show overlaps with those dates, and specific event dates and times vary. New this year, country music concerts will take place at the end of each rodeo performance and last a full 90 minutes each. For the concert lineup, schedules and more details, see mdac.state.ms.us and search for “Dixie National.”

“You know the art of hanging loose is hanging just as tight,
Well it’s something like a hurricane who’s dancing with a kite.”
—Johnny Cash, “Bull Rider”