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Give rodeo bookers a definitive 'A' for effort

In a week whenSouth by Southwest fills clubs, the uber-hot Lady Antebellum will pack 'em in at the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo

Michael Corcoran
Lady Antebellum (from left, Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood) perform March 17 at the annual rodeo.

Booking a festival or, in this case, musical entertainment to follow all that ropin' and ridin', is like buying pork belly futures. Rodeo Austin promoters had to predict how hot an act would be several months down the road and they really hit bacon gold with Lady Antebellum, whom country radio has gone gaga over. The biggest band in town the week of March 15 is not playing South by Southwest, but the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo.

Following the spectacular success of ‘Need You Now'— the single and the album — there's no hotter act than Lady Antebellum in country music, even though their music is as country as thong underwear. On Tuesday, the trio received seven Academy of Country Music nominations, more than any other act.

Later this year, Lady A (as everyone calls them because, let's face it, antebellum is almost another word for the slavery era) will embark on a headlining tour of arenas. But March 17, Scarlett and the O'Haras will be cursing their booking agent and wondering if they'll ever get the smell of livestock out of their clothes.

Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood have a collective nose for the rarefied air at the top of the charts. 'Need You Now,' which could be subtitled 'The Blue Collar Booty Call Song,' was the biggest country single of 2009, perched atop the Billboard country singles chart for five straight weeks. It's the track that, ahem, upped the Ante for the 'Bellum brood.

When the 'Need You Now' album came out Jan. 26, it debuted at No. 1 on the album sales chart, moving more than 480,000 units in its first week. That total was no doubt helped because, to some hardworking country folks, downloading is something you do with bales of hay, but 'Need You Now' is still the top-selling country album by far. The new single 'American Honey' is a bit of a dud, though it should make the Top 10. And the album's luscious final track 'Ready To Love Again' sounds like a future smash.

One of the reasons Lady Antebellum has really taken off is they've stepped into the void at mainstream country left by another superstar trio with chemistry. Like the Dixie Chicks, Lady A has a pleasing lead voice and a crisp, bouncy sound. And the format of two dudes with nine o'clock shadows and a gorgeous chick who can really sing is fairly unusual.

The main difference from the Chicks, Dixie is that Lady A members have co-written all their hits, including 'Love Don't Live Here' and 'I Run To You,' and on the new album are credited as co-producers. In the studio, this is a very meticulous band and you can hear that care for details in their two albums. But they don't play fiddles and dobros. And they don't have domestic revenge songs about guys named Earl.

A requested interview with any member of Lady A — we'd even take the sound man — fell through at the last minute, so please allow me to belabor the Dixie Chicks comparisons a little more.

Like Natalie Maines, 25-year-old Hillary Scott has a musical pedigree. Her parents Linda Davis (of Dotson, Texas) and Lang Scott are former Reba McEntire touring musicians; Davis even had a No. 1 duet with Reba on ‘Does He Love You' in 1993.

But the proud parents couldn't have predicted how big a star their daughter would become. And how quickly. Scott didn't even meet Georgia lads Kelley (the brother of pop singer Josh 'Mr. Katherine Heigl' Kelley) and Haywood until three and a half years ago.

But Maines and the Chicks showed just how quickly it can all disappear. Having a liberal opinion in Nashville is about as good a career move as a TV weatherman tattooing his face, so don't expect any member of Lady A saying anything from the stage besides 'thanks for coming.' Maybe, if they're in a goofy mood, they might try to get this side to sing along louder than the other side. But as much as their competition probably wishes they'd say something outrageous, like supporting the Obama health-care plan, it just isn't going to happen.

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The rodeo is March 12-27, but the popular (and free) official kick-off Cowboy Breakfast on Auditorium Shores is Friday, March 5 . Friday is also "Wear Western Day" in Austin. Besides the breakfast food, there will be live music and demonstrations; free parking available at Palmer Events Center. It all starts at 6 a.m.

Tickets to the rodeo and concert are $20, $25 and $37 and available online at rodeoaustin.com .