“There is nothing like the electricity in the Thomas and Mack during the NFR. You can sit in the stands with a glass of water and watch the water move,” – Adam Gray, 4 time NFR tie-down roping qualifier.
That statement got me thinking. I’ve covered the Wrangler National Finals rodeo for many years. The bulk of that experience has been spent in the press room, down a long hallway on the arena floor. While I’ve enjoyed those experiences, there is nothing like watching from the stands, which I’ve had the privilege of doing also.
Why is there so much energy at this rodeo? The competition is exciting for sure. And the fans contribute a lot. Being selected to work as part of the contract crew that makes the production come together is one of the highest honors one can have in their career. Many of the people that make this event happen spend countless hours before, during and after the competition. And a lot of them have been at it for years.
One of those, and a big contributor to the electric atmosphere is music director Benje Bendele. Bendele, who is working his 16th NFR, uses his skill, equipment and timing to help create a buzz in the Thomas and Mack Center that is unlike any other arena.
The mix of music and sound effects during every performance of the NFR is Bendele’s responsibility and one that he takes seriously. He leaves from his Texas home the Saturday after Thanksgiving to make the 18-hour drive. Arriving early might mean a little time to enjoy Vegas, but he will hit the ground running getting ready for one of the most important shows of his year.
Bendele’s rodeo experiences started as a youngster when he would compete in team roping and tie-down roping. He competed in college rodeo and went to auctioneering school. He hauled his younger brother to a youth rodeo in Bandera. The announcer didn’t show up and the producers knew that an auctioneer was on the grounds so they gave him the microphone.
That was the beginning. He got his PRCA card in 1995. Stock contractor Bob Barnes hired him to work all of their rodeos on the east coast. He did that for seven years. He wanted to stay closer to home and had an opportunity to go to work for Mack Altizer and Bad Company Rodeo. Altizer was known for his rock and roll rodeo performances. Bendele was a lover of all genres of music so it was a good fit. He started providing sound and music for them as well as announcing. He was horseback in the arena so hired someone to play the music.
After finding out that Shawn Davis, NFR general manager, was looking for a music director for a tour finale rodeo in Dallas. Bendele jumped on the opportunity. That opened new doors for him and in 2001, he decided to move from announcing to focus on music.
It was at that rodeo in Dallas where he started playing theme songs for contestants and came up with sound effects that suited their personalities. Announcer Bob Tallman was describing Cody Ohl. Bendele played the distinctive “cowboy” sound effect. That was soon tied to Cody’s performance at rodeos across the country.
Now contestants come to him with a theme song or a request. NFR bareback rider has asked to have “God’s Not Dead” played when it is his turn to compete. Some songs, like that one, work and some don’t according to Bendele.
He listens to each song with a practiced ear looking for just the right clip that will add to the production. And, he is constantly listening to all types of music looking for new songs and inspiration.
“I try to pick out good songs that get people’s attention,” he said. “I want to get them involved. Music pulls them into the experience of the rodeo. Timing is huge. I have to be able to put the correct song and correct beat on at the right time, and not interrupt the clown or the announcers. We all work together as a team to make the experience the best that it could be.”
Being part of that team at the world’s biggest and best rodeo for 10 days carries a huge responsibility. Bendele flew to Las Vegas in November along with the rodeo announcers so they could rehearse. They try to look at every possible scenario that could happen during the rodeo and prepare for that.
He brings all of his equipment into the Thomas and Mack Center on Tuesday before Thursday night’s first performance. He will have computers, a mixer board and other equipment. Part of that is a flat screen television. Even though he is on the arena floor right next to the action, he has the video on a monitor right in front of them.
“I can watch on that monitor out of the corner of my eye and that helps my reaction time,” he explained. “It helps my timing so much because I can focus on the music and still keep up with what’s going on in the arena.”
During the NFR, he is involved with pre and post production meetings where the smallest detail is discussed. He has a set list that he plays prior to the rodeo and when it’s game time, he gets excited about what is about to unfold. That excitement carries over into the music he plays and is just one of the many elements that make the NFR so electric according to Bendele.
“I think it’s the pace that the rodeo is produced. Everything is moving so fast,” he said. “That keeps the energy level high. The announcers and all of the staff play a huge role in that. So many things go into having the best rodeo in the world.”
His split second sense of timing and ability to play just the right song for the occasion have made Bendele one of the most sought after music men in the rodeo industry. And, his background as a competitor and announcer gives him insight into rodeo production that not many have.
Bendele is a listener. He listens to music, listens to his surroundings and listens to requests from competitors and rodeo personnel. Then, he does his best to put his magic spin on what he has listened to and make it work for the production and keep the energy going.
The NFR features the best contestants from a year of competition vying for over $10 million in prize money. There is also great livestock, hand-picked announcers, and slew of people working diligently in the arena and behind the scenes to make it all happen. Every fan in the seats and every person involved contributes to the electricity that happens in the Thomas and Mack Center for 10 nights.
“Being in Las Vegas brings and element of excitement to the NFR as well,” Bendele added. “Everyone loves the competition, but they are there to have fun too. The Thomas and Mack is unique as well. Every seat in the house is on top of the action and having a great venue adds to it. Having the NFR in this city puts the icing on the cake.”