The history of the rodeo is closely intertwined with country music, to the point that it has played a role in a fair amount of the genre’s hits.
George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning,” Moe Bandy’s “Bandy the Rodeo Clown,” Suzy Bogguss’ “Someday Soon,” Dan Seals’ “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” and Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo” and “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” embraced the sport’s lifestyle for their storylines. And the rodeo provided a useful metaphor in Leon Everette’s “Midnight Rodeo,” Jake Owen’s “Eight Second Ride” and Vern Gosdin’s “This Ain’t My First Rodeo.”
Gosdin’s title, which was built on a familiar adage, gets reversed in Restless Road’s new single, “Last Rodeo,” applying images from the arena to a broken relationship.
“I’ve always heard people talk about, you know, ‘This isn’t my first rodeo,’ ” says group member Colton Pack, “but I’ve never heard anybody do the flip and the play on words of saying, ‘It’s not my last rodeo.’ ”
That changed when Pack spotted some form of the “last rodeo” phrase in public, most likely on a T-shirt, and he logged it into his phone as a potential hook. He unpacked it on April 3, 2023, when the band had a co-writing session with Trannie Anderson (“Heart Like a Truck,” “Wildflowers and Wild Horses”) at the home studio of songwriter-producer Lindsay Rimes (“World on Fire,” “Love You Back”) in West Nashville. The appointment was a challenge. Anderson had a last-minute lunch with Lainey Wilson to celebrate “Heart Like a Truck,” and to accommodate it, they started at 9 a.m.
“In our world, that might as well be frickin’ 4 a.m.,” Restless Road’s Zach Beeken notes.
They felt pressure, given that they had a tight three hours to make something happen, but Pack’s “this ain’t my last rodeo” suggestion gave them something strong to work with out of the gate. The phrase applied to someone rebounding after getting dumped, and it fit the perseverance the band needed to keep pushing forward after its formation in 2013 on NBC’s The X Factor.
“I’m not a cowboy at all,” says tenor Garrett Nichols. “I didn’t grow up around riding bulls or riding broncos, but every time we would spit out a lyric, I could definitely see into it. I related to the past heartbreak stuff, I related to ‘Back in the saddle, back on the road’ [or] ‘I might be bruised, but I ain’t broke.’ I just thought about all the different times that we’ve tried to do this and that, and it didn’t work out, and we just kept going.”
They dove into the chorus first, bookending the stanza with the hook at the front and the back. They filled it with an anthemic melody designed to showcase their harmonies, with Nichols on the high end and Beeken in the lower register.
“One of our biggest challenges, being a trio and doing what we do, is finding a key for the song that works for everybody’s voice,” Beeken says. “We’ll find the key we can push Garrett to, to where it’s like, ‘This is as high as it can go, I can’t go any higher,’ trying to find the range for him because the chorus is the part of the song you want to soar and smack the hardest.”
Once they had a good overview of the chorus, they were better able to start solving pieces of the puzzle in other sections, too. “We kind of worked on different sections,” says Anderson. “I remember getting the chorus structure kind of figured out and filling in most of the lines, but then singing the verse for a while. I remember popcorning a little bit.”
They loaded the text with rodeo and cowboy allegory, though the words fit so easily that the references aren’t always obvious.
“It needed rodeo language, but not so much that it took the raw emotion out of it,” Anderson says. “And there was a lot of raw emotion in the room writing the song because of what they’ve been through as a band, but also, Zach had just gone through a breakup and was able to write through that [experience], too. Finding the balance of raw emotion and playing on the metaphor was a pretty natural thing.”
Once the verses became clearer, they popcorned back to the chorus to tie up some of the loose ends, but a mistake actually improved it. That section originally began on the downbeat of a measure, but they sang the hook this time as a pickup to the next line, and it changed how the rest of the chorus unfolded.
“This drops harder in the chorus, [with] the music cutting out and then hitting the chorus [hard],” Rimes says. “We had some of the lyric in there, but we had to add stuff in, in the middle of the chorus. We kind of had a bit more space because it was starting earlier than before.”
Rimes filled that space with an obvious audience-participation part, threading an easy-to-remember “ride, ride, ride” lyric, ideally designed for pumping fists in the air on an arena floor.
They wrote it quickly enough that Anderson made her lunch with Wilson, and Rimes continued working with Restless Road on a demo. Beeken sang the first verse; Pack took the second, one octave higher; and the full force of the harmonies raised the impact even more on the chorus.
The band joked about adding a neighing horse to the intro, and Rimes quickly inserted that sound from his plug-in collection. When the group prodded further about having a horse galloping off in the closing moments, Rimes pulled up that effect, too. They never expected to keep those sounds, though they provide another means of separating “Last Rodeo” from the pack.
“We just thought that was hysterical when we made the demo,” recalls Rimes. “But it stayed in there, and then we got used to it. It’s actually pretty cool.”
The band had a 3 p.m. appointment with the label, and when the group left the studio, Rimes finished the demo and sent it in the middle of the meeting. As a result, RCA approved it for the next session within hours of being written.
They recorded the final version at Nashville’s Soundstage, mixing in new parts from studio players with some of the remnants from Rimes’ demo, including arena-level drums. Restless Road likewise bolstered its original demo vocals with additional takes, filling out the chorus harmonies by doubling all three guys’ voices. Beeken also slipped in a unison part one octave below the melody, thickening the whole sound.
Nichols, in addition to singing high harmonies, contributed a signature whistle — with shades of ’60s Sergio Leone western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. “I don’t know why, but I’m just really good at whistling,” Nichols says. “We did it a couple times, put some reverb on it and then just slapped it in.”
RCA Nashville released “Last Rodeo” to country radio via PlayMPE on Dec. 11 with an official add date of Jan. 29. Its message, filtered through an image of a cowboy getting back in the saddle after being thrown, is fairly universal; resilience is a highly admired quality, for Restless Road and for everyone else.
“The chorus can apply to anything in life,” Pack says, “whether that be a relationship, whether that be somebody standing in the way of a dream, whether that be telling yourself, ‘You know what? I can bounce back.’ ”
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