By Whitney Pastorek
Updated August 03, 2020 at 08:21 PM EDT

Howdy, PopWatchers! Down Home Week rolled on strong for your ol’ pal Whitney on Monday, when me and my mom (she’s like my gang!) hit the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo for a day of smelly animals, carnival rides, fried food, and awesome rodeo action, all culminating in a musical performance from one of my current country favorites, Sugarland.

After getting burned by Rascal Flatts last Saturday, I was understandably trepidatious — what if Jennifer Nettles turned out to be a bored diva? What if Kristian Bush turned out to be a self-indulgent jerk? What if former third member Kristen Hall showed up and started throwing water balloons? There were so many things that could have gone wrong!

But “everybody brings their very best pony to the rodeo,” the arena announcer proclaimed during the night’s grand entrance, and thankfully, Sugarland was no different. Their long, gregarious set was just as good as the alligator I’d eaten for dinner, and I realized that from now on, when it comes to concerts, I ain’t settlin’.

I know we’ve got some Houstonians in the PopWatch crew, so I’ll let them expand on the wonders of Houston Rodeo in the comments section (c’mon, H-Town! time to brag!), but I feel like I should set the scene here a bit: The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo started 75 years ago in a convention center in then-puny downtown, and moved to the Astrodome in 1966, then Reliant Center in 2003. It’s three weeks of roping, riding, bucking, scrambling, and chuckwagon races, all capped by performances from big-name musical acts. Traditional opening night performer George Strait and the late, great Selena are the two towers of rodeo greatness, but growing up I saw everyone from Willie Nelson to Huey Lewis, Bruce Hornsby to Brooks & Dunn. This year’s biggest-selling act was Hannah Montana and the Cheetah Girls, and while I am not sorry I missed that nonsense, I bet it solidified the glories of the rodeo in the minds of all 73,000 screaming pre-teens in attendance, thus assuring that the 93Q chuckwagon will be making its frantic rounds for years to come.

Unfortunately, because these shows take place in a square football stadium with a retractable roof, the sound quality is traditionally abysmal. (Even back in the Astrodome, which at least had that dome thing going for it, the vocals would still just ping all over the place.) I wasn’t expecting much, so I wasn’t at all shocked when Jennifer’s clear-creek voice was nearly drowned in reverb for the first two songs — but the songs themselves are so good, I pushed through the pain and stomped my feet happily inside my new boots as they kicked things off with current singles “Settlin'” (which began with a snippet of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man”; what is with these country folk and all their rock covers?) and “County Line.” By the time they hit the winsome “Want To,” things had settled down a bunch, and the warmth of Nettles’ voice finally matched the warmth of her smile.

And seriously, I’m not sure that woman stopped smiling once. Those unfamiliar with her appearance should imagine Kate Hudson crossed with Celine Dion, if Celine Dion had a sense of humor and didn’t do that chest-thumping thing. She danced around the stage barefoot, played guitar and harmonica, and flirted like crazy with bandmate Bush (all smiles himself, under that hat), keeping a twinkle in her eye that managed to bridge the massive moat between the rotating stage in the middle of the arena and the fans in the far-off stands. Every song came with an introduction — the Georgia native’s got a little preacher in her — and while, once again, I didn’t get the feeling there was a whole lot of musical experimentation going on, there sure was a lot of enthusiasm exploding off her often-outstretched arms.

So they pounded through most of the new album, including the crunchy rock of “Mean Girls,” and the slightly dopey “April Showers,” which came complete with a faux-thunderstorm, treading uncomfortably close to the spect-crapular and making me very nervous. But then it led into the the glorious expanse of “One Blue Sky,” and I calmed back down. They only attempted one full-length cover, a zydeco-tinged version of Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is” (which brought my rodeo experience in a nice full circle), and they managed to get away with the “asses and elbows” line in “Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good)” without offending the parents of the many small children seated around me. Also tossed into the mix was “Speed of Life,” now featuring a Smashing Pumpkins-style intro, and “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” Nettles’ nettlesome duet with Jon Bon Jovi, with Bush on man-vocals. (How does Bon Jovi do that song on tour — does Richie Sambora handle the girl parts?)

It was this last number that caused my symphony-musician mother — who was bearing up admirably amidst the unfamiliar noise levels — to ask, “What kind of music is this?” Um… it’s country, mom. What did you think it was? “I thought it was rock,” she answered. “It’s loud, and there are a lot of drums.” (She’s got a point.) But I’m pretty sure she enjoyed it, and even seemed to be, dare I say, bouncing along during the closing two-fer of “Baby Girl” and “Something More,” as I sat next to her and, yes, sang at the top of my lungs. Oh, hush. It’s not like anyone could hear me over the din, and I love those two songs like I love the deep-fried cheesecake I ate for dessert.

Anyway, on the PopWatch Concert Ratings Scale, I’m giving Sugarland an 8.5, but that’s got a Roger Maris-style asterisk next to it, for two reasons: First, they’re getting an unfair advantage, coming on the heels of Saturday night’s Vegas disappointment; and second, thanks to the fact that the stage was in the middle of a giant dirt field, they were forced to strip their show down to the very basics (except for that thunderstorm) and focus solely on the music, resulting in a really terrific showcase for Nettles’ million-dollar voice.

Rascal Flatts is playing Reliant on Wednesday night, and I need you PopWatchers in Houston to do me a favor: Can someone try to go and report back on how their show goes in that context? I’m assuming they will not be allowed to bring their sparks and confetti, for fear of spooking the horses, and will instead have to be interesting using nothing but their songs. I’m curious to know how that goes. If you think you can make it, drop a note in the comments, and I’ll be in touch…