LAS VEGAS - Vegas has felt a little more like Nashvegas lately.
On the sidewalk in front of a casino on the Las Vegas Strip one recent day, Somebody's Heartbreak by Nashville-signed up-and-comer Hunter Hayes sailed out of a loudspeaker as men in cowboy hats and boots passed by. The cowboys were probably in town for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, but the rodeo plus the American Country Awards and a slew of music acts in town made it a perfect storm of all things country.
Over the long weekend, it seemed nearly every taxi that zipped past advertised the ongoing Tim McGraw and Faith Hill "Soul2Soul" show at The Venetian or the Shania Twain residency at Caesars Palace, and even the December issue of Las Vegas magazine had a headline that read "Nashville Takes Vegas."
Beyond Hill, McGraw and Twain, and the awards show, Vegas visitors in December also can see Jamey Johnson, Travis Tritt, The Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, the Charlie Daniels Band and Merle Haggard. Shoppers can find bedazzled turquoise cowboy boots prominently displayed at the Mandalay Bay boutique Paradiso.
Sin City this week seemed country even down to the drink specials. The V Bar at the Venetian had a Cowboy Happy Hour of $4 Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's and domestic beers.
"This is the best week to be in Vegas in my opinion with the ACAs and rodeo," said Trace Adkins on the red carpet before hosting the awards show. "This is cowboy week in Vegas, man. There's Ty Murray right there, one of the all-time great cowboys ever."
But you can't judge a cowboy's Vegas intentions on his look alone.
Larry Smith, for example, might have been sporting a Western-style shirt with Wrangler and Jack Daniel's patches, but he flew to Vegas with his wife, Lisa, solely to see Hill and McGraw's "Soul2Soul" show, which opened Dec. 7.
"We just like country music," Lisa Smith said of making the trip from Beaumont, Calif.
Another couple, Eleonora Castelleto and her husband, flew from Italy just to see Twain. Twice.
American Idol winner and former Nashville resident Taylor Hicks has a show of his own at Bally's, and he said all the country in Vegas is a testament to the vast numbers of country music fans who come to the city. "A lot of middle America," he said.
"All of these folks that I've known and seen and gotten to play with over the past four or five years being in one place tonight makes it really special," he said at the American Country Awards.
Indeed, beyond the fans and the big stars, Vegas helps bring together others in the Nashville music community.
Jonathan Trebing, a guitarist with Rascal Flatts, said he appreciates the opportunity to see friends while in Las Vegas (and maybe even moreso during the Academy of Country Music awards), because for once they're not all scattered in cities across America on tour.
While in town for the awards, Trebing had hoped to see Twain's performance because he has friends in the band. But with Twain packing out The Coliseum at Caesars, he ended up meeting his friends after the ACAs for dinner instead. And sure, while everyone might be home in Nashville for some events such as the Country Music Association Awards, too, it's less likely - and maybe even a little less fun - to meet up in the hometown.
"I love it," said Chris Young, who was nominated for ACA trophies including single of the year and breakthrough artist. "I think we have a love affair going on with Vegas, and I'm OK with it. Because I love coming here."
Nashville and country music representing in Vegas is not new.
Though the American Country Awards show has been held there for the past three years, the West Coast-based Academy of Country Music moved its longer-running annual awards show from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 2003.
Garth Brooks wrapped up his three-year run at Wynn Las Vegas in November. Before him, Hank Williams had an unsuccessful Vegas residency in the early 1950s, but later in the 1950s, Bob Wills, Wanda Jackson and others did well there. Barbara Mandrell played Vegas in 1960 as part of Joe Maphis' show, and Patsy Cline was the first woman in country music to headline her own show in Vegas in 1962, when she played The Mint.
Hank Thompson recorded the first live country album at the Golden Nugget Club in 1961.
On Tuesday at a Southwest Airlines gate at the Las Vegas airport on the day after the ACAs, it felt like the morning after the big party - even though it was nearly 5 p.m.
Publicists, members of the media, songwriters, ACA new artist of the year winner Lauren Alaina, members of the band Gloriana and other industry folks traded stories about their post-awards events.
But after a few days in Sin City, most seemed happy to be headed back to the Nashvegas version. When the plane touched down in Music City, the show biz types on the plane did what they do to show support: They broke into applause.
Contributing: Peter Cooper