We Las Vegans bemoan the absence of certain cultural institutions. Take authentic country (also see: traditional, outlaw, alt-country, Americana, bluegrass), for instance. Its acts usually bypass Vegas, much to the woe of fans of Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and all four Highwaymen.
Now, this would make National Finals Rodeo and its ancillary music events the perfect opportunity to lure those performers loyal to tradition, unafraid of the twang and just a little outlaw. Alas, outside of Merle Haggard, you’re largely stuck with pop wannabes in plaid drag who hire a team of hack songwriters and grit-phobe producers to appeal to Walmart Nation.
Except for Jamey Johnson, the most lauded young country artist of the past five years. He’s earned all his best-of list placements; he’s the guy who actually deserves Grammys. That’s because Johnson has absorbed all that’s pure and gorgeous about country music and filtered it through his nuanced, big-hearted but world-weary strummers — and that mesmerizing baritone of his.
At the height of the music world’s interest in him, in 2010, Johnson made his third album a double album, The Guitar Song, considered one of the best records of any genre that year. Then, in October, instead of following up with a batch of fresh material, he spearheaded a tribute album to Hank Cochran, one of country music’s greatest go-to songwriters. That album features collaborations with Haggard, Willie Nelson and nearly every other who’s-who of country music that doesn’t test your gag reflex. It’s a must-get record, just as Johnson’s surprise booking at the Riviera is a must-attend show for underserved real country — hell, real music — fans. MIKE PREVATT
10 p.m.; Royale Pavillion at The Riviera, 2901 Las Vegas Blvd. South, www.rivierahotel.com, $33-$66.