There’s a long, rich history of rodeo songs in country music, but not every artist who sang one has necessarily saddled up a horse. That’s not the case with Kylie Frey, a 25-year-old Opelousas, Louisiana, native who spent her formative years competing in regional rodeos. “I tied goats and roped calves,” the 25-year-old says proudly. Rodeo wasn’t just a hobby for Frey — her experiences in the dust and the mud, as Garth Brooks colorfully sang about the sport, inform both her worldview and the half-dozen songs on her terrific new EP Rodeo Queen. The project recently crossed a million streams on Spotify.
Produced by Paul Worley (Lady A), Rodeo Queen mixes the gloss of Nineties country divas like Shania Twain and Martina McBride with the gritty rodeo aesthetic of real-life cowgirls like Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker. Listening to “Spur of the Moment,” her clever, imagery-rich single, and the ballad “Horses in Heaven,” about her late grandfather who taught her to ride, it’s hard not to draw a line back to rodeo classics sung by women like “Someday Soon” or, more recently, the Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away.”
On Wednesday, Frey will perform the national anthem at the National Finals Rodeo, being held not in its usual home of Las Vegas during this pandemic year, but in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s a personal milestone. “It was always my grandpa’s dream for me to sing the anthem at the NFR,” Frey says, “and I get to do that for the first time this year.”
How did rodeo shape your upbringing?
I come from a big rodeo family and that’s all my dad and his brothers and sisters did growing up. I think he was sort of burnt-out by the time his kids came along and he was really pushing us to get into baseball and, you know, the normal sports. But my sister and I, I guess it was just in our blood to follow this family tradition. I probably wouldn’t be a singer if it wasn’t for growing up in rodeo, because I would sing the national anthem for every rodeo I was entered in. And I kind of found my voice through that and just singing on the back of the tailgate after a rodeo. It was my outlet and I wrote songs about it.
Your song “Spur of the Moment,” which is already a hit on the Texas charts, is full of rodeo imagery: saddles, broncs, the allure of the road, and even the spurs of the title.
I love twisting phrases, and that one in particular popped in my head one day and was an obvious song. I can write it from the definition of [the phrase] “spur of the moment” and I can write it from a cowboy’s perspective. I sat down with [co-writer] Leslie [Satcher] and I told her this title and immediately she got it. My favorite songs like “When God Fearin’-Women Get the Blues” and “Strawberry Wine,” they tell a story. But even if you’re not tuned in, the music still makes you feel good. That’s what I wanted
“Horses in Heaven” is an homage to your grandfather, who taught you to ride. It’s so personal—did you ever plan to release it?
I wrote that song with one of my very dear friends right after my grandpa had passed. I wrote it thinking that I just needed to write it for me and that I would never really play it out. And for some reason, I played it at writers round and I got like a handful of messages the next day. It was interesting, because it’s such a specific story. But it’s so funny how people find themselves in the details. It sort of opened my eyes to what I love about country music and the storytelling aspect of a song that is so specific and has so many details, but you find yourself in those details.
There’s a left-field cover on your EP: a fiddle and acoustic-guitar remake Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” How did that happen?
That song was in my first set in my first bar gig in Opelousas in, like, my junior year of high school. I’ve just always played that song because it made people dance and drink beer. So when I started my band up here in Nashville, I’m like, “Hey, can we make this sort of a bluegrass-country version?” And they all thought I was so crazy, but we did it and it became a big part of my set.
After all those years of pulling a horse trailer to rodeos, you are probably an expert at driving on tour.
Yes! It was funny, I was out on the road with Randall King not long ago and I was backing in my van and trailer and his bus driver was like, “Girl, you can drive my bus any day — and I don’t let anyone drive my bus.”