Corb Lund under the brightly lit canopy of the Fremont Street Experience

Wednesday night provided another prime example of just what makes the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo such a great 10 days – or even 11 days – here in Las Vegas.

It’s all about family and friends. And everybody is family, and everybody is friends, even if you never met them until literally just that moment.

So it was at the Downtown Hoedown, under the brightly lit canopy of the Fremont Street Experience. The annual event serves as the official kickoff to the Wrangler NFR, and Canadian country crooner Corb Lund and his fine band got the festivities started with a riveting set before hundreds of rodeo fans at the Main Street Stage.

Now I’ve never met Lund, wouldn’t know him from Adam before Wednesday night. Yet one of his bandmates helped me slip backstage after the performance, and Lund welcomed me in, urged me to take a seat on the couch, and happily talked a little Wrangler NFR and how grateful he was to help kick off the Super Bowl of Rodeo.

“This was a much more enthusiastic crowd than I expected,” Lund said. “This was like a real crowd, super fun, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve had plenty of shows where no one really seemed to care. But tonight was awesome.”

It’s not like Lund is a stranger to the Wrangler NFR. He and his band performed at the MGM Grand a couple years ago, and at the Tropicana last year. But outdoors at the Experience, he was entirely among friends, even though he’d never met most of them, including me.

“It’s interesting, because we’ve played Vegas several times on tour. But this is different, because people come from all over the West to be here,” Lund said. “It’s kind of like a homecoming. My family has really deep roots in ranching and rodeo, so I feel a real kinship with all these people down here.”

Of course, Lund has some true buddies here, people he’s known for years, but whom he might only connect with during the Wrangler NFR – making the event even more about family and friends.

“It’s almost like a reunion. I’ve got friends from all over the place who come here,” Lund said. “I’m slammed all week. I’ll hardly get any sleep!”

Not that he’s complaining, as he’s doing what he loves, among those he cares about most – family, friends old and new, and fans. His band, which will be at Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas on Friday night, served up a heaping helping of hits as he sang about whiskey, gravediggers and – in a nod to Vegas – even a little Sinatra, though in this case it was Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

He could just has easily have gone with Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” after his Tuesday night in the casino.

“It’s a crazy town. I made 400 bucks last night at the blackjack table, so that’s a good start,” Lund said, joking he might want to quit while he’s ahead in that respect.

But he won’t quit coming to Vegas, especially during the Wrangler NFR. There are just too many friends, old and new, to catch up with.

“It’s really neat when all these people come here,” Lund said. “It’s quite unique. I don’t think there’s anything else like it.”

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