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Lady Antebellum among tons of acts riding into town during NFR

A lot of things have changed since Lady Antebellum last played outdoors in downtown Las Vegas. Six million albums, marriages, babies …

Plus they’re more fun now.

The country-pop trio kick off the National Finals Rodeo with a Friday show at the D’s Downtown Las Vegas Events Center. The outdoor stage at Carson Avenue and Third Street is only a couple of blocks from Fremont Street, where Lady A played a free show in April of 2010.

“Need You Now” made instant stars of the trio — Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood — between the time that show was booked and the time they played it. “I look back on that season of our career and it’s still really hard to fathom, that it all really happened,” Scott says. “I think I still struggle with really grasping it all.”

But the difference between the wistful “Need You Now” and the current party hit “Bartender” reflects a deliberate effort to bring out the trio’s fun side.

“We knew that we needed to bring up the energy in our live show,” Scott says. “When we all started as a band, we were writers. We had never really performed on stage together, and that live performance element was a real growth struggle for us.”

As opening acts, they watched and studied master showmen such as Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Jason Aldean. “We’d try to see in our set list the huge gaping holes for more energy, more up-tempo, more life in the show.”

The trio were fresh from another pop-crossover hit in last year’s “Compass” when they started writing songs that would lead to September’s new album “747.” It was time to “take some risks,” Scott says, after “Compass” and “Downtown” were rewarded for breaking the formula of midtempo, mournful ballads.

“We always say in the writing room, a funny phrase we said early on in our career and still say to this day: ‘We just have to dare to suck,’ ” Scott says. “We can always reel ourselves back in, so let’s just go for it.”

Some of the new songs came from outside writers, but others came from the three sitting down together while on tour, in pursuit of “that intangible dynamic of the three of us as a band, that magic that’s created when the three of us get in the room together. It only really can happen in the purest form when we are in the room together.

“We really rededicated ourselves to the songwriting process for the creation of this album, and we knew to make the best record we could, we had to put the time in.”

Lady Antebellum also recruited Taylor Swift producer Nathan Chapman to helm the new album. While country is “what we all grew up on,” Scott says genre-bending pop-country acts are only keeping up with the eclectic tastes of fans.

“Music fans have every kind of music, every genre, every artist, every decade at their fingertips on a daily basis, minute by minute with what they’re carrying around in their hand,” she notes. “If you want to look up a song, you’ve got it.”

The 28-year-old remembers when she was growing up, “My parents bought me a handful of greatest-hits albums. The Doobie Brothers, Jim Croce, Carole King … and they’re like, ‘You need to listen to these.’ ”

Her parents are both musicians, and her mother, Linda Davis, had midlevel success as a recording artist and backup singer for Reba McEntire.

“I was that little girl sitting on a road case in front of house many a night,” Scott says, including those when McEntire sang in Las Vegas.

“I remember the Excalibur because it was like where the kids go,” she adds. “That was my Vegas, getting to go play in that gigantic arcade. Those are my first memories of Las Vegas.”

Now Scott and drummer-husband Chris Tyrrell take their own 1-year-old daughter on the road. Will the world someday need to learn how to spell Eisele?

“You just never know what’s sinking into your heart and your mind when you’re a kid,” Scott says. By the time she was 14, “I really felt like it was what I was supposed to do.”

Lady Antebellum plays at 9 p.m. Friday with opening acts David Nail and Maddie &Tae. Here are other highlights of a rodeo week that’s seeing more musical acts back in town after some leaner years. See the Neon entertainment listings for a complete list, including detailed time and ticket information.

■ Big &Rich with Cowboy Troy. Finally the real deal, the “hick hop” party band that has year-round representation via “Country Superstars” impersonations and every Las Vegas topless show, when it comes time for “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” Friday and Saturday, Brooklyn Bowl at The Linq.

■ Country comedy. Las Vegas is as close as you’ll get to reuniting all four members of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy actually perform together Dec. 12-13 at Planet Hollywood Resort. But Ron White and Bill Engvall get a head start with separate shows; White on Friday and Saturday at The Mirage, and Engvall next door at Treasure Island Friday and Dec. 12.

And then there’s Rodney Carrington. Beer-muddled memories may have placed him on those Blue Collar tours, but he is more of a lone gun and an NFR tradition when it comes time for cowgirls to “Show Them to Me.” He returns to the MGM Grand Sunday through Thursday.

■ Shania’s last ride (on a flying motorcycle). If a big country-pop production is more your thing, the last stint of Shania Twain’s two-year custom-Vegas comeback includes shows on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday in the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

■ Old-school Nuggets. The dog-years career trajectory of today’s country stars doesn’t leave a lot of room on the radio for their ancient elders from all the way back in the ’90s, but they still pull fans for their concerts.

The Golden Nugget again goes all in for NFR week, with Hank Williams Jr. on Friday and Saturday, Travis Tritt on Tuesday, Sara Evans on Wednesday, and a certain legend by the name of Merle Haggard on Sunday and Monday. Alabama comes in as the closer Thursday and Dec. 12 to stretch your memories all the way back to the ’80s.

■ Elvis-room retro. The Westgate Las Vegas, which some of us will forever slip and call “The Hilton,” also returns to the era of Bill Clinton, “Titanic” movies and the days when “I Swear” could be a hit for both John Michael Montgomery and All-4-One. Montgomery sings where Elvis once did on Tuesday and Wednesday, after Sammy Kershaw on Friday and Saturday and Lee Greenwood on Sunday and Monday (and surely Elvis would have covered “God Bless the USA” if he had lived eight more years).

■ John Prine. You can break the Nashville mold but still be a little bit country in the company of cult favorite John Prine on Saturday at the Palms. The singer-songwriter battled cancer last year but is back to apply his wizened voice to incisive folk, country and rockabilly favorites including “Hello In There” and “Sam Stone.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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