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11 standout concerts as NFR returns to Las Vegas

“Hell’s Bells” rang, and the 15-year-old answered, eyes as wide as the stage before him.

It’s April 1996, and hard rockers AC/DC are playing Dallas’ Reunion Arena on their “Ballbreaker” tour, graciously offering to perform dirty deeds at discount prices and saluting those about to rock with onstage cannon fire loud enough to make a thunderbolt reach for some earplugs.

A teenage Cody Jinks is in the house with four friends, accompanied by the father of one of his buddies.

The show would temporarily imperil Jinks’ hearing/change his life.

At the time, the future country star, who’d later describe himself in song as a “fire-tongued devil with a belly full of gasoline,” was eyeing a career in law enforcement.

“Really, I wanted to be a police officer,” Jinks recalls. “I had started taking criminal justice classes and stuff like that in high school.”

And then he saw Angus Young and company do their thing, these cranked-up blues riffs roaring out of amps turned to 11, a grown-man sound delivered with adolescent abandon.

Mind = blown.

“I left that show knowing, ‘That’s what I’m going to do,’ ” Jinks says, the 42-year-old sounding like that 15-year-old again.

“It’s just one of those bands you see, and it’s a game changer,” he explains. “If you’re not an AC/DC fan and you watch an AC/DC show, you’re going to at least walk away going, ‘Well, damn, that was entertaining.’ ”

You could say the same thing about Jinks, really.

While his roots are firmly planted in the red dirt of country traditionalism — the first three shows he saw when he was a little boy: Gary Stewart, Conway Twitty and the Statler Brothers — Jinks began his music career playing in metal bands and then built a following as an independent country act far outside the Nashville major-label music machine. Coming up, he and his band often toured rock clubs — or “rock boxes,” as they like to call them — as much as honky-tonks. His first Vegas show was at the rock-leaning Vinyl at the Hard Rock Hotel in 2016, not a more traditional country venue like Stoney’s Rockin’ Country. It just so happened that German metallers Scorpions were also playing the property that night as part of their first residency in town.

“I’m a huge Scorpions fan,” Jinks notes. “That worked out well.”

Because of his Pantera-lovin’ background, Jinks has been able to resonate with fans of that band’s seminal “Cowboys From Hell” album as well just plain ol’ cowboys.

“We were kind of the country band that people would come up and go, ‘Hey, man, we really don’t dig country, but we really like what you guys are doing,’ ” Jinks says. “I think there’s enough rock in our music, there’s country, a blues element in there — there’s a little bit for everybody. We have a lot of rock ’n’ roll fans, a lot of metal fans.”

Jinks’ latest album, “Mercy,” his 12th overall, encapsulates his range.

“I’m a walkin,’ talkin,’ livin,’ breathin’ country song,” Jinks contends on album opener “All It Cost Was Everything,” a whiskeyed waltz that sets a defiant tone. From there, Jinks barhops from roughneck country rock (“Hurt You”) to tender-voiced ballads (“Feeding the Flames”) in a blend of open hearts and closed fists.

It’s a country record, make no mistake, but it also pulses with a punk rock energy, a make-my-own rules ethos.

This is no coincidence.

“I’ve always ran this band with very much a DIY, kind of a punk mentality,” Jinks notes. “This band is just a country version of what punk bands have been trying to do for years and years and years: Just do your own thing. People tend to find their way to you. They kind of like that spirit, that DIY grit, talking about real life.”

If Jinks’ songbook is posited on real-life concerns, his raucous live shows simultaneously provide an escape from them.

As such, he’s become a hot ticket during the National Finals Rodeo festivities.

In 2021, he sold out three shows at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

This year, he’s back at the venue on Dec. 2 and 3.

“What makes NFR time so fun is that people travel out there, it’s a destination, they want stuff to do while they’re out there, they want to go see shows, they want to go gambling,” Jinks says. “In Vegas, man, they’re coming from all over,” he continues. “It’s just party time.”

Of course, Jinks gets in on the fun.

“If I’m not playing, I’m usually sitting at a blackjack table. I like playing cards, man. I love it out there,” he says. “It’s our last shows of the year. We close book after Vegas. We bring all the wives and girlfriends out. Everybody leaves the kids with the grandparents. We do it right. We party.”

Ten other concerts of note during NFR 2022:

George Strait, T-Mobile Arena, Dec. 2-3

The “King of Country” is rodeo royalty as well, having played Vegas during NFR annually since 2016. Though he’s headlining a 20,000-seat arena, Strait can still make it feel like an intimate venue somehow.

Luke Bryan, Resorts World’s Theatre, Nov. 30, Dec. 2-3, 7-9 and Dec. 10

Speaking of George Strait, Luke Bryan cites him as one of his musical favs along with … the Beastie Boys and Run DMC. One of contemporary country’s biggest stars, Bryan embodies the genre’s genre-less approach these days, with influences extending all the way to the aforementioned hip-hoppers.

Tanya Tucker, Golden Nugget Showroom, Dec. 2

With her most recent record, “While I’m Livin,’ ” Tanya Tucker won a Grammy Award 47 years after her 1972 debut, released when she was just 13 years old. Produced by Americana/alt-country singer-songwriters Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, the album pulls off the rare feat of being a contemporary throwback.

Miranda Lambert, Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood Resort, Dec. 3-4, 8 and 10-11

Still “Actin’ Up” after all these years, as the first track of latest album “Palomino” explains, Miranda Lambert remains one of country’s most fiery, take-no-guff presences. She resumes her “Velvet Rodeo” residency just in time for NFR, and when she plays “Gunpowder & Lead” toward the end of her set, prepare for the sparks to fly for real.

Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, Golden Nugget Showroom, Dec. 3

Marty Stuart is a country music historian who’s played a significant role in said history, having performed in Johnny Cash’s band in the ’80s and dropped a slew of acclaimed rockabilly- and bluegrass-informed records ever since. And with his vast collection of vintage country outfits — Country America magazine once called him the “high priest of hillbilly fashion” — he just might be the best-dressed man in town during NFR.

Santa Jam, The Pearl at the Palms, Dec. 4

Who says ol’ St. Nick isn’t country? Have you see the size of the dude’s belt buckle? Prepare for a country Christmas, then, at Santa Jam, where Tyler Hubbard, best known as one-half of Florida Georgia Line, teams with “The Voice’s” Season 4 winner, Danielle Bradbery, along with up-and-coming singer-songwriters Matt Stell, Jackson Dean, Ashley Cooke and Shane Profitt, for plenty of Yuletide standards.

Ronnie Milsap, Golden Nugget Showroom, Dec. 5

One of country’s great balladeers, Ronnie Milsap could wring tears from a monkey wrench with a voice suffused with longing. When that “Smoky Mountain Rain” begins to fall, you’d better have some Kleenex handy in addition to an umbrella.

Koe Wetzel, The Theater at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, Dec. 6

Yes, there might be a “Noise Complaint” or two — or 10 — when grunge-influenced outlaw country hell-raiser Koe Wetzel hits town. One thing’s for certain: His frequent show-closer “February 28, 2016” will be the best tune you’ll hear all NFR long about getting hammered and lusting for Taco Bell.

Cody Johnson, Michelob Ultra Arena, Dec. 9

On “ ’Til You Can’t,” the first single from his latest double album, “Human,” Cody Johnson advocated for living in the moment as long as that moment will last. “If you got a dream, chase it,” he sings, pursuing his all the way to Las Vegas.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Theater at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, Dec. 9-10

Obviously, country fans like to rock (see: Jinks, Cody). And so Southern rock greats Lynyrd Skynyrd fit NFR as snugly as that beer koozie on your Coors Light.

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