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Scoping out NFR week’s country music highlights

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An Evening With Willie Nelson & Family” at Reynolds Hall in Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.
Photo: Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

Every year during the National Finals Rodeo, Vegas gets an unofficial country-music festival spread over venues around the city. Acts ranging from living legends to hot up-and-comers to anonymous cover bands come to town to entertain rodeo fans, but you don’t have to be an NFR groupie to appreciate the musical offerings.

This year, the Golden Nugget once again has some of the biggest highlights, including country icons Willie Nelson (December 10 & 11, 10 p.m., $142-$219) and Merle Haggard (December 12 & 13, 10 p.m., $87-$175). Nelson is 80, and Haggard is 76, so while both are still strong performers, any time they stop in town might end up being your last chance to see them in concert.

The Nugget will also feature iconoclastic honky-tonker Dwight Yoakam (December 8 & 9, 10 p.m., $109-$164), known for bridging the country/rock divide and for bringing the Bakersfield sound of artists like Buck Owens to a modern audience. Like Yoakam, Dierks Bentley (the Pearl, December 6, 10 p.m., $60-$140) embraces musical diversity, with a mix of party-friendly, rock-infused mainstream country and more organic, laid-back Americana.

Although male country stars dominate the week, two female superstars will also be in town: Wynonna Judd (Orleans Showroom, December 6 & 7, 8 p.m., $83-$110), who has continued to carve out a solo career after decades of performing with her mother Naomi; and Shania Twain (Caesars Palace Colosseum, December 7 & 8, 10 & 11, 13 & 14, 7:30 p.m., $55-$250), whose latest dates in her Vegas residency nicely coincide with the rodeo. With so much music to choose from, all that cattle-roping almost seems like an afterthought.

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