STALEY, NC — As fans trickled into Lucky J Arena for the last regular-season North Carolina High School Rodeo Association competition on May 7, Bruce Adams sat in a small space in his trailer, expertly smearing face paint on to his wrinkled, tanned skin while his shaggy dog, Mac, lay at his feet. He was already wearing his signature American flag suspenders and blue, yellow, and red striped shirt embellished with white fringe.
When the look was completed, Adams had morphed into Chico, his rodeo clown alter ego for the last 30 years. Some years he’s done as many as 40 rodeos, but this year, his last before he retires, Adams is doing just 10.
Adams, of Boiling Springs, N.C., is one of the last remaining pillars of tradition in the sport. Before he was a clown, he was a bullfighter, fully dressed in eccentric clothing to distract and corral the bull after he bucked off a rider. Now the American matadors dress in more muted outfits, occasionally wearing a boldly patterned shirt or purposefully tattered jean shorts.
“It’s time for someone else to take over,” he said. “The people I used to do it with are out here with their kids now. It’s all changing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s changing.”
At the same time Adams was preparing for the night’s show, girls and boys from all over the state prepared for their events in the field behind Lucky J, practicing techniques they’d soon show off in front of hundreds of people in an event that exists at an intersection of southern values and Wild West traditions.