The voice of the rodeo

Published 12:01 am Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rattlesnake Rodeo emcee Kenn Howell kisses Matilda, a 13 pound, 8 ounce eastern diamondback rattlesnake. |Courtesy photo

For anyone who’s ever been to a Rattlesnake Rodeo in the last 40 years, chances are they’ve heard Kenn Howell’s voice.

Howell’s first rodeo was in 1971, and he has been the emcee for the majority of those years.

“I had some friends – Paul Wise and Don Childre – who were in it, and they invited me,” he said. “I was living in Samson then.”

Howell has been involved in the rodeo under both the Jaycee’s organization and now the City of Opp’s.

But what keeps him coming back year-to-year?

“For a long time, it was how the money was used,” he said. “It was used for scholarships, charity, nursing homes, rescue squads – things we needed in the community. Now we are doing it for the city. The mayor (H.D. Edgar) brought it back to Opp the first year he was mayor.”

Today, the money goes into a general fund to make improvements at the local level, he said.

Howell said he’s seen the rodeo grow from “a small-type festival” to a “super-big event.”

“It was the third largest even in the tri-state area when the Jaycees had it,” he said. “It has grown into an event that is known nationally.”

The event is something Howell says he’s “passionate” about.

“I’ve been doing it 40 of the 51 years,” he said. “We carried it from a handful of people to being known around the world.”

Howell said the event has been filmed on BBC and all major U.S. networks.

“When the guys from BBC came to film, we had a 13 pound, 8 ounce snake named ‘Matilda,’ and she was very docile,” he said. “I told one of the BBC guys that as long as you were gentle she would lay in your arms like a good guitar or a beautiful woman. And he said, ‘if she’s so much like a beautiful woman, why don’t you give her a kiss?’ So I did.”

But most importantly, Howell said the rodeo is about “safety and education.”

“A lot of people don’t realize we teach education and safety,” he said. “We’re not like some others. We are more focused on teaching people what to do when they encounter the rattlesnake and other poisonous snakes. We also teach procedures and train people like rescue squads and power companies.

“They are part of our world,” he said. “As long as you treat the snakes with respect, they’ll mind their own business.”