Taking the Reins

Taking the Reins: At the Madison County Championship Rodeo, North Carolina’s oldest event of its kind, cowboy culture passes to a new generation
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"I’ve been mashed and slammed and bammed my whole life,” says Kenny Treadway, rodeo practitioner-turned-rodeo producer, with a chuckle. “But if it’s in your blood, I guess you don’t care what happens to your bones.”

The rough-and-tumble sport of rodeo, born in the Old West, is indeed in Treadway’s blood. As CEO of Live Action Rodeo, he directs the Madison County Championship Rodeo, the direct descendent of an event his father and grandfather started with the Madison County Fire Department 57 summers ago. Back then, the rodeo was largely a July Fourth-only affair and took place on Marshall’s Blannahassett Island. Today, it’s staged at the Madison County Fairgrounds and draws hundreds of participants and spectators every other Saturday night from April to October. 

Jack Sorokin, a Marshall-based documentary photographer, has frequented the rodeo for the past five years, conducting the most in-depth project of his career. “I’ve always been interested in photographing rites of passage and masculinity as a subject matter and cultural phenomenon,” he says. “This immediately felt like a really potent microcosm for that.”

As a New York native new to the South, Sorokin approached the rodeo with a true outsider’s eye and an open mind. He’s come to learn that the rodeo functions, yes, as competition and entertainment, but that its real essence is community and mentorship. “It’s a place where you can see kids growing up really fast,” Sorokin says, “and they do it because there are all these older role models around to show them what to do.”

For Treadway, the rodeo is predominantly a place for sharing history, skills, and thrills. “It’s more brotherhood than it is anything,” he says. “And that means a lot to me.”