As cowboys go, Clint Madison is the real thing, a rambler with "itchy feet" who prides himself on enduring the hardships of life on the road. He'll work through pain and broken bones. He likes horses better than people.

It's not just the hat, starched jeans and boots with spurs that make Madison, 25, look the part. When he whips a bull into its pen, his every muscle is tensed, his eyes sparkling. Resting, he chews tobacco, spits between sentences and employs a huge pocketknife first to pick the dirt off a boot heel, then to groom his fingernails.

The Tennessee man, who makes his living in the sport, came to Southern Maryland for a rodeo this weekend at St. Mary's Fairground, a fund-raiser for the Leonardtown Rotary Club. But he values solid ranch work more than rodeo stunts.

"It takes a lot to get my respect," Madison said. "I don't care how good you are at roping or riding bucking horses. As far as working on a ranch and knowing how to handle horses or tell if a calf is healthy, there's few of 'em left who can do that."

Madison said he feels lucky to be working in a flourishing business: Rodeo has reached new heights of popularity. But the more mainstream the sport becomes, the less it represents the cowboy ideals Madison can feel coursing through his veins.

Most of the estimated 8,000 people who attended the Leonardtown rodeo had never seen one before. They came not so much to admire the skill of the calf ropers or the bareback riders as to entertain their young children on a warm summer night. The crowd roared as loudly for a clown's mother-in-law jokes as for the few bull riders who survived the requisite eight seconds on a bucking Brahma before landing in the dirt.

The day before the rodeo opened, Madison found himself making a promotional appearance at a nearby medical center. He stood with an awkward grin, holding the reins to a horse. On top of the horse, a Mexican trick roper whirled his lasso for a handful of children munching free popcorn. The modern, "inauthentic" country music Madison hates blared from a van owned by a local country station, one of the rodeo's sponsors.

Hardly life on the open range, but it's helping to preserve the world he loves. Indeed, the future of the rodeo may rest with Madison's wife, Vanessa Madison, 23, and the marketing degree she received at the University of Tennessee. Vanessa competes in cowgirl events but frets less about calf-roping than about her skills using computer graphics to design posters and booklets for the family business.

Each year, Lone Star Rodeo produces 27 rodeos in 11 states, mostly in the Southeast. Vanessa's father and the company's owner, Preston C. Fowlkes, of Tennessee--or "Big Daddy," as his 22 employees call him--expected to distribute $20,000 in prizes among the 300 competitors this weekend. The Rotary will make $20,000 to $30,000 for scholarships and grants, Fowlkes estimated. What's left over from ticket sales and sponsorships goes to Lone Star, about $10,000 to $20,000 a weekend.

The cowboys and cowgirls, most of whom devote themselves to the sport and spend virtually all of their free time riding, are crucial to the show Fowlkes puts on. But so are frills such as stagecoach rides, autograph signings by Miss American Rodeo and $5 Polaroids of children perched on a tame bull.

Rodeo appears to be gaining in popularity, fueled in part by rodeo shows on cable television channels such as TNN and ESPN-2, in part by the continuing popularity of all things country.

This year, the nation's biggest rodeos have attracted record crowds of more than 100,000 a day. Rodeo associations are growing, while more events are being held outside traditional rodeo territory. One area rodeo enthusiast estimated that eight rodeos will be held in Maryland this year, compared with five last year.

America's love affair with the cowboy has fueled rodeo's success, said Jim Hoy, a folklorist at Emporia State University in Kansas. The cowboy may be a rough-and-tumble kind of guy, but he's on the side of good, not evil. "We always think the age has gone to hell, and there's an element of nostalgia to rodeo," Hoy said. "It's trying to capture a time when things were better, when men had nobility and manners and said, 'Yes, ma'am,' 'No, ma'am.' "

Yet neither Madison nor any of the other cowboys who risked their lives to ride a bucking rodeo animal was the hero in Leonardtown this weekend.

Fact is, a lot of children said "Texas" Bill Thorpe, the clown who cracked jokes over a microphone right through most of the rodeo events, was the best part of the show.

CAPTION: Preston C. Fowlkes, above right, watches the bull rider he just released. Fowlkes's company, Lone Star Rodeo, produces 27 rodeos in 11 states each year.

CAPTION: Preston Fowlkes III will likely carry on the family tradition by taking over his family's rodeo business in a few years.

CAPTION: Preston C. Fowlkes, left, Preston Fowlkes III, Karen Fowlkes, Rachel Fowlkes, Clint Madison and Vanessa Madison after the rodeo.