1. The golf cart taxi service is worth its weight in gold For those who weren't in Crazy Coyote, Roadrunner or Premier, you had a hell of a long walk from your campsite to the concert grounds. Felt like grabbing a water bottle from your trailer? Forgot your American flag-printed aviators? Longed for the sweet, sweet release of a shotgunned Bud Light? Take a hike, pal. From the main stage to Outback alone took close to a half-hour on foot, so the welcome sight of a mustachioed granola crunching dude (why they were almost solely manning the taxi is beyond me) in an open-topped golf cart was akin to a desert oasis, just with more hair. For a scant three dollars, gratuity extra, you could be ferried to and from the main grounds to your home base, waving at the plodding peasants all the way. There seemed to be more of them this year than ever, nary without a passenger or three proffering their services.
2. Dustin Lynch will be a main stage headliner on the inside of three years Whatever your take on pop-country may be, you couldn't deny Lynch's inimitable charm on Saturday night, just before Luke Bryan. The dude has the three things every massive current country star needs: a guitar in their hands at all times, an easily excitable and present fan base of the opposite sex, and a willingness to bend the rules to fit their will. Lynch has firm hold of all three, and brought the whole thing to a crescendo with a wild cover of Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home" that segued into Garth Brooks' "Rodeo." Never in my wildest years would I have assumed such a song to be possible, but Lynch pulled it off with grace and aplomb, as he did his own material. His hits aside, his songs as a whole have a sound that's just a little left of field from current radio offerings, much in the way that Eric Church's music felt here at Country Thunder just a few years ago. Here's to hoping Lynch embraces his own "The Outsiders" moment here soon and makes the switch from opening for the festival headliner to being the damn thing himself.
3. If you can't take the dust, prepare for misery There were a record-setting 27,500 people in attendance at Country Thunder this year, making it the festival's biggest Arizona showing to date, and every single person kicked up some dust in the process. Despite logistic efforts to keep the particulate level down, Country Thunder may as well have been held in Shanghai at rush hour for all my lungs knew. Yes, yes, there's little that can be done to prevent such a thing, I know, but of the four years I've attended, this was my first with an anaphylactic reaction to accompany my fried food and warm suds.
4. Country folk are the most helpful around Whether you need a beer, a light, an extra set of hands setting up your tent or just someone to belt out some Travis Tritt with, there never seems to be such an air of camaraderie at other festivals as there is at Country Thunder. While some whole campgrounds can feel like they're just at the brink of a fever pitch of times, what with the boardshort-wearing bros, true rednecks and contingency of F-250s bubbling together, the same people have no problem being your new best friends, if only for the weekend.
5. Country Thunder is a young person's game You can bring your family, you can educate your child on Joe Diffie's finer cuts and you can worry about whether or not the kids have enough sunblock on or not, but do you really want to? This is Country Thunder, after all, and just a look at the lineup and sponsors alone are proof enough that the festival is by and large swaying more toward those millennials who would rather be caught in hunter orange and camo than in the latest Rag & Bone collection. Whether it's down-and-dirty debauchery or just catching your latest radio favorites live, this is the place to do it all. Leave the rugrats and responsibilities at home. That's what in-laws are for.
6. Hired security/personnel still seem to have no idea where the hell they are This has been on the top of my shit list for the past four years running, and I can definitely call it a common thread now: Maybe it's the remote location, the heat or the aforementioned dust, but from sheriffs to security to catering staff, no one can seem to guide you in a direction you need to go. Two overzealous deputies managed to get us to loop the entire festival, campgrounds and all, before we were correctly guided to our campsite a full 30 minutes later. A bit more training would go a long, long way.
7. Love & Theft are more than just their radio singles Much like their previous night's two-piece counterpart Big & Rich, and about 10 years their professional junior, Love & Theft proved to be every bit the duo they say they are. Instrumental and vocal interplay is their calling card, and they played as if they had something to prove. With a bit of their classic rock roots showing through from time to time, Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson were a great midday treat.
8. Why is Laura Walsh not a bigger name? Yeah, she's now a Nashville-by-way-of-Phoenix country musician, as they all must become, but hearing a roaring cover of Grace Potter's "Ooh La La" coming from the Jack Daniels Courtyard on Saturday night captured my full and unbridled attention. Walsh, a solid songwriter in her own right, has a set of pipes on her that fit right in with her stage persona. It was nice seeing a side stage artist make a show there feel like it was on the main stage, and capturing passerby in the process.
9. Luke Bryan: little flash, lot of class Thundering, man. That's the quickest way to describe how Bryan takes the stage, guns blazing, cap backward and vocals ready to melt some hearts. Coming on five minutes before his scheduled set time, Bryan came storming out with a handful of singles, from "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" to "Roller Coaster" to "Crash My Party" within the first 20 minutes of being onstage. There was little banter, and Bryan just let the hits roll. There's a reason why this dude is so loved, and he sure knows how to deliver a no-frills set.
10. I have cell phone coverage everywhere...? Event organizers must have trucked in a portable cell tower because for the first time in my years going to Country Thunder, I had 4G coverage of no less than four bars everywhere I went on the festival grounds. Gone are the days of feeling like an Amazonian native let loose in New York City without communication and away from the tribe. Kudos to you, Country Thunder, for letting patrons finally stay in touch. That alone is worth a hike in ticket prices.
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