The annual Country Thunder festival at the dusty Canyon Moon Ranch just outside of Florence is country music's version of a cattle drive, where over four days some of the bigger names in country music are herded on stage to bleat their biggest hits, then lassoed off to make way for the next artist. Country fans get a lot of bang for their buck, beer flows like the Colorado River, and despite their reputation as a boozin' and brawlin' fanbase, country fans are all about the "let's get drunk and hug" vibes, and in four years of covering the festival I've seen nary a punch thrown.
Not that the Country Thunder fest doesn't draw out your cartoonish redneck stereotypes -- part of the fun of being at the event is getting some fashion tips, such as for women, Daisy Duke cutoffs and cowboy boots, and for the guys, overalls with no shirt -- but for the most part country fans come in all shapes, sizes and economic backgrounds, as evidenced by the Corvette Z-1 I saw parked in between two trucks in the alfalfa field that doubles as a parking lot.
After least year's somewhat lame line-up, where ex-Creedence Clearwater Revival singer/songwriter John Fogerty, who has never claimed to be a country artist, was the biggest name on the bill, the folks at Country Thunder got some A-list headliners this year, perhaps knowing that in these tough economic times trotting out a name such as last year's headliner, pop country duo Sugarland -- who sound about as country as Mary J. Blige does -- would mean certain box office death.
The last three nights of Country Thunder 2009 featured neo-Southern Rock duo Montgomery Gentry, arguably country music's biggest current male star in Tim McGraw, and Alan Jackson, a bonafide living legend. (Clock here for video of local country singer Jim Bachmann covering Jackson's "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow").
The crowd on Saturday afternoon looked pretty sparse, but by the time Jackson made his way to the stage at 9 p.m. there looked to be about 20,000 strong gathered around and Jackson, as he always does, delivered the goods.
Unlike reigning ACM and CMA "Entertainer of the Year" Kenny Chesney, who has been known to wear swim trunks and puka beads on stage and jumps around like a shorter, balder Mick Jagger, Jackson keeps things simple, telling the masses on Saturday that "we're real laid back up here -- we're just gonna sing and pick and play some of our country music from the last 20 years."
It is a testament to Jackson's power as an artist that he can let his catalog, which includes more than 25 No. 1, mostly self-penned hits, be the show, as Jackson stands stock still in front of the mic, plays acoustic guitar and sings his songs. But what songs they are, drifting from tender ballads to honky tonk rave-ups to blistering, bluegrass tinged hillbilly music, earning Jackson respect fin equal measure from the Nashville establishment and the alt-country cognescenti.
Jackson usually opens his shows with "Gone Country," a tongue-in-cheek tune poking fun at folks jumping on the country music bandwagon, but Saturday Jackson offered the tune as a teaser into the title track from his stellar 2008 disc "Good Time." Wheras plenty of artists who've been around 20 years or longer have to rely on their classics to get a crowd moving while begging the audience for patience on the new stuff (which somewhat occurred at the Springsteen concert I attended on Friday), Jackson is still remarkably in the prime of his career at 50, with all three singles released from "Good Time" (the title track, "Small Town Southern Man" and "Country Boy") hitting No.1.
Jackson played all three of those tunes on Saturday and mixed in a good smattering of his other hits, such as "Livin' On Love," "Who's Cheatin' Who," the scorching, humorous "I Don't Even Know Your Name," "Like Red On a Rose," "A Woman's Love, his 1992 signature tune "Chattahoochie," as well as his hit cover of George Jones' (to whom Jackson is often compared) "Tall Tall Trees."
So the dust has settled on another Country Thunder in Florence, and hopefully the 2010 line-up will be as impressive at 2009s. Just please, whatever you do, Country Thunder brass, keep it country with the likes of Alan Jackson and leave the Sugarlands and the Rascal Flatts' to the soccer moms.
Last Night: Alan Jackson at Country Thunder
Better Than: Every other act at the four-day festival.
Personal Bias: I unabashedly love country music and I unapologetically loathe contemporary country-pop. Alan Jackson, along with George Strait, are the only two country artists I would deign to mention in the same breath with Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.
Further Listening: Most of Jackson' albums are top notch, but for starters, pick up his two greatest hits collections.
By The Way: I ran into my friend James Parks, whose newly formed Larson Parks Band (with newly ex Roger Clyne and The Peacemakers guitarist Steve Larson) played all four days on the second stage at Country Thunder. James said that in addition to playing the stage, he and Larson threw a generator, amps and a P.A. into the bed of James' truck and headed out to the campground to entertain the partiers out there. Watch out for Larson Parks Band.
One More Thing: In addition to being a pretty good country singer, Blake Shelton, who had the spot on the main stage before Alan Jackson played, is a pretty funny guy. He sat on a stool and asked for quiet, saying he was going to play a song that meant a lot to him and that "from the first time I heard it, I knew it was written for me to sing," then played the freecreditreport.com jingle. You know, the one with the dudes in pirate costumes "selling fish to tourists in t-shirts."