A bastion of the country music community and a bucket-list festival slot for its artists, Country Thunder in Florence is the crown jewel in a state that’s about as south as the Southwest gets. This year saw Kip Moore, Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen, and Eric Church in headlining slots, along with all the debauchery that comes with four days in the Arizona desert, swilling warm beer and making bad decisions.
A common goal unites all, and for some that may be getting really drunk and sunburnt in the middle of a field. Country Thunder always seems to bring out the best in people, more often than not through kind gestures. Yes, this is a staple of any music festival, but it’s a little more apparent at Country Thunder than other festivals I’ve attended. Burly dudes shielded female friends of mine in the VIP pit, random people just hand out beer as you walk through the campsites, and I watched a group help push a truck out of the mud on the last slippery day we were there. If you’re lost, confused, or questioning, just ask anyone and they’ll do their best to help, even if that’s giving you a pull from their flask.
Randy Houser/A Thousand Horses/The Cadillac Three:
It’s not fair to lump these guys all into one, but each act was a pleasant surprise. The swaggering, swampy blues-country of The Cadillac Three was impossibly heavy, with steel guitarist Kelby Ray stealing the show with his approach to such a classic instrument coming to the forefront of a unique trio arrangement. A Thousand Horses felt like the rock ’n’ roll revivalist act of the festival with a rousing cover of The Black Crowes’ “Hard To Handle” and the original, towering “Sunday Morning” as set standouts. Randy Houser, a guy I typically champion for his love of Tucson, had the most hair-raising moment of the weekend with an acoustic rendition of “Like A Cowboy,” proving that he’s got some of the best male vocal chops in the business. That guy can move some air, with crazy range and projection, calling to mind Craig Morgan’s otherworldly performance of “Wake Up Lovin’ You” at Country Thunder in 2014.
The Courtyard Stage:
Remember those Arizona acts that got to shine on the main stage last year? They were relegated to the Jack Daniel’s Courtyard stage this year, which sits close to the east exit of the festival grounds. This gave some acts the advantage, like Phoenix’s Jared & The Mill, who played just after Florida Georgia Line on Friday night. Having just come off a lengthy national run and recording jaunt, the Tempe mainstays brought new material out in their set that shows just how far these guys have come. Alongside big vocal harmonies and Michael Carter’s expert banjo and mandolin work, both bread and butter to Jared & The Mill’s sound, new cuts show guitarist Larry Gast III’s restrained phrasing and fast runs that complement vocalist Jared Kolesar’s maturing writing.
Tucson’s own Drew Cooper, an artist who had one of those main stage slots in 2015, packed the Courtyard on Sunday evening. This is a guy who has a dedicated following and whose average fan is the archetypical Country Thunder attendee, and his set showed it. With a new band and an upcoming record, Cooper looks revitalized onstage with presence abounding. His sound lends well to current country trends, so it should come as no surprise to anyone if his next album is the one to finally break him out. Arizona country may not have shown the way it has in years past at CT 2016, but when it did break through, it was a beautiful thing.
Yes, there’s corporate sponsorship banners plastered everywhere at CT, but one of the coolest parts of the festival is a little more understated. Project Shelter, an organization that provides camping kits for music festivals, allows Country Thunder Arizona attendees to leave behind or donate any unwanted camping gear to the homeless. It’s a brilliant, simple premise in which everyone wins. Drew Cooper himself is an advocate for Paper Clouds Apparel, a clothing company that showcases the artistic talents of special-needs kids on high-quality shirts and gives back 50 percent of its proceeds to the special-needs organization/school that the artist is associated with. Though philanthropic values aren’t marketed the same way your next truck or motorcycle might be at CT, this is definitely a crowd that would, and does, give back in spades.
It was hard to makes heads or tails of headlining acts this year. There wasn’t a single female headliner to be found, a sour-tasting trend at CT that’s been in place since Miranda Lambert’s appearance in 2014. One would hope that we’ll see Carrie Underwood during one of the big weekend nights next year. Some of the bands with the biggest hits of the moment sat in second-to-last or third-to-last slots, (Chase Bryant, Old Dominion, Cole Swindell) with practically no legacy acts to be found. Other years have included guys like Tracy Lawrence and Joe Diffie, but this year found hot and fresh favored over tried and true.
Jake Owen, whose Drake cover (something Dustin Lynch pulled off to great aplomb last year) and beach bar-themed stage set smacked of his college appeal, made little sense as a Saturday night headliner. That’s a slot that’s usually reserved for the big party acts, and Owen — who hasn't had a major hit in awhile — would have made sense maybe last year or the year prior, but not so much in 2016. If festival programmers were shooting for a “new country” vibe, then guys like Florida Georgia Line fit the bill entirely, but the demographic of Country Thunder still skews a bit older than most festivals.
The Web Design:
There’s a big push to integrate technology into music festivals, making it easier to see what’s happening or who’s playing, but I’ve rarely been so frustrated with a festival website as I was with Country Thunder this year. There was that insanely annoying ticket purchasing pop-up that wasn’t formatted for mobile (meaning it stretched across the phone screen whenever you were looking for anything on the CT webpage) or the fact that the on-site activities tab, of which there were plenty worth mentioning, wasn’t populated. It’s about the details, man, and a few off on the mobile platform makes it hard for the entire festival.
A double-edged sword at a festival of this size, security was out in force this year, enforcing everything and anything they could see. It’s appreciated when there’s trouble afoot, but upon talking to other press members, it seemed that there was a significant crackdown this year, making it hard for us to do our job. A relatively inactive set of guards that usually guard the stage like pit bulls managed to miss a fight that left one girl muddied and bloodied, requiring her to be pulled out by the local sheriffs on scene.
A Lack of Real Merle Tributes:
Look, I’m not asking for a round-robin of Eric Church, Jake Owen, and every dude in Old Dominion to do a Merle Haggard cover set, but I heard more heartfelt tributes to the country legend on the Courtyard stage than on the main stage. A T-shirt and a lyrical shoutout just didn’t cut it for me — the man had passed away just days before the festival and every artist that played owes something to the Okie From Muskogee.
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It brought Snapchat-able rainbows all weekend but as any CT fan knows, a storm turns the entire rodeo into a mud pit. Jacked-up trucks got stuck, people fell on the snot-slick grounds and Crazy Coyote looked like a tornado had ripped through parts of it. It’s just a little rain, though, and it’s nothing some beer can’t fix.
The Sound (sometimes):
Mixing sound in an outdoor space is a special kind of hell usually reserved for Dante’s next level, but Florida Georgia Line’s set was pushed to headache-inducing volumes, and Chris Janson had so much top end that it made his otherwise brilliant harmonica playing shrill and piercing. Maybe next year, boys.