Country Thunder 2011 at Canyon Moon Ranch in Florence, Arizona
Sunday, April 10
If Woodstock '94 holds the title for "Muddiest Music Festival, Like, Ever," then Country Thunder 2011 out in Florence over the weekend has to go down as a solid runner up. Although the country fans in attendance didn't go all Gen X and start apocalyptic mud fights like the restless youth Woodstock '94, a rare Arizona deluge on Friday night and most of Saturday left the Canyon Moon Ranch sloppy and soggy until the perfect Sunday sunshine dried things out for the closing night's headliner, Toby Keith.
It is fitting that Keith, the self proclaimed "Big Dog Daddy" of country music, is a shill for Ford Trucks, because a big ass Ford 4x4 would have been pretty handy for navigating the soaked grounds over the weekend. (We didn't send a photographer, but local radio station KMLE got some good shoots.)
I am sure that if the video that played on the huge dual jumbotrons bookending featuring Keith driving around in a jacked-up Ford truck didn't make Country Thunder goers want to plunk down for new ride, the bumpy, muddy road into the ranch in a subcompact would do it. Ever the compadre to his sponsors, Keith even had a massive Ford truck onstage, and as the band kicked into the first song, "Bullets in the Gun," the singer emerged from a hidden supine position in the bed of the sweet ride and sat on the tailgate while crooning the tune like he was just a regular dude down by some lake picnic with his truck and a guitar.
Keith's show hasn't varied much in the past few years (the Ford videos and the truck onstage are nothing new), but he always delivers a solid set with a smattering of his 28 No. 1 country hits, with the rest of the show fleshed out with a plethora of Top Tens. As arguably the biggest country star of the past decade, Keith's shows are a veritable greatest hits collection, and as a prolific songwriter who puts out an album roughly ever year or two, the hits just keep on coming in time for his yearly tours.
On Sunday night Keith and his crack band rolled through such hits as the anthemic fist pumpers "American Ride," "Get Drunk and Be Somebody" and his perennial set closer "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," country rockers "Whiskey Girl" and "God Love Her" as well as his best honky tonker, "I Love This Bar." Not one to miss an opportunity for a plug, Keith reminded the crowd of his local business enterprise, Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill, where the singer has been known to perform impromptu sets while in town.
"Y'all ever get over to Mesa I've got a good bar over there," he said. "Good whiskey, good whiskey girls and fried bologna sandwiches. That's a good breakfast right there."
Texan Clay Walker, who revived his somewhat ebbing career with the recent Top 10 country hit "She Won't Be Lonely Long," played in the slot before Keith and delivered a solid, loose set of his best work including the hits "Live, Laugh, Love," "Then What" and his 1994 Alan Jackson penned No. 1 smash "If I Could Make a Living." Clearly buoyed by the enthusiastic crowd, Walker let his band, and particularly his guitarist Landon Turner, cut loose on "Little Wing," which Walker introduced beforehand by saying he was a huge Stevie Ray Vaughan fan while growing up in Texas. That the tune was written and performed originally by Jimi Hendrix was probably just an oversight in Walker's making the Texas connection.
Last Night: Toby Keith at Country Thunder
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Personal Bias: I'm more of a traditional Merle Haggard/George Jones country fan and who believes that contemporary country is more like a bad potpourri of 80s power ballads than strum and twang country, but I dig Toby Keith. He writes his own stuff and he could give a rat's ass about what anybody thinks about him, and both traits are a rarity in today's turgid Nashville atmosphere.
The Crowd: Come on, this is Country Thunder, you know what to expect! I did see a dude with a spiked Mohawk singing "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" to a puzzled gathering in the karaoke tent, but otherwise, yeah, it was what you'd expect: boots and Daisy Dukes and cowboy hats on people of all ages.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Ew, what the fuck is that?" a woman pointed as a silver dollar sized rodent scurried under her companion's beach chair. I didn't know rodents came in mini-me size, but they do. At least out in Florence anyway. That little bastard was the smallest thing I've ever seen darting around on four legs
Random Notebook Dump: There are really only two events you'll see this many shitfaced rednecks gathered in one place: Country Thunder and the Daytona 500.