I've spent the last year telling everyone who'll listen that Country Thunder is the premier music festival in Arizona. Whether you like country music or not, you should recognize that compared with any other festival in the state Country Thunder's acts are bigger, the crowd crazier, the part wilder. So it was that I made every effort to make the pilgrimage out to Canyon Moon Ranch in Florence Thursday afternoon. Sadly, since I'm reviewing Bruce Springsteen, Calexico, and Lou Reed this weekend, and editing reviews on Fall Out Boy, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and Leonard Cohen, it's the only time I could spare. After a few hours in Florence, I wasn't quite as bummed to be missing it this year.
Now, some qualifications: First, I was only there for a few hours, in the middle of a workday. Second, media doesn't have access to the V.I.P. area this year, which, I have to admit, changes the game considerably. It's my job to be objective about the music and scene, of course, but, truthfully, it's pretty hard to compare the vibe in an air-conditioned hut with a hoppin' house band, free food and $1.50 beers to sitting out in a hot, dusty field where wind whips through every few minutes, swirling gritty clouds that'd have John Wayne headed to his trailer, and coat the $4 cans of Bud with a fine yellow film. If you want to discount everything else I say here, at least take my word that V.I.P tickets to Country Thunder are worth the expense, no matter what the markup.
With all that said: To me, it seemed like Country Thunder 2009 has been hit hard by the recession. The crowd seemed pretty sparse, many of the oddball promotional tents, which are half the fun (check out this video I did for The East Valley Tribune last year to see me trying free 'chaw) were missing and a lot of the good ol' boys, which make the scene out there fun, have been replaced by board short wearing Kenny Chesney types. I never thought I'd say this, but I kinda miss the Bush administration, when Rednecks were running the world and all was well at Country Thunder.
The Thunder still has a great bill, and we've got Chris Hansen Orf and Benjamin Leatherman on the ground today, putting together a slide show and a review of Alan Jackson's set. (For two local boys doing a cover of an Alan Jackson song as part of out new Sun Sessions project, click here). This year, though, the in-between set music was a little lacking out in the field. Last year, there was never a moment where someone wasn't playing somewhere -- like Nashville! This year my friend Jeanne and I encountered lots of dead air.
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And, sure, there were lots of scantily clad girls -- Jeanne counted 12 Confederate flag bikini tops -- but I missed the real good ol' boy atmosphere. I saw a couple pairs of too-tight Wranglers, and a lot of hats and boots, but other than a smattering of anti-Obama hats and shirts, the redneck pride of years past seemed dimmed. Damn those failed Bush policies and the toll they've taken on Blue Collar America! There was no where to get free smokes, no where to play shuffleboard while hearing about the virtues of "smokeless tobacco" and way too many dudes like this guy in pink underwear and too few dudes like this guy in a shirt that says "Uncle Sam Wants You... To Speak English."
Shoot, fellas, if you can't bust out some Levi's and a vintage Big Johnson shirt for Country Thunder, when can you?