I've already extolled Laura Walsh's virtues already, but I have to reemphasize her talents once more. It's a shame that she's still not Phoenix-based, as her vocal range alone could place her in a number of genres. She subscribes to the pop country label, which may deter some hardcore country enthusiasts, but she's operating in her own lane just fine. She has those frontwoman qualities that appeal to fans all across the board, working the stage from end to end, dancing to and fro, engaging the audience all the while. I'd be curious to see how her show translates to a small-capacity venue -- I'd expect her to blow the roof off the place.
Drew Cooper ran around like a chicken with his head cut off all weekend. He was the only act to play on the main stage, Denim & Diamonds stage and the Jack Daniel's Courtyard stage during the course of the festival, yet his presence never belied such insanity. Whether he was delivering his originals or a husky-voiced cover of something like A Thousand Horses' "Smoke," Cooper played hard and well. His band, The Cavalry, should be commended for their tight performance as well. There's a palpable chemistry there between both frontman and band that works just as well in a honky-tonk setting as it does in from of a crowd of drunk college kids.
Matt Farris, despite his occasional slightly overproduced recording, did Flagstaff proud. I'm always keen on someone whose aesthetic hallmark is a black felt Stetson, and Farris, being the northern Arizona country boy that he is, wears it with pride. Farris, of all the local Country Thunder acts, seems to embody the red dirt road ideal a little more than his peers. There's a snarling rock undercurrent to his songs that's coupled with '90s crossover country crescendos. Sure, it's a formula that's been done before, but it's tried and true and works well for Farris, offering a palette that he can definitely expand on in the future.
Benson Band, however, sure seemed to make their affinity to Blake Shelton known. Maybe it's Jordan Benson's overwrought howling, or maybe it was two Blake-centric covers ("Boys 'Round Here" and Kenny Loggins' "Footloose," both of which are staples in Shelton's set), but there's something a little contrived about so blatantly piggybacking a main stage artist's music the day after he played it. Benson Band is energetic, no doubt, but even that couldn't really save their set for me. Due to some scheduling conflict, they were also swapped out with Cooper on Sunday, but there's promise here of a band that can use its cohesiveness to crank out some real solid country cuts -- they just need to sound like themselves first.
Ryan Bexley, bandana and all, is a little more outlaw than his contemporaries. Now a Country Thunder veteran, this being his second year playing the festival, Bexley could also soon see a move to the main stage much like Drew Cooper did this year. He's got quite the local following and is a common name in the young Arizona country scene, doing the Whiskey Row and Denim & Diamonds circuit. While he's just released a new EP that leans toward anthemic country ballads, tinged with the requisite banjo and pedal steel, his songs gather a bit more of an edge in a live setting. The guy has crossover appeal for sure, but he might just need a little more country grit in his recordings to make the jump from local boy to national name.