As day two began at Hunter Mountain’s Taste of Country Music Festival, festival goers certainly didn’t allow the torrential downpour on Friday night to hinder their spirits in any way. Perhaps the other spirits on hand played a part in that. Perhaps it was just this crowd was tough and didn’t care about sissy things like a little adverse weather conditions. With a clear forecast up on the mountain for the day, this crowd was locked and loaded, okay not quite loaded yet, but they were there and the fun had begun.
Having the hindsight to write down the directions vs. relying on cell powered GPS today, I made my way to the mountainside in no time flat, with enough time to meander around and see the festival goers, vendors, food sources, and fun to be had away from the stages. As I approached the entrance, a random festival goer high five’s me and immediately I become one with the crowd again, despite my lack of tent, cowboy hat, and/or red, white, and blue attire; this girl did have her cowboy boots on though. We belong to a gang, one that loves to hoop and holler, one that doesn’t mind getting a little dirty, cold, or wet, and a group that loves their country music and those that sing to us.
As I scoped out my attack on today’s culinary cuisine, a few of the sites beckoned me with their wafting fragrances. Tough as it was to decide between loaded potatoes, barbecue, hot dogs or hamburgers, fried macaroni and cheese, potato pancakes, alcohol infused donuts (which I would love to try next time I’m not working), watermelon, and so many more choices too numerous to list here, I made my decisions. I would start off with the Asian noodles as a healthy light fare, and later follow-up with the bacon wrapped corn dog.
As the crew began to set up the stages for the day’s performances I couldn’t help feel the energy already building for the day’s stellar lineup. Up first was Jamie Lynn Spears, followed by The Cadillac Three, Charlie Worsham, Leah Turner, Craig Morgan, Randy Houser, and the headliner and one of country music’s icons, Brad Paisley would finish the night out right. Wishing the line to the chair lift wasn’t so long so I could get a panoramic view of this crowd and the goings on, I had to put off as there just wasn’t time before the first performer took the stage. As I hiked the hill to scope out the crowd, I took note that the crowd around the Ram Guts and Glory Stage was starting to fill in, which was my que to hightail it back to my spot for the shots I needed to capture.
Up first was Jamie Lynn Spears, best known as an actress on several Nickelodeon shows, and sibling to her famous sister, Brittany. The crowd seemed apprehensive to what they would be in store for, but open-minded enough to welcome her with cheers and encouragement. Jamie had been out of the lime light now for more than six years focusing on her soon to turn 6-year-old, daughter Maddie. During this time, Jamie did some soul-searching and being from the south and loving country music, she began writing with a team that included Chris Tompkins, Liz Rose, Lisa Carver and Luke Laird. With their expert guidance, she learned the art in putting your heart and soul into words that translate to messages through her songs. As she began to sing, as good of an actress she is, this definitely is her calling She has the perfect country voice, the perfect stage presence, and showed this audience what raw talent she has in this business. She definitely proved herself and laid to rest and doubts the audience may have. As she sang songs from her current list of music and covers she won over the audience. However it if they didn’t love her yet, when she brought out her daughter to have the audience help her sing “Happy Birthday” to her, she won them over then. Look forward to seeing more from this artist in country music as she grows with this country music family too.
As Jamie left the stage, next on the days lineup was a band called The Cadillac Three. As they took the stage, this trio of musicians stole my heart and rocked my world. You couldn’t help relating to these guys as you felt like you were in the presence of Wayne and Garth from the movie Wayne’s World, which I’m sure they get all the time. However, once past the initial doppelgänger recognition factor, Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason and Kelby Ray got your attention in a whole new way. The energy they had during their set was off the charts. As they performed all I kept thinking was they were a party on stage. Their hillbilly rocking, southern rock style was reminiscent of ZZ Top meets Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Molly Hatchet meets Charlie Daniels, meets .38 Special. This wasn’t country music, this was rock and roll folks. Their performances incited the audience and made for some of the most fun I had to date this weekend. As a photographer first and foremost, I just love bands that move around the stage. Things that always make for great photos were everything they offered in their show; long crazy rock and roll hair to whip around, a drummer that stood up and above his set really getting into the beat, and reflective glasses to show off the insanity their music was inciting. If you haven’t taken a look at these guys yet, please do. You may have heard Keith Urban’s #1 single “You Gonna Fly”, which was co-written by Johnston, but it’s only the tip of their talent as their music that is worth a listen to. Numbers such as “Tennessee Mojo”, “Back It Up”, and “The South” substantiate their stronghold they will wreck on the country music world. Mark my words on this one.
Next on the bill was newcomer Charlie Worsham. Relatively new to this audience but definitely not new to the business, this talented young man has years and years under his belt of music experience. He began playing piano in kindergarten, and then after seeing bluegrass banjo player, Mike Snider, at Opryland began learning the banjo. Years later he would join him onstage at the Opry accompanying him on his own banjo. This multi talent young man didn’t quit at the piano and banjo, each year he would learn another new instrument. This versatile young man found himself at Berkeley College of Music, where he fine tuned his craft in instruments and writing and since has toured and collaborated with such stars as Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift. On his newly released album Rubberband you will hear further collaborations with country music greats, Vince Gill and Marty Stewart, who join him in “Tools of the Trade”. This young man was a total crowd pleaser from the moment the audience saw him. Out of the norm for most musicians, he came out to the audience prior to his set to meet fans and sign autographs. You see this after the fact at times, however beforehand is generally not the norm. Signing and talking with them for a good long time, he eventually had to stop as his band beckoned him back to the stage to start the set. Already developing a relationship with this audience, this continued as he totally countryfied this crowd with his amazing banjo and mandolin playing tunes. As if they couldn’t love him more, he decided today was the crowd and day for his first ever “body surfing”. This totally rocked as he was passed from front to back to the soundboard and high fives everyone the entire time. During his set he pulled up a young lady from the front and serenaded “Happy Birthday” to her as she blushed and gushed over him. Yes, Charlie Worsham was a crowd favorite.
As Leah Turner took the stage, her raspy country voice was a nice example of female representation in the male dominated country music business today. Leah originating from California was by no means a surfer type, in fact she was representing the California cowboy/cowgirl clans. One area of country music often forgotten about as Bakersfield, CA, which has given us some of country’s greatest artists, such as Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakum, Marty Stewart, Creedance Clearwater Revival, and Merle Haggard to name a few. About an hour outside of LA, Leah was raised on a farm in Morongo Valley with horses, goats, and chickens. This young lady had been around cowboys her entire life as her father has been on the rodeo circuit for years. So country music was in her soul. After working in LA with well-known producers, David Foster and Humberto Gatica, she realized her heart was in country music, and shortly thereafter bought her one way ticket to Nashville to realize her dreams. The one thing you noticed about this country gal was she was no sissy. She had a strong presence, strong voice, and I’ll kick it country attitude. As she sang some of her new tunes like “Take The Keys” and “Bless My Heart” from her EP Leah Turner, she showed us she had followed her true path. Show casing her strong voice even further were her covers of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” which pumped up the female crowd attendees, and her cover of John Fogerty’s tune “Proud Mary” which truly accentuated her strong vocal skills and stage presence.
Next up was Craig Morgan. As I looked around the audience, his popularity was apparent. It was a blanket of people everywhere. Opening the set with his hit “International Harvester”, he immediately got the attention of the crowd and from that point on sang hit after hit. Numbers such as “A Little Bit of Life”, “Wake Up Loving You”, and of course his hits “Redneck Yacht Club” & “That’s What I Love About Sunday”. This down home family man has found success just being himself. With a resume that is as diverse as it gets, it demonstrates one thing about Craig, that he is a people person that cares about making life better for others no matter what the job. Beginning as an EMT, he then spent ten years in the military, went on to being a contractor, sheriff’s deputy, and even worked at Wal-Mart. The one thing though that tied all these jobs together? No matter what he was doing or where he was going, music was his passion and played a part in every aspect of what he did. This dedication continues into his personal life as he is an avid outdoorsman, husband, and father to four children. He continues with his dedication to community and causes such as those serving in the military. He has had an extensive singing career for years, and the one thing he continues to do is grow with his music. He’s at a point in his career now that allows him the ability to feel confident enough to uncover raw emotions in his songwriting that reflects a piece of him in each song. Songs such as “If Not Me” and “We’ll come Back Around” signifies the depths he went to, to address ideals and experiences in life he drew from. His success and longevity however come from his ability to mix it up and covers such as Justin Timberlake’s “Drink You Away” and Foreigner’s “I’ve Been Waiting” were perfect examples of Craig being Craig. His set flew by, and the sea of people gathered cheering confirmed his popularity at this years Taste of Country Music Festival.
If any artist was to receive an award for their performance at the show this year, hands down it would be Randy Houser. As Randy took the stage, unbeknownst to anyone in the audience, he and keyboardist, John Henry Trinko, literally just arrived. Somewhere out in Pennsylvania was the rest of the band, the gear, and a broken down bus. Not quite sure how the crowd would react, he began his acoustic set. As he shared with the audience how he is a songwriter first and foremost, he began his set. Best known for his “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” song recorded by Trace Adkins, Randy’s portfolio of work is much more serious as he writes mainly about life experiences. As he played song by song, no one noticed there wasn’t a band behind him. Between him and John Henry, they had it covered. Randy told the audience how it felt as though we were all sitting in his living room or on his porch, sharing a beer, and listening to music together. And that is how it felt. This acoustic set was amazing. His voice was all the crowd needed. It wasn’t the pomp and circumstance they loved about Randy, it was his voice, his message, his music. As he sang “Started With A Goodnight Kiss” and “Running Out of Moonlight”, the audience loved him more and more. However they really were on his front porch as they joined in on his cover of Garth Brook’s “Friends In Low Places”. He didn’t need all the special effects. A keyboard, a guitar, and his voice was all that necessary to bring the show.
As Randy left the stage, Dee Jay Silver pumped up the crowd with his mixes of country tunes keeping this complete wall to wall crowd at bay during set change. Pure genius as this crowd was completely pumped up and ready for the highlight of the evening, Brad Paisley.
As Brad Paisley took the stage, the most spectacular light show ensued along with a full lineup on stage, and full set list of hits to share. Brad best known for his numerous number one albums and hits, and charming sense of humor brought that along with an extensive catalog of music to choose from. Even though he was promoting his new album, Moonshine In The Trunk, with today’s current hit “River Bank”, he shared out of the treasure chest of other albums with numbers such as “This is Country Music”, “Online”, “Ticks”, “Mud on the Tires”, and “American Saturday Night”. Through the modern miracle of technology, Brad was able to perform his duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me”, as her image was projected in a hologram right there on stage. He was awarded the best line for the night as he told the crowd “…this is the most fun you’ll never remember you had…” Brad always has come across as a decent human being, and this was solidified as I saw him sign and hand a guitar he had just finished playing to a small boy right in the front of the stage. Who does that right in the middle of their act? Brad Paisley does. Truly a superstar and all around decent guy.
As the night came to a close up to the top of the mountain the spectacular light show finished out the night as the fireworks display went off. Yep, Day Two lived up and beyond Day One. Surely Day Three, would be anti-climatic. Or would it?