So here we were, the final day of the Taste of Country Music Festival and what a spectacular day it was with sunny skies, warmer temperatures, and no sign of rain in the forecast. Perfect weather to end a perfect weekend. As I checked out of my hotel in East Durham, The Shamrock Inn. It had the amenities I needed, shower, bed, and electricity to charge up my camera, computer, and phone, but it had one thing I needed most of all, a bar directly across the street with more live music and a kitchen open till 2am. Yep, this girl didn’t mind the half hour travel through the windy mountainside, which I must add was spectacular. As I spoke with the campers throughout the weekend, they absolutely loved being there at Hunter Mountain.
The energy at the mountain seemed to be a little more passive this morning as I made my way through the vendors to select my breakfast of choice. It very well could be as the attendees were beginning to slow down from their two-day drinking binge, perhaps it was the sullenness they were beginning to feel with the approaching end to the festival, or perhaps they just weren’t awake enough yet. Whatever it was, it certainly was easier to maneuver through the crowd this morning to get this creation I had heard of the previous day at my favorite corn dog vendor. This creation was the best of all breakfast foods wrapped into one scrumptious delicacy. It was a breakfast sausage on a stick with a donut drizzled with syrup and covered with bacon bits. Yep, these carney chefs were geniuses when it came to hangover foods for these people, and myself who just appreciates anything with bacon.
As I made my way to the Ram Guts and Glory stage, the jealous stares at my purchase were evident as I pointed back towards my new vendor friend. With another stellar lineup in store I was really looking forward to the day’s shows. First up was Jessica Lynn, followed by Chase Rice, Tyler Farr, Thomas Rhett, Thompson Square, and ending this amazing weekend as no other could, Hank Williams Jr., aka Bocephus.
As Jessica Lynn took the stage, the crowd was sparse but, beginning to fill in, as this beautiful young lady with a full band behind her eased them into the day with some amazing music. Her sound was the perfect blend of classic country and modern country with hints of pop. With the accompaniment of the pedal steel guitar (played by her father), a fiddle, two guitars, bass, percussion, and even backup singers (one being her mother), her style was country classic, and her talent as a songwriter was apparent. She sang songs she penned about girls in the music business, “Taking Over”, and about insecurities girls often feel about themselves in numbers such as “Pretty”. To look at Jessica you would think she was immersed in the country music business from the time she was born. After all, she had two parents who were also in the music business. However , this northern gal grew up in Yorktown Heights, NY and at an early age found country music, and life for this New Yorker was never the same. Her roots may be from the north, but this girl has a southern charm that goes on for miles.
As Jessica’s show ended, next on the ticket was Chase Rice. Rice is one of Nashville’s superstars on the horizon as he has burst onto the scene as an independent artist and made huge strides in a business dominated by coorporate record labels. This handsome young man, who once played football for North Carolina and worked in a Nascar pit, is all about writing music. Although, he’s best known for his #1 hit song he co-wrote, “Cruise” that changed his life and propelled him into the spotlight, he’s quick to share his plans for the future and add to that catalog of musical hits. When asked about the song he says “I am very appreciative of it, but I’m about a lot more than just one song”. That he is. Chase is currently touring with Dierks Bentley and has built a huge fan base across the country. Getting ready to release his next album Ignite the Night on August 19, Chase is living his life by his motto – “On a scale of 1 to 10, be an 11.” As he performed Sunday for the huge crowd that had amassed for him, he sang “Ready Set Roll”, and to this day he is still amazed how crowds sing along with him and know all the words despite the fact radio has never played the song. His show was one of the most energized performances I had seen all weekend. With brothers City and Fence Tucker backing Chase up on guitar/bass, these two shred like no others with a duel pitting brother against brother, east crowd vs. west crowd to see who could yell the loudest. Chase Rice is a going to be a country super star, that I would place money on.
Okay, now that the football player and his dueling guitarists had left the stage, out came a man after my own heart, Tyler Farr. I loved his southern twang, I loved his redneck tunes, I loved his camo attire, and I loved his beautiful ballad “Hello Goodbye” he wrote after finding his love in the wrong driveway. Those were all endearing qualities, but what I loved most about this guy? I loved how mid sentence he spotted the guy with the turkey decoy on his head and called him out as his new best friend. This man (Tyler, not decoy head) was awesome. All weekend long the turkey decoy hat made the jumbotron, garnered whispers, points, and high fives, and it floored me why no one else had noticed it from the stage. After all, it was definitely not small or the norm, even with this rowdy bunch. Kudos Tyler on being one with your audience. His voice, a low sexy voice, with a rugged after tone – moved you no matter if he was singing about “Chick, Trucks, and Cold Beer”, how he was “Redneck Crazy”, or how she was the “Whiskey In my Water”. No matter what he sang, he nailed it. Perhaps this is because he’s actually a classically trained musician. The control he has over his voice, almost purrs as he sings. As many of these artists had done all week, he also performed a cover, this one was by Awolnation, “Sail”. His cover got the attention of everyone there and by the end of his set, Tyler Farr was my, new best friend.
Up next was Thomas Rhett. Although Rhett was born into the country music world, his plans were not to follow in his famous father’s footsteps. Seeing what Rhett Atkins went through in the business, Rhett Jr. spent a good portion of his early years trying to decide which direction to take. No matter which way he turned, it kept leading him back to the music industry. Starting out as a songwriter, his songs have been recorded by the likes of Jason Aldean and Lee Brice, and Florida Georgia Line to name a few. It was only a matter of time this talented young man would begin singing his own songs and climbing the charts himself. As much as he is a talented songwriter and singer, he has a special charisma that translates to his audiences. From the moment he took the stage, there was a good time to be had. Singing his hits “Get Me Some of That”, “It Goes Like This” and “Something To Do With My Hands” the crowd, going crazy for each song he sang, became part of his show. Quite literally as Thomas came out into the crowd to find someone to share the stage with. Didn’t take long to find Connor, a Brantley Gilbert doppelgänger, to come up on stage with him to finish out Garth Brook’s “Friends In Low Places”. Sometimes no matter how much we try to fight something, fate plays a part in it and this is a shining example of how Thomas Rhett was meant to be on the stage.
Next on the all-star billing was Thompson Square, a husband and wife duo who have been taking Nashville by storm lately. Relatively new to listeners, this couple is not new to country music or their journey to where they are today. Arriving in Nashville to pursue solo careers, the couple met the first week there and from that moment on have found together everything they ever dreamed of. Joining forces after marrying on the music front as well, this duo combined their aspirations, songwriting talents, and blend the best attributes of both to create Thompson Square. Since Just Feels Good, their second album, was released, their schedule has been packed with a full year of touring and performing. When this couple hits the stage you feel their connection. You feel their chemistry on stage as they performed “You’re Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About” and “Here We Go Again”. However it was their performance of “If I Didn’t Have You” that fans felt their passion in each other and the music they share. As they began playing their final song “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not” I looked around to see the first hand how contagious this love they share is with their audience. Couples dancing all around me just confirmed what an amazing team they are, and how worthy they are to be the first and only married couple to receive CMA Vocal Duo of the Year honors, in addition to multiple other CMA, AMC, AMA, and Grammy Awards and Nominations. Just proof that sometimes things are great on their own, but combine them and they are even better together. As a footnote, the award for line of the day was awarded to Thompson Square as they spotted a special guest in the audience and shouted out, “Is that Spiderman? Well it’s not a party until Spidey shows up”. Classic.
As the sun began to set, and the festival prepared for its final act, concert goers seemed a little more subdued awaiting the legendary Hank Williams Jr. Growing up in Murfreesboro, TN instilled a few country customs one never outgrows. These include the love of cornbread, barbecue and sweet tea, the appreciation of clogging and square dancing, and the sheer awe of country greats such as Hank Williams, his son Bocephus, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, and so many more that graced the Grand Ole Opry stage. No matter how far north you go, you always hold dear to your heart those country basics. So the anticipation of seeing Hank Williams Jr. in person was surreal in a way for this gal. Those in the audience seemed to share this belief as well. The crowd wasn’t the rowdy, on your shoulders holding beer up in the air bunch that had been having a good time all weekend. No, this bunch was perhaps the same group, but they were a buzz with a respectful excitement of suspense now awaiting Hank Williams Jr. to take the stage. Without keeping the crowd in suspense any longer, Hank Williams Jr. took the stage, and from that moment on that man had your attention. Not quite sure what was to be expected, but without any reservations, this man far exceeded what I imagined.
As Hank Williams Jr. began his set, you knew immediately that this was a man who made no excuses, didn’t apologize for who he was, and took full ownership of his beliefs, his life choices, and career. He truly was an original outlaw. As he performed numbers throughout the evening the audience gained an insight into what makes Hank tick. Raised in a household with frequent guests who gathered around the dinner table and piano, Hank’s momma, Audrey, couldn’t understand why when Hank got into music he kept gravitating towards that rockabilly sound. Perhaps it was because Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash (his godmother), Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley didn’t play old-fashioned country or gospel type music, when they came over. No, they banged those keys and rocked the house, and this was what Hank wanted to play. In a career that has seen more number one albums, singles, awards, and continues to thrive today, the man on stage was a living legend. As he began playing his hits such as “Women I’ve Never Had” “A Country Boy Can Survive” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight”, the crowd cheered and clapped and Hank fed off of this and just got better and better with each number.
Because Hank has had such a successful and long career, he has the options of traveling or not traveling. He is selective when it comes to shows, so when he was approached, he said it was a no brainer to come to see us at Taste of Country Music Festival. It was on a mountain that once held one of the all time great festivals, was great hunting and fishing country, and offered a Remington Arms factory right up the road. What was to decide?
As the show progressed I was truly amazed at this man’s versatility. Hank Williams Jr. is quite a musician as well as an amazing singer. At one point he was sharing his love and respect for Fats Domino, as he played the piano and sang “Jambalaya”. The next minute he was performing Johnny Cash’s “Walk The Line”, and you would have sworn it was Johnny himself singing it. Then he went into one of the best mash-ups of Lynyrd Skynard/ZZ Top/Aerosmith that I’ve ever heard. All the while he shredded, strummed, tickled the ivories, and rosined up his bow – he did so with a new brim each and every number. This man is a classic. He had a hat for his guitar numbers, a hat for his rock numbers, and a hat for his honky-tonk numbers. As he played throughout the night, I believe my favorite moment was hearing him talk of how he had been approached by a lady who had always wanted to see his father play, however didn’t have the chance to make it in time, so he dedicated a number to her. As he sang to her “Lovesick Blues” you could see Hank Williams live on through his son, through country music, and through the never-ending love and adoration of his fans. As Hank Williams Jr. played the evening, this sentiment held true for him too. As he closed out the festival, joined on stage by Tyler Farr and Thompson Square, fans knew they had just witnessed a piece of history not often seen.
As the curtain called, the set began to be torn down, the buses filled with gear, the shuttles filled with passengers ready to go back to their cars in the lots and hotels surrounding the mountainside, festival goers were left with an afterglow of sorts from the amazing weekend they just experienced. I must commend the event organizers, planners, volunteers, and staff for an amazingly seamless event. The security team was top-notch, diffusing anything that may escalate into a problem so that everyone there was safe and had a good time without incident. I commend them on their top-notch staff that was hands on from day one and had every detail possible covered, beforehand and as it arose. They were efficient, professional, courteous, and always striving to make the event the best for everyone involved from the performers to staff, to media, to attendees. I can’t imagine how 2015 will live up the standards of 2014’s Taste of Music Country Festival. Oh wait, maybe you can get Tim McGraw to headline.
PHOTO GALLERY – DAY THREE