When I put in my request to cover Rock USA Oshkosh, the promoter invited me to cover Country USA Oshkosh. Normally, country is not the type of music I cover. Ever since touring the country as a Harley Girl on Ozzfest in 2002, I've been known to cover rock, but with 15 years under my belt as a music journalist, I have covered all types of music and was more than willing to give it a shot.
It's not that I have an aversion to country music. Perhaps it harkens me back to the days when my mother would show Arabic horses on the international circuit, and country music was jammed down your throat, whether you wanted to hear it or not. We're not talking country classics, but that twangy tear in my beer from the semi-truck running over the dog as the woman squealed out with the trailer.
I didn't know what to expect. Would people be sporting red Solo cups? In fact, some were doing that.
Not that I was expecting the whole crowd to be line dancing, but I was curious how it would compare to other musical genre concerts that I had experienced. Would it be peace, love and watch your wallet? Would we wait ten hours for the main act, or see fights of drunken people that erupt into mosh pits?
Nope, it wasn't like that. Right off the bat, I leaned that country folk like muddin'. It had rained.
The thick, sludgy mud was so gooey, it gobbled up my car, sticking it in place no matter how I gassed it or turned the steering wheel. The driver of the car in front of me saw my dilemma, and would have offered to help had he not been old enough to be my grandfather; instead, he offered to try to find help. Just when I doubted, he returned with an army of guys who had been pushing out cars all day long.
Sliding me into a parking spot I prayed I would be able to drive out of, I gathered my gear and thanked the crowd of eager helpers. They were off to find the next damsel in distress. Angels watch over.
All of Ford Field was a sticky pad of mud, slurping up your footware. Hope you brought your boots. If you were silly enough to think that flip flops were going to stay on, you're probably barefoot by now.
There's all kinds of vendors to see. Try some wild game jerky, or pick up a snakeskin cowboy hat. Of course, there's Wisconsin cheese, carnival games and all sorts of rides, from the big wheel to the Zipper, but you can also do stunt jumps, zipline across the concert, or find some pretty funny shirts.
Not being a country expert, I wouldn't know if a country star was standing right in front of me. You could be one for all I know. I just followed the sound of the music to a tent filled with people.
I would have thought it was one of the headliners, they were that good, but after a couple songs, I knew enough country to identify a Johnny Cash song. These guys were just playing cover songs, but they had the stage presence of one of the main acts. They were riling up the crowd, which was packed.
They saw me taking pictures and invited me up on stage. Shrugging my shoulders, not turning down an invitation for a crowd shot, the crowd erupted as if I was somebody famous. Now, there is a circle of people that may go wild seeing me get up on stage like I did back in the day, but to be fair, this is not exactly that same circle of people, as I'd be nobody knew my name, but they were still excited to see me climb up on stage, almost as if they did really know who I was, eager to greet me either way.
The sea of people was endless. It wasn't just people crammed under the tented venue, but all the folks sloshing out the sides, jammed up next to each other for as far as they eye could see. Some may have been drunk, but they were eager to hear music, especially songs they knew and could sing to, and they weren't sure if I was up there to sing, dance, or make them famous by taking their picture, but they were screaming at the top of their lungs, jumping up and down, trying to garner attention, waving.
I stayed up for a few songs, dancing as I took pictures, blubbering in the microphone, but I had to get ready for the other stage. Even though I was having fun with the band and could have stayed on stage all night, duty called. I made my appearance, and now it was time to make my disappearance and hike.
Hoof through the mud. Make my way over to see the guy who will be playing Halloween shows in Detroit and Chicago on the Kick Up The Dust Tour, Luke Bryan. On my way through the crowd, I hear women swooning, talking about how dreamy he is, how easy he is on the eyes, but all I knew about him was that my cousin said, “that's the guy who has the song about driving around in his truck.”
That was not specific enough to tell me much about what to expect. Would he drive a truck on stage? Would it be like a monster truck roaring through the audience kicking up rooster tails of mud splots?
No, not quite. Just some dude in a baseball hat. He was pretty good musically though.
It did not have that Appalachian sound that I may have been expecting. The sound was nothing like Hasil Adkins. The lyrics were nowhere close to that one-man-band sound I had heard in West Virginia.
A lot of the instruments are not that far off from what you'd find at a metal show, but the tempo is slowed down quite a bit. There's still leather sported by some audience members, and though boots are popular, much like in a metal crowd, the style is a little different. It's not about looking hardcore but having boots that will hold up in hardcore conditions like a muddy field, six-inch-spikes not common.
The crowd is definitely into the music, singing along, but not rowdy by any stretch of the imagination. You might see someone with their swerve on, but for the most part, people are in good spirits. Just like a rap show, camo is popular with audience members, though instead of urban warfare wear from hood soldiers, it's more like leafy camouflage with branches, as in I'm getting ready to snipe a deer, not rob.
Luke Bryan commands, “Country Girl Shake It For Me,” and women in the crowd respond back with their best dance moves, singing along, mouthing the lyrics. For those who want to be country stars, there's even karaoke in the tent next to the stage, offering up the five minutes of fame on the stage. Funny thing, it's more exclusive to get into the tent with the karaoke than it is to see Luke Bryan.
Let's just say he did not disappoint. When he headlined, it was by far the busiest day as far as traffic goes, as people could be seen flocking on foot from hotels and down the road. It took hours to park.
I had been worried each night would be like this, as I had just moved to Oshkosh. I didn't know anything about the city or anyone in the city, except for my really cool neighbors Bev and Tim. Come to find out, the traffic would not be exactly the same as that first day, but the traffic issues were yet to come, as it wound up that a younger driver hit a pedestrian walking on the side of the road at night.
This would cause some crazy commotion as far as traffic is concerned. They would try different methods each night to try to prevent another tragedy, but some only resulted in frustrating grid lock. For hours, people were trapped in the cars on some of the following nights, but live and learn, and they would soon find their groove as far as traffic goes; they did not expect the mud and so many people.
The second night, there was a lot of straw thrown down on the ground, so the mud was not as intense. This helped out considerably, but it only added to the country feel. Since I associate country music with showing horses, the straw served as a reminder that this was more of chillaxed shin dig, even if there were tons of people to maneuver through when going from one point to another further away.
Check in with the cover band. Get back up on stage and cheered as if I'm somebody special. Then hoof along, making my way to the main stage for Brantley Gilbert. I would hear his song “Bottoms Up,” which most people relate to drinking, but I would soon associate it with a more sensual meaning.
Perhaps it was his drummer sporting a mohawk, but this is the performer that had some of the biggest crossover to metal or rock in my opinion. Maybe it was the little all the familiar riffs in between songs. When you're playing Motley Crue riffs in between songs, it makes you a little skeptical of true roots.
Not saying he wasn't good, as he was definitely a great performer, put on an entertaining show. I would watch him again, but I'm just saying it's a far cry from the idea of country that I had envisioned. He was using the tried and true rock techniques to connect with the crowd, wearing camo like the rappers.
Let's just say it was country, but it had flavors of other genres in the stage show that I did not expect. You could knock your head to it like a rock show, not quite headbanging beat, but that gentle rhythm. There was a mixture of bad ass and gentleness like a teddy bear, an unexpected chill combination.
The next night's headliner also had a combination, only of singers. Like Lincoln Park, the band Florida Georgia Line had two lead singers. You didn't know which way to look on stage, as they were all over.
These guys brought the party, literally. They handed out shots to everyone in the audience. Not much of a drinker, I at first had tried to decline the drink, but people insisted, as this drinking served a purpose; the band was trying to break the world record for the most people drinking shots at once.
This added a fun factor. People got excited. Who doesn't like free alcohol?
It's not as serious as church, but it's a gathering of people with a free slurp of booze. Everywhere you looked, people were holding the white little shot glasses. I don't know if everyone waited for the specified time, but a lot of people did and were very adamant to others to wait for the shot signal.
Florida Georgia Line also had a flare that was similar to what you'd find at some of the rap show, but their song topics were of slightly different subjects. “This Is How We Roll” sounds like it could be the title to a rap song, and I could picture Snoop Dogg, or Snoop Lion, with a pack of papers, teaching. They do have a song that features Nelly, so my knee jerk reaction is not actually that far off base.
“Dirt” is not like Alice In Chains, just like “Round Here” is not exactly like Counting Crows. “Sippin' on Fire” might sounds like a Lil Wayne song title, but it's not like that style at all. They have their serious side, with songs like “If I Die Tomorrow,” and people sing along slower than they do with rap.
Really adding to the mix was Neal McCoy. He mixed up so many covers, it was like spinning the channel dial on the radio. He pulled in songs from all genres, designed to get the crowd jumping.
As far as pure entertainment and crowd interaction, he took the cake. He was unexpected, non-conforming, and he was proud to point out that he had an African American drummer at his show. Mentioning his son wants to go into acting, he connected with the crowd, made them feel as if they were all part of one big partying family, reaching into everyone's heart and enticing them to dance.
He brought up a guy on stage to help him sing and dance. There's nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Just have fun, let your hair down and do “The Shake” even if “Billy's Got His Beer Googles On.”
Rodney Atkins brought the more traditional vibe back. Perhaps it was the slide guitar on stage, as that's an instrument that sings country to me. Of course, the drum set has a spiky-haired Jolly Roger with drum sticks crossing instead of leg bones underneath the skull that looks more like a metal insignia.
There's that hint of cross over. Some of the band members look as if they could be plucked off of a rock stage, but then there's cowboy hats and baseball caps that throw off that pure rock vibe. Regardless of image, there's talent flowing from the multitude of instruments that grace the stage.
Gary Allan rocked it out with a violinist that was awesome. His band members might have been cool enough to wear their sunglasses at night, but they got the party rocking. Again, there's this traditional country laid back chill vibe mixed with this rock undertone that gets people off their feet, stomping.
Topping it all of is Carrie Underwood, who definitely crosses over the most towards a pop diva. She doesn't want the photographers too close to the stage, sequestering them to the back forty, so we have to squint at what we are shooting and dodge the drunk people whose heads keep popping up into the shot.
She has an array of musicians accompanying her. It was funny, however, to hear a member of the audience comment, “don't get me wrong, her stage show was good, had the big LED screen and whatnot, and she sounded good. As far as entertainment value though, Neal McCoy blew her away.”
What they were implying was that she was too perfectly packaged. Everything was too planned out, every step across stage, as if following a routine like a pop star. There wasn't the spontaneity of bringing people on stage and having them dance around, making people guess which song was next.
Neal McCoy had brought in that spontaneous factor, connecting with the crowd. With Carrie, it's like each song is a hit, and each must be played to make everyone happy. With Neal, it's like screw it, I feel like playing a cover song that will throw people off kilter but make them have a lot of fun in the mix.
The two shows cannot really be compared, as Carrie brought the glitz and glam, while Neal brought that down home comfort and good time. More people knew the majority of Carrie's songs, but Neal played covers that everyone knew. It's a toss up, as each were completely different, but I concur.
She distanced herself from the crowd in comparison to him. Not saying she was a bad performer, as musically, it sounded great, spot on, and people definitely got into it. Still, the connection lacked as far as reeling people in, getting them hooked; her hook was more that song recognition from the radio.
The LED display was beautiful. Maybe she wanted people to look at the big picture, as the background corresponded with the song, creating a visual and audio connection. It was flashy production for sure.
The moral of the story is that no matter if you're familiar with the bands or not, you can have a good time. Just when you think you won't know any songs, there's a cover that comes on that you know. Country USA, also known as CUSA, aims to capture that good time in its festival each year.
June 23 – 27 marks the 20th anniversary of the festival, and Neal McCoy will be back to entertain, along with Tim McGraw and Miranda Lambert. Check out Brothers Osborne, Dustin Lynch, Lee Brice, Eric Paslay, Thompson Square, Eli Young Band, Parmalee, Tyler Farr, Courtney Cole, Eric Church, The Swon Brothers, Craig Campbell, Josh Thompson, Bella Cain and a slew of others at CUSA this year. Don't forget to bring your camping gear, as you can tumble around the festival for a few days with newfound friends; for more information, go to www.countryusaoshkosh.com.
For more by Marisa, visit www.lulu.com/spotlight/thorisaz and www.twitter.com/booksnbling.