My parents have never been to a music festival. Despite turning 18 in the golden era of arena rock—1973—and despite raising a son who has gone to enough music festivals that he ranks them based on which ones he fainted at (Eaux Claires, #1), they have never shelled out the requisite dollars for a 3-5 day bacchanal with hot weather and hot tunes. The reasons for that are simple if you ask my dad.
“We have kids. And they’re expensive. Plus, I don’t like being hot and sweaty and dirty.”
My mom basically backed him up.
“Once you’ve seen the Doobie Brothers on their farewell tour with Michael McDonald at Alpine Valley, why bother?”
But my parents’ lack of music festival attendance is even more egregious, since they live—as my dad pointed out, proudly—22 minutes door-to-gate from Country USA, a 40,000 people-a-day drawing monolithic observance of the power of country music that happens every year on the outskirts of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. My folks love a lot of music—my dad played baritone at UW-Madison and knows his way around Sousa and the Beatles in equal measure, and my mom spends a not insignificant amount of time every year making diverse mix CDs for their annual cabin vacation—but country music is their favorite. It’s the only modern music they’re completely up on: they can’t tell you about Lil Yachty, but they can dissect with great clarity the strengths and weaknesses of each Thomas Rhett single and its attendant video (my mom can also tell you who is #1 on every country music TV station’s video countdown). In other words, they’re the exact audience for Country USA, yet they have passed on it for 20 years prior to this, the festival’s 21st year.
But avoiding fest life was no longer tenable this year, when Sam Hunt was booked as the fest’s final headliner. My parents were among the earliest marks for Sam Hunt; my mom was extolling his virtues before Montevallo even made landfall, and not just because he’s, in her words, “very good looking.” They decided that they needed to take the plunge and see what the fuss was about.
So, I had my parents review their first music festival this weekend.
Before we went for a full-on, 7-hour day at the fest, my parents took advantage of their proximity to CUSA—pronounced KOOSA, for those not of Midwestern descent—and went on Thursday night just to see the Brothers Osborne and come home. They didn’t have a lot to say about their first toedip into festival culture, except to extol the virtues of spending $10 extra for premium parking—“We were so close!” my dad said—and the relative guitar shredding capabilities of the Osborne brother with a big beardwq. Their only complaint was from my mom:
“There’s so much security at CUSA. There’s enough security there that you’d think you’re gonna be sitting down next to the president.”
The security was as excessive when we made the trip into CUSA on Saturday. Because CUSA makes, I would venture, a solid 65% of its profits on alcohol sales—five day passes were as cheap as $69 at one point in the lead up to this year’s fest—they have multiple security checkpoints that’s primary function is to make sure you don’t sneak in booze. They hardly checked my parents out—if they did, they would have noticed my dad bringing in last week’s New York Times to read in between sets (in fairness, I brought a book too).
We arrived right when Maddie & Tae started playing, and for those uninitiated, they’re the writers of one of the best pieces of country music criticism ever written, “Girl in a Country Song.”
Beyond that song, however, my folks didn’t find a whole lot to love at their set.
“It’s amazing that they’ve gotten as big as they have when they’re this bad live,” my mom offered at one point. And she was right; their band was mixed too high and overpowered them, and their covers of songs by Rihanna, Justin Timberlake and Fleetwood Mac mostly fell flat. They also spent too much time doing the slower, somber numbers from their debut LP, which doesn’t work when it’s 84 degrees and everyone is drunk. My mom did get a sick burn in though.
“Thanks for making this our first hit single,” Maddie said to the crowd.
“And last!,” my mom retorted. I don’t think my dad looked up from his Times after their third song.
Next was Chase Rice, a former football player who’s mostly notable for having a co-write credit on Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” He is the strawman that people are referring to when they decry modern country as being songs about trucks, cornfields, boning, and drinking beer performed by men who look like the jock that beat you up in high school. He’s basically the construct Maddie & Tae were writing against on “Girl in a Country Song.”
“This is just heavy metal but with a country singer,” my dad said as we waited in line for corndogs.
“He really seems like a guy who came along at the wrong time. 25 years ago, he would have just been in a metal band,” my mom said. “We used to judge bands like this based on how much we had had to drink.”
Being that both my parents were stone sober, they were not fans. During the interminable wait between when Chase Rice started and Sam Hunt went on, we took a lap around the CUSA grounds which includes a volleyball court (“Seriously?”—my dad), a carnival ride (“Who would ever ride that?”—my mom) and those giant zorbing balls (“Just imagine what those smell like on the inside”—my girlfriend). We also noticed that confederate flags are still part of country fan fashion, which makes no tangible sense at all; Wisconsin was in the Union during the Civil War and most of our troops hardly saw action. We saw confederate flags on hats, novelty mirrors, neckerchiefs, and most egregiously, as a cape.
“A white kid from northwestern Wisconsin wearing a confederate flag as a cape? What a dumbass,” my dad said of the teenager in our section.
By the time Sam Hunt went on at 11 p.m., my folks were ready, but also sort of ready to be at home and in bed.
“I can’t even remember the last time I stayed up this late for an entertainment event,” my mom said.
“Do you have a toothpick? I got some corndog stuck in my teeth. Oh wait, I’ll just use the end of my wristband,” my dad said, as he did just that.
But then Sam Hunt came on, and he was as good as could be expected. He did covers of classic and current country. He did every song you’d want to hear from Montevallo, his perfect debut LP. The difference between him and the acts that came earlier was almost tangible. There’s a reason he’s headlining the final night of a festival, you know? He’s a superstar, and my parents deciding that he was worth a festival ticket was backed up, and then some.
I looked over during “Take Your Time,” and in the neon lights of Hunt’s stage set up, I could see my parents genuinely rocking out. They were holding hands and swaying. There wasn’t any tangible difference between them and the 19-year-olds behind us who were using our camp chairs as cover for peeing on the ground so they wouldn’t miss any of Hunt’s set.
Festivals can be a weird shit show where you see drunken idiots doing offensive shit, and are price gouged over terrible cheese curds, you have to pay to buy water to keep from fainting in the miserable heat, and sometimes you have to travel longer than 22 minutes door to door to get to them. But all of that becomes secondary to seeing music you love, outdoors in the summer. The feeling you get from that is universal.
When we were waiting in the endless line to leave the festival 30 minutes later, my mom had one last thought.
“I’m too old for this.”