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Country Festival Fatigue? Promoters and Bands Take Stock After Some Fests Go Belly Up

A Hanson-branded beer. A barbecue-and-country combination in the heart of food-crazed Chicago. Wade Bowen and Micky and the Motorcars in headlining spots. These are three selling points some organizers of country and roots-music festivals are pointing to this summer to showcase their events as the market flirts with saturation across the country.

In late May — before the high-profile cancellation of the Black Keys’ arena tour put ambitious booking and high ticket prices under scrutiny across the industry — a pair of major country-music festivals in California were called off. The Cork & Jug Jam in Paso Robles, set for Memorial Day weekend with Midland and Tanya Tucker atop the bill, announced an abrupt cancellation with less than a week’s notice. Days later, organizers canceled October’s Rebels & Renegades festival in Monterey, the same event where Shooter Jennings recorded his Warren Zevon tribute in 2022, before even announcing a lineup.

“After careful consideration and an honest look at the festival market we announce that Good Vibez will not host the Rebels & Renegades Music Festival in 2024,” organizers said in a statement. “After giving it our all for the past two years, we are having to take a step back and reassess how and where we can grow the Rebel brand.”

It is too soon to draw a sweeping conclusion from just two cancellations — even ones geographically close together — that the post-pandemic festival boom is going bust. The biggest country fest of them all, April’s Stagecoach in Indio, California, was a success by every measure. And brand new festivals continue to pop up. Turnpike Troubadours, Ryan Bingham, and Muscadine Bloodline headlined May’s inaugural Spring Revelry in Indianola, Iowa, while the Giddy Up Fest, set for October in Las Vegas will debut with headliners Turnpike, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Chase Rice.

Still, the cooling of the demand for live music compared to 2021-23 and the growing resistance to high ticket prices is reason enough to concern organizers.

But some promoters of long-running festivals tethered to communities both rural and urban see this summer as an opportunity to re-establish their events as top draws. Ed Warm, a partner at Joe’s Live in Chicago — which will host the Windy City Smokeout at a sprawling expanse in the United Center parking lots from July 11 through 14 — says the path forward is in the curation of entire lineups, beyond simply booking the headliner-of-the-moment.

“It’s an interesting time for the festival landscape,” Warm tells Rolling Stone. “We might be seeing a market correction, but I don’t believe the bubble is bursting. Festivals are still incredibly popular, but there’s a shift towards more curated, high-quality experiences. Attendees are looking for unique, memorable events that offer more than just music. They want a complete experience.”

The Smokeout has a capacity for 20,000 each day, and fresh off its 10th anniversary event in 2023, is expecting a successful four-day run this year, according to Warm. Headliners Thomas Rhett, Parker McCollum, Cody Johnson, and Carrie Underwood are supplemented on the bill this year by red-hot artists such as Wyatt Flores, Red Clay Strays, and 49 Winchester. Warm says ticket sales are off from their 2023 pace, but that is part of a larger trend of fans waiting until shortly before an event to commit. “We have seen this over the last year for club shows as well, and the trend has continued with the festival,” he says. “This has required extra patience this year and will inform planning for 2025 more than anything.”

It’s also a multi-faceted festival, with barbecue stands lining the edge of the grounds and pitmasters from around the country. “While the music is the driving force behind the festival,” Warm says, “the barbecue is a huge draw too.”

The same is true of Kansas City’s Boulevardia, which was held this past Friday and Saturday. Taking place adjacent to the Crown Center downtown, its daily capacity is similar to that of the Smokeout in Chicago. Boulevardia takes its name from Kansas City’s renowned Boulevard Brewery and showcases Missouri-centric musicians and vendors. The lineup across five stages is eclectic, but country draws this week included Paul Cauthen and regional staples Ha Ha Tonka. In 2023, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit headlined Boulevardia; Thundercat and Hanson anchored this year.

“We started Boulevardia nine years ago wanting to be more than a beer festival or a music festival,” says festival director Keli O’Neill Wenzel. “I say it’s neither. We have toed the line, and now I would say it’s a celebration of a lot of Kansas City. We have over 52 local makers here, and probably the biggest showcase of Kansas City local music that you’ll ever see over two days.”

Hanson may be best known from its 1990s boy-band era, but it now tours as a seasoned rock group with heavy folk influences. The Hanson brothers originated in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a four-hour drive from Kansas City. They started Hanson Brothers Beer Company in Tulsa, and the brewery is launching Pink Moonlight, a special hazy IPA with peach, at Boulevardia.

“Hanson’s name has been brought up for years,” Wenzel tells Rolling Stone. “Boulevard knew that they had a brewery down in Oklahoma, so their name kept popping up. It would get the loudest excitement around our table when you’d bring that name up, but we could never make it happen. This year, the stars aligned.”

In the Mountain West, the stars have been aligning for the Braun Brothers Reunion since 1979. What began as an afternoon party in Stanley, Idaho, is now a three-day event on the outskirts of Challis, a town of roughly 1,000 nestled in the Sawtooth Mountains, a four-hour drive from Boise. Currently run and headlined by sibling bands Reckless Kelly and Micky and the Motorcars, BBR has been one of the premier showcases for independent country music outside of Texas for the better part of four decades. Artists such as McCollum, Turnpike Troubadours, Randy Rogers, the Wilder Blue, and Old 97’s have joined Reckless and the Motorcars on the festival stages. But a proliferation of festivals in the region has turned BBR from the only game in town to one of many events grasping for an ever-fractured market.

This year, BBR will run August 8 through 10, and Wade Bowen is joining the Motorcars and Reckless as headliners. Steve Earle is also on the bill, with Reckless as the backing band. Texas mainstays Cody Canada and the Departed, Josh Abbott, and Bri Bagwell are also booked, as is the Dos Borrachos duo of Kevin Fowler and Roger Creager. It’s a stellar lineup, but one that Cody Braun no longer takes for granted when he’s putting together BBR.

“Booking has been pretty challenging, mainly because all the bands have been booked up by the bigger festivals,” says Reckless co-founder Cody Braun, who runs BBR with his brothers Willy — Reckless frontman — plus Micky and Gary Braun of the Motorcars. “It’s been especially tough for us with headliners, because their booking agents will hold out.

“It’s unique for me, being in Reckless but also booking the festival,” he continues. “When Reckless books a gig six or eight months out, it’s gotta be a pretty good-paying gig to lock it in that early. But it’s hard for us as a festival to lock in those big anchor paydays with this competition.”

The season for festivals in Idaho, by necessity, is compressed to the summer months. In 2023, there were eight other fests in Idaho showcasing the same country, Americana, or folk genres that BBR does, including the Highway 30 Fest in June in Filer. This year, Shane Smith and the Saints have added a small-scale festival, Saints Weekend in the Sawtooths, down the road from Challis in Stanley, less than a month before BBR. Throw in the massive Under the Big Sky Festival in Whitefish, Montana, and the Fairwell Festival in central Oregon — both of which dwarf BBR’s modest capacity of around 4,000 fans — and there are more prime spots and corporate dollars to go to bands than BBR can offer.

“It’s a double-edged sword for me,” Cody Braun tells Rolling Stone. I’m thrilled that this music that we’d all been trying to sell for 20 or 30 years has now finally become popular, and the people are enjoying it and it’s selling on a massive level. But, for a small festival like ours, it’s become really challenging to keep the doors open, because a lot of the people in smaller markets like this get drawn to the shiny new penny — you know, the big festivals.”

Braun says numbers for the Reunion were down 45 percent last year, but that ticket sales are up from that this year. Still, he says, it’s nothing like where sales usually were.

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“We’re definitely seeing the effects of oversaturation in these markets,” he says. “Our festival is especially tough because it’s small. We only need three thousand people a day to make it successful, but that means every person counts. Every single ticket is a really big one.”

Josh Crutchmer is a journalist and author whose third book, Red Dirt Unplugged, is set for release on December 13, 2024, via Back Lounge Publishing.

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