Saturday, May 25, 2024

Country Thunder Brings The Heat To Arizona With Lainey Wilson, Jelly Roll And More

Country Thunder (CT) hosts festivals in Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida, Bristol, Alberta, and Saskatchewan during the year. Country music has hit a momentous popularity throughout North America in recent years and Arizona is no exception to the rule. The four-day festival did not disappoint in keeping country music alive and well. Headliners included Lainey Wilson, Eric Church, Jelly Roll, and Koe Wetzel.

This year, some of the the headlining acts have gained acolades from the Country Music Association (CMA) with Lainy Wilson awarded Entertainer of the Year and Jelly Roll awarded Best New Artist, Best Male Vocalist, Best Single of the Year and Best Music Video of the Year for 2023. 

Miranda Lambert was the last female to headline CT Arizona in 2014. Wilson took the stage in style wearing a feathered cowboy hat and a gold signature bell-bottom outfit. Simply put, Wilson was better than ever.

Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

There was no doubt why she was crowned Entertainer of the Year after her rowdy performance at the end of the night. She started with “Hold My Halo” and “Hillbilly Hippie.” Lainey had a magnetic presence as she powered through the first five songs with her expressive twang that sounded powerful all night. 

She calmed the mood when she went in for her “Watermelon Moonshine” ballad and a cover of Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine.” Of course, she separated the men from the women in the crowd to compete against each other during “Road Runner.” 

Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

Wilson chose to celebrate Dolly Parton during the set as she asked if there were some Dolly Parton fans in the crowd. Wilson said she had a chance to spend some time with Parton recently. “They say never meet your heroes,” Wilson cautioned. “But Dolly Parton don’t count. I think if we were all a little bit more like Dolly Parton, the world would be a much better place, y’all.”

Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

“I ask myself one question.””What Would Dolly Do?,” a tribute to Parton that found Wilson rhyming “Like a country music modern-day apostle” with “Yeah, I leaned in like it was gospel.” It was obvious that Wilson has taken lessons from Parton as she echoed her hero’s Southern charm and fiery spirit.

The set drew heavily on “Bell Bottom Country,” the 2022 release that picked up Album of the Year at the CMAs and the Academy of Country Music Awards along the way to winning Country Album of the Year at at this year’s Grammys. It doesn’t get better than this.

Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

Earlier in the day, Flatland Cavary presented a much more mellow set even going unplugged at one point as guitarist/vocalist Cleto Cordero and fiddle ace Wesley Hall sending their bandmates away for a cover of George Strait’s “Ocean Front Property.”

Country Thunder Brings The Heat To Arizona With Lainey Wilson
Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

Stephen Wilson, Jr. was another one to not miss. He calls himself “Death Cab for Country,” a reference to indie-rock’s Death Cab for Cutie. There were definitely textures of sound going on that would have felt right at home on an indie-rock record. Wilson has a presence who bared his soul about losing his father and told the day’s goofiest joke while tuning his guitar. “My wife calls me Tuny Soprano,” he said “I prefer Antunio Banderas. But who am I to choose my own nickname?”

Country Thunder Brings The Heat To Arizona With Lainey Wilson
Photo Credit: Mary Andrews
Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

There was a new third stage at the festival this year called the Songwriters’ Stage. Singer, Alana Springsteen was joined by three other songwriters: Will Weatherby, Benji Davis, and Ryan Beaver for an intimate set with each artist to play their acoustic guitars and singing. They told stories about their songs.This is a first for CT. 

Country Thunder Brings The Heat To Arizona With Lainey Wilson
Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

Avery Ana took the stage in an all black ensemble and brought energy that showed the next generation of country music is ready to take on the big stages.

Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

Paul Cauthen gave an amazing set that had the crowd jumping on Friday. There were complaints that Cauthen’s set was not country and Cauthen did tend to reach across several genres of music to perform his slick, blend of music that mesmerized all who attended. He made good use of the runway thrust to reach out to his fans. The band alternated songs between their 2024 album “Hot Damn” and their  “Country Coming Down” album. “Wild Man,” “Country As  F*ck’,” “Freak,” and “Caught Me At a Good Time” were a great mix of songs before flashing back and treating everyone to a Paul Cauthen classic, “Still Drivin.” Cauthen had the huge crowd in the palm of his hand.

Country Thunder Brings The Heat To Arizona With Lainey Wilson
Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

On Saturday rising country stars Priscilla Block and Warren Eiders warmed up the crowd before the Jelly Roll headlining set. Block played songs including: “My Bar”, “Hey Jack” and her female empowering hit “Thick Thighs.” While Zeider played his hit single “Pretty Little Poison” plus more.

Photo Credit: Mary Andrews
Country Thunder Brings The Heat To Arizona With Lainey Wilson
Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

Jelly Roll (or Jason DeFord) had the most anticipated set of the festival. His arms were outstretched as he heard thunderous the applause from 28,000 people in attendence. He started the set with “Halfway to Hell” the gospel-tinged country-rap song that opens his first full-blown country album, Whitsitt Chapel. Jelly Roll seemed truly grateful to be entertaining the fans at Country Thunder as well as ecstatic for all the big wins he received last weekend at the CMAs. At “almost 39 years old,” he is the oldest Best New Artist in the history of that award.

Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

“I’ve been dreaming of headlining Country Thunder, y’all,” he shouted, grinning ear-to-ear, before following through with “The Lost,” one of several highlights that spoke to the spiritual side of the Jelly Roll phenomenon.

“I’ve been known to find my kind of people that ain’t at home underneath church steeples,” he sang with the soulful conviction of a true believer. “You’d be surprised the places I find Jesus. That ain’t the regular crowd.” Jelly Roll is like a gospel tent revivalist with way more face tattoos than any preacher seen by this reviewer.

He testified to those in the crowd who may be going through their own dark times, “I believe you can change. I believe that bigger and better things are on the horizon. . .I believe the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason. Because what’s in front of you is more important than what’s behind you, Arizona.” 

His love of country music came from his mom. He mentioned, his mom played “the good stuff as he paid homage to country icons from Waylon and Willie to George Jones, Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley.” 

Country Thunder Brings The Heat To Arizona With Lainey Wilson
Photo Credit: Mary Andrews

Excitement buzzed around the crowd like a current. There was an energetic buzz that didn’t dissipate for even a second. He sang about heartache, hard work, and chasing your dreams, touching on themes that resonated deeply within the crowd.

Every word was a solace to their souls, a powerful reminder that music could bring people together and lift them up. Throughout the show, the crowd was heavily engaged with the performance, with everyone singing along to every word of his hit songs. “I only talk to God when I need a favor” is a line from one of heavily tatooed artist’s songs. 

Even the slow and soulful songs moved the crowd, evoking emotion and occasionally bringing people to tears. Jelly Roll’s set was an emotional rollercoaster, with moments of raw vulnerability and intense energy. Fans were present for a religious experience and they got one.

There were many more artists at the four day festival. Some were more familiar than others. In the past, the artists that are featured earlier in the day soon become household names. Morgan Wallen is an example. Sets from Emily Ann Roberts, Lauren Watkins, Halle Kearns, Kyle McKearney, and Alana Sprinsteen prove that they may well be our future country stars. And the future looks bright! 

Words and photos by: Mary Andrews

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