Home on the range

By Chris Straight, Red Pulse Staff

The campers next to us-with their University of Wyoming flag hanging proudly-spent the majority of the weekend drinking beer and asking any female passers-by to kindly show them their boobs. Welcome to Country Jam USA.

Just across the Colorado state line lies the town of Mack, population 546. This sleepy little country town has nothing but a post office and a convenience store, but for four days over the summer it turns into a mammoth 30,000-person party complete with full-service campgrounds, a VIP area, drinks, food and a concert lineup of country music’s hottest acts.

The days at Country Jam start early and the heat prohibits sleeping in-hangover or not. A quick toothbrush run, perhaps a shower in the community stalls, some deodorant and it’s time to party. Drinking at 11 a.m. might not seem like a wise thing to do, but at Country Jam it’s almost expected.

The music starts at 1:30 p.m. but people come pouring through the gates as soon as they open at noon. The heat is absolutely punishing, and if you aren’t lucky enough to snag a VIP pass, you’re on your own trying to locate a precious slice of shade.

The Country Jam sun takes no prisoners-even Australian singer-songwriter Jamie O’Neal fell victim to it, cutting her show a few songs early. Rodney Good, O’Neal’s husband and guitar player, says they’ve had an especially hot summer, having played a string of outdoor festivals.

“It’s all been hot as hell on a run like this,” Good said, adding that “seeing everyone out there makes it all worthwhile.”

The feeling was mutual. O’Neal and her band played a show that stuck out from the typical carbon copy country sound. The shining moment in the set was a soulful rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” Formerly a backup singer for pop sensation Kylie Minogue, O’Neal was able to develop her talent and voice without the restrictive codifications of the Nashville sound. The fans were definitely feeling the funk, but watching hillbillies try to groove to motown style when they clearly have neither the talent nor the soul to do so is an amusing sight.

Other notable performances included Josh Turner, the young fellow from South Carolina whose group looks like a country music boy band. Despite the pre-fabricated image, Turner’s deep voice and engaging songs brought the crowd to their feet even though his sound is a little softer than most contemporary country.

“Josh Turner makes Alan Jackson look like a rocker, but the fans love him,” said Jam promoter Mart Swenson.

What makes his songs so accessible to his listeners is that they play to the lowest common denominator. Songs like “Long Black Train” and “Me and God” are simple enough that a broad amount of people can find meaning in them, as evidenced by fans both young and old nearly being brought to tears at the show.

However, the crown jewel of the music aspect of this year’s Country Jam was Tim McGraw, the legendary singer who has had a No. 1 single every year since 1994. McGraw has a persona and a stage presence that transcends country music, making him a superstar among all fans of music. McGraw and Faith Hill became engaged at Country Jam in 1996, and over the years, Country Jam has become one of McGraw’s favorite venues to play.

“There are lots of people, it’s really beautiful here, and it’s just a very relaxing atmosphere,” he said shortly before the show began.

Playing hits such as “Live Like You Were Dying” and “Cowboy in Me,” he obviously showed up to Country Jam intent on rocking the house.

The vendor and promotional tents at Country Jam are an interesting attraction all on their own. There are numerous options for delicious and certainly heart attack-inducing foods, including everything from fried cheese curds to juicy turkey legs. You can even cool down with a Southern Comfort Hurricane, a boozy slush drink with enough sugar to make both your head and stomach regret it in the morning. You can get a tattoo at the Atlantis Tattoo trailer and then stop by the Froggez.com tent to select from 100 or so hand-made ceramic frogs. The consumer possibilities are endless.

Before heading back to the campgrounds, it’s imperative to stop by the Jack Daniels side stage to grab a shot or two of Jack and dance your tail off to the cover songs performed by Marshal Reign, a young act hailing from Las Vegas. With a youthful swagger unmatched by the older country musicians, the band blasts fast, southern style rock ‘n’ roll with a heavy handful of legitimate country heart. Who really knows, though? By the time you reach the Jack Daniels side stage you’re already so stone-drunk on hard liquor that pretty much anything with rhythm and singing sounds good. Regardless, they did their job and entertained.

Back in the campgrounds is a special event all on its own. Around 15 to 20 thousand people camp every year, and the grounds turn into an all-night party complete with dance floors, Margaritaville and even the occasional fist fight. It’s not uncommon to see groups of shirtless 20-somethings stumbling around saying “whassup” or “where you going, baby?” to anything with two X chromosomes. Fortunately for them, the female crowd eats it up.

Country Jam is modern patriotism at its finest.

“Look out at the crowd and you’ll see 1,000 American flags in people’s hats. It’s good, old-fashioned, American redneck fun,” said promoter Arin Laugtug.

There’s no doubt the only time the entire grounds stood still was during the singing of the national anthem, while the U.S. Navy Parachute Team Leap Frogs floated down to the ground attached to a large American flag.

Whether you come for the music or come for the party, Country Jam USA is better than home-fried grits.

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