The ongoing battle for country music's soul is being waged on side by side stages this weekend at the inaugural Big Barrel festival in Dover, Delaware.
On Friday night on the main stage - where Paul McCartney and Snoop Dogg played last weekend at the Firefly fest - Blake Shelton, star judge of music reality show The Voice, headlined. His set took turns pleasing genders in the multi-generational crowd. He sensitively promised that his favorite thing is "Doin' What She Likes," with one song. And then Shelton - who took the stage to a recording of "Something Bad," a duet between his wife Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, who are scheduled to top the Big Barrel bill on Saturday and Sunday, respectively - shored up his hillbilly bona fides by declaring himself a "down home, backwoods redneck" in "Kiss My Country A--."
The run of acts that preceded Shelton on the main stage were molded by prime time TV experience, including Nashville Star winner Chris Young, One Tree Hill actress turned singer Jana Kramer, and Voice contestant Cassadee Pope. The trio's performances all argued that the allegedly modern sounds of "today's country" are as nostalgic as the genre's traditionalist wing. It's just that contemporary stars emulate the comforting sounds of bygone eras in rock, not country music.
Pope covered The Eagles "Hotel California" (while also reaching out to the NASCAR demo that frequents Dover Downs racetrack across Route 1 with "This Car"). Kramer got into the act with Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." And Young - a burly voiced singer who leans towards legitimate honky tonk and name checked Conway Twitty - offered ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man." Earlier, Massachusetts country singer Joel Krouse won the crowd over with a re-arranged take on Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams."
The music was grittier on the adjacent, well programmed Wildwood stage, where New Orleans folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff and Texas outlaw legend Billy Joe Shaver played, and Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard are set to top the bill on successive evenings this weekend. Friday's standout was Sturgill Simpson, the Kentucky tough guy whose wide ranging ideas, musical and otherwise, powered the bruising songs from last year's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, that filled his rough and ready set. Simpson, who was the only act to also play Firefly, is such a rebel that he wore New Balance sneakers rather than cowboy boots to the country fest, which stayed mercifully dry on Friday. He joked that "when some drunk a-- calls out for Freebird" during the next band's set, he'll actually get to hear it, since the next band was Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The long-in-the-tooth Southern rockers - who stopped using the Confederate flag as a stage backdrop in 2012 because it had been "kidnapped" by "people like the KKK and skinheads," guitarist Gary Rossington has said - played a hits-from-the-70s set. Sure enough, it closed with "Freebird" and it also provided fans with the once in a lifetime opportunity to heed nature's call in a nearby port-o-potty while hearing "That Smell."
For Big Barrel, the venue known as The Woodlands at Dover International Speedway was cut down in size to half the size as for Firefly, and it drew about 30,000, roughly equivalent to what Firefly which lured 90,000 this year, pulled in when it began in 2012.
Various attractions were rebranded for the more family oriented country audience, with hammocks replaced with hay bales and an area used for trippy DJ performances was converted into a petting zoo. The beer tent that showcased local brewery Dogfish Head during Firefly was made over into the Harvest Moon dancehall, where Daisy Duke and cowboy hat wearing female fans showed off dance moves as a DJ spun Florida Georgia Line and Kacey Musgraves (who plays the fest Sunday).
The crowd for both festivals was overwhelming white, with a bit (but not much) more red, white and blue patriotic fashion at Big Barrel. Chairs were allowed for the more sedentary crowd, and the aroma of legal cigarettes was stronger than it was of decriminalized ones at Firefly.
Some scheduling was awkwardly timed at the fest, which is a joint venture between now-partnered Firefly presenters Red Frog Events and Goldenvoice, which puts on the Coachella and Stagecoach country fest in the California desert. There was significant sonic bleed when Skynrd and Kramer were simulataneously on stage, and a momentum killing half hour gap with no music at all between Young's and Shelton's sets.