To anyone that has been to major music festivals, the vision that Rock the South organizers have for what they want the Cullman, Alabama festival to become is clear: a country music version of Bonnaroo. Cullman native Shane Quick first brought the event to Heritage Park in 2012 at a capacity of about 25,000. It was a site that saw many artists on the way up like Eric Church and Luke Bryan and other legacy acts like Alan Jackson and Hank Williams, Jr.
This year, the festival moved to a larger space — a much larger space.
In one year, Rock the South jumped from 15 acres to 150 acres. It added on-site parking, on-site camping and RV parking for the first time. They moved their capacity from about 25,000 to about 40,000. It took an excessive amount of arm-twisting and pulling of teeth to get the City of Cullman — a fairly rural, north-central Alabama community with a population of about 16,000 that first allowed alcohol sales in 2011 — to grant the permits needed for the event. Many local residents were skeptical at best; most were extremely unhappy about the circumstances that would lead that much traffic down their county roads.
What overcoming that fight gave the community was people that traveled from at least 40 states (and even some from overseas) to camp in Cullman, spend money at local hotels, spend money at local restaurants and gladly dump money into a community that needs it. The RV lots were full. The people that traveled from far and wide weren’t there for primitive camping and living off of peanut butter sandwiches. Many were more than happy to pay any price for convenience and entertainment.
What the fight led to for music fans were growing pains that were most evident on day one. I can’t speak for every experience, but it took me two hours from the moment I turned off the interstate to get to my parking space — approximately two miles away. Concession lines were excessive. Elbow room wasn’t easy to come by. There’s no way to sugarcoat that a lot of people were unhappy on Friday.
It was a perfect storm that, fortunately, was granted perfect weather. Brooks & Dunn and Kid Rock were the final two acts playing on the festival’s first day. They drew the largest crowds, by far, and festival organizers not only had little time to prepare for the larger crowds, but they also had no time to correct it on the fly.
Most of those problems were solved on Saturday. The team worked diligently throughout the night and early morning to troubleshoot and they were largely successful. There were smaller issues like credit card machines that stopped working at all concessions. But the flow of traffic, both of cars and of people, was much smoother.
Here’s the thing: the residents of Manchester and Tullahoma, Tennessee weren’t really in love with the idea of Bonnaroo 17 years ago either. And at some point, they all realized that one weekend a year can vastly improve the quality of life for everyone in town. That’s where Rock the South is going if the city of Cullman embraces its potential. That’s the scale that the festival was operating at this year. It was just one stage, but the new space can certainly accommodate more.
The music should always be the beginning and end of these reviews, but the four arena acts that headlined this year’s festival did exactly what those four arena acts do — they performed nearly flawless, hit-laden, crowd-pleasing sets. When Kid Rock, Florida Georgia Line, Brooks & Dunn and Jake Owen are performing, there isn’t much worry about getting your money’s worth.
Brooks & Dunn: Brooks & Dunn opened with “Brand New Man,” the first track from their debut album. They rolled through every hit they’ve charted in nearly 30 years, concluding with “Only in America.” Marines marched on stage and stood to salute the crowd as the duo kicked off a string of praise to patriotism in a part of the country that was more than willing to show its appreciation.
Kid Rock: Kid Rock cussed. A lot. As Kid Rock is wont to do. And maybe that’s why locals were uneasy. Kid Rock also played a long video before his final song (as he always does) honoring the blue-collar, working-class people that serve the country. There was pyro and bright, neon lights. There was “Picture,” a song that had a stand-in for Sheryl Crow’s part of the duet, which earned the most boisterous approval of the evening from the audience.
Jake Owen: It would have been impossible to make all of the potential artists on the bill with existing duets line up correctly on the schedule, but matching Owen and Kid Rock for “Grass is Always Greener” would have probably been the most exciting. Nevertheless, Owen performed the track from his latest album, with Kid Rock “piped in,” and all of the other tracks that have made the album a massive success in 2019: “I Was Jack (You Were Diane),” “Down to the Honkytonk” and his latest single, a track that would have fit into Tim McGraw’s 1997 catalog seamlessly, “Homemade.” Jake was amazing at interacting with fans. He hopped into the crowd, he walked down the catwalk, even borrowing folks’ phones long enough to snap selfies with them. He stopped to sign hats and he stopped to accept bras thrown at him.
For me, he was the highlight of the weekend — an artist for which I had no real expectation regarding his live show that blew me away. Before concluding with “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” his band left him alone on stage and he noted, “There’s a spot here where it just says on the setlist, ‘Jake Acoustic,’ and that’s usually where I do whatever the hell I want.” On this night, he noted that his tour manager, a Fort Payne, Alabama native, also served as Alabama’s tour manager. He then proceeded to cover “My Home’s in Alabama,” a move that felt even more embraced by the local audience than Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.”
Florida Georgia Line: FGL performed perfectly. They probably even had their setlist correct at most arena stops in, say, Minneapolis or even Oklahoma City. But I think Florida Georgia Line gambled far too much on a rural Alabama crowd caring about their later songs. Hardy, their longtime collaborator and songwriter who had performed earlier in the day, joined the duo for “Y’all Boys” early on. Then, fourth in the set, they played “Cruise.” Then, seventh in the set, they played “Round Here.” It was a curious decision, opting to hold songs like “Meant to Be,” for which they brought out Lauren Alaina for Bebe Rexha‘s part. They might have misjudged their audience.
Rock the South has become one of the top country music festivals in the country. It’s routinely ranked among the top ten in listicles. And why shouldn’t it be? It has always brought the best talent in country music to a part of the country that craves it. It’s always done it at affordable prices. And now, it’s spread out and it can allow many more ways for people to make an entire weekend experience out of it.
Let’s hope the City of Cullman sees the value in lending a hand.