Does ’90s Country Deserve It’s Own Fest? Key Western Fest Says “Yes.”

Clint Black / Deana Carter / Clay Walker / Pam Tillis

Is 30-year-old country music really one of the hottest things going in country music today? A new festival down in Key West, Florida called Key Western Fest put that hypothesis to the test last week, and discovered mostly positive answers for ’90s country stars and their fans.

Hearkening back to the last time radio country actually sounded like country, Key Western Fest looked to put many of country music’s greatest talents that have been summarily taken off the stage in recent years for the new flavor of the week back on the stage for appreciative fans.

With performers like Clint Black, Neal McCoy, Clay Walker, Pam Tillis, Sara Evans, Suzy Bogguss, Deana Carter, Little Texas, and Paul Overstreet, the ’90s of country music were well-represented in the lineup. You also had some artists from older eras like The Oak Ridge Boys and Asleep at the Wheel. Southern Rock was also accounted for by The Marshall Tucker Band and The Outlaws, while a few independent acts such as Kendell Marvel and Jamie Lin Wilson also rounded out the lineup.

All of it was presented in one of the best locations to experience live music while much of the United States was hunkered down in an ice storm and searching for the Chinese spy balloon.

When Neal McCoy took the main stage Wednesday night, the reason for creating a festival like Key Western Fest became self-evident. McCoy is 64 going on 23, and might be one of the most energetic and entertaining front men in all of country music at the moment. When this opinion was shared online, another frontman in the running for that distinction in Mike Harmeier of Mike and the Moonpies chimed in, “Best entertainer I’ve ever had the privilege to see.”

You don’t just get a country music show when Neal McCoy takes the stage, you get a comedy show, and all off-the-cuff, with no set list and no net. He came out in a Key Western Fest T-shirt, but said, “Don’t buy this. Buy my shit!” Full of one-liners but no dad jokes or schmaltz, McCoy’s hit songs of his like “The Shake” and “Wink” were hard to not fall for. Right then and there, the idea behind Key Western Fest was validated. If there’s guys as arresting as Neal McCoy out there not headlining festivals, we’re doing something wrong.

Neal McCoy

“You may have heard this song in 19 and … damn, all of our hits were last century,” McCoy said at one point. This was a recurring theme throughout the week from country entertainers who are used to apologizing to crowds for playing, or explaining why the audience should care. But this wasn’t necessary for the patrons of Key Western Fest. Key West is not easy to get to, and not cheap to stay. The fans who’d made their way to the island were there to see those artists specifically, knew the words to many of their songs, and were more than appreciative. They were especially appreciative to see many of their favorite artists in one place.

There was an appreciable difference between the type of country music that was presented at Key Western Fest, and the music that was presented at Mile 0 Fest the previous week also on Key West. On the Texas/Red Dirt/independent-oriented Mile 0 Fest lineup, the front artists always played acoustic guitars, for example. At Key Western Fest, only a few did. At Mile 0, the artists are all working on forging their own legacies. At Key Western, many of the performers were keeping their legacies alive.

With some of the acts you could tell that time had not been as kind to compared to others. If you’re a true ’90s country fan, then you know Doug Stone and songs like “Too Busy Being in Love” and “A Different Light.” It was heart warming to see Stone on stage once again in front of adoring fans, but he had some trouble re-creating the magic of the original songs in the live context, and 30 years beyond their original release.

At this point, The Marshall Tucker Band is mostly just a tribute act, with the only original member left being lead vocalist Doug Gray who spent much of their set either ceding the microphone to other members of the band, or compelling the crowd to sing for him—both of which were better alternatives to Gray singing himself. The music was all there including the legendary flute parts, but the soul of the original band was only present in fleeting moments.

All of the headliners acts were lights out though. Along with Neal McCoy, Clint Black has lost nothing on his fast ball over the years, and has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of resurgence in ’90s country, including touring with Cody Jinks. Black also had his wife Lisa Hartman come out to sing a few songs, along with his daughter Lily Pearl. When Lily came out at the beginning of the encore, sat down at the piano, and launched into the opening to The Eagles song “Desperado,” it was one of the highlights of the whole festival.

Clint Black

A member of the “Class of ’89” with Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, the only reason Clint Black isn’t headlining arenas at the moment is due to his decision to take time off to start a family in 2001. To this day, Clint Black is still putting family first. And even though Lisa Hartman’s pop stylings might not appeal to her husband’s fan base perfectly, you can’t blame Black for keeping his priorities in life straight.

Though The Oak Ridge Boys are all getting up there in age, you sure can’t tell it when their four-part harmonies come ringing through the speakers. Joe Bonsall had to be helped to the stage by Duane Allen due to a bad leg, and Richard Sterban was missing due to a hand injury. But bass singer Aaron McCune filled in admirably, and they put on a rousing set for the Key Western crowd. To read a full review of The Oak Ridge Boys set and a feature on Aaron McCune, CLICK HERE.

Clay Walker also put on a rousing set of (mostly) traditional country. Massive in the ’90s, it wasn’t the ills of the country music industry that took him off the radio as much as a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis that put country music on the sidelines for a while. Showing little illness or issues these days aside from sitting on a stool for much of the second half of his set, Walker came out to an energetic opening video montage with a voice proclaiming he was here to “save country music.”

This is true for the most part when it comes to Clay Walker’s Strait-style of straight ahead country music. But when he played a song he touted as rising on radio with an electronic drum beat that rhymes “John Deere” with “cold beer,” you could tell that Clay wasn’t exactly ready to relinquish his popular music relevancy just yet.

Clay Walker

As great as all the big headliners were, one of the biggest conversation points throughout the weekend was how the women were outclassing some of the men on the lineup. Pam Tillis was one of the highlights of the week. When she performed Thursday night (2-2), she said, “I’ve been around so long, I’ve done bell bottoms three times.” But good country music never goes out of style. Pam Tillis is the perfect example of that. She still has it like it’s 1991 and she just released “Maybe It Was Memphis.”

Pam Tillis

If you want to see a master class in performance, how to center a song in music, how to exude grace and class at every turn, go see Suzy Bogguss in concert. She played with just a standup bass player and an acoustic/B-Bender guitar player, and that’s all she needed to hold the audience in rapt attention and get them singing along.

Bogguss also performed at the 150-year-old San Carlos Theater in Key West with Jamie Lin Wilson as part of a more intimate showcase during the week. The two have been friends for some years, and had some great stories to tell. And when Wilson joined Bogguss and her band on the harmonica, it was heavenly.

Suzy Bogguss

Deana Carter also stunned on Saturday night, capping off her set with a performance of “Strawberry Wine” that got downright teary for some. It’s songs like “Strawberry Wine” that have only grown better with time, and performers like the ageless and ravishing Deana Carter that allows a festival like Key Western Fest to work so well.

Unfortunately, Keith Whitley is no longer around to sing “When You Say Nothing At All,” and Randy Travis can no longer perform “Forever and Ever, Amen” for himself. But you can still witness the songwriter of these songs perform them, and that’s exactly what Paul Overstreet did. He was another highlight of the festival.

Paul Overstreet

There was also a bit of musical chairs happening at Key Western Fest. Little Texas headlined the very first night of the festival on Tuesday (1-31), which was a free-to-the-public block party on Duval Street in Key West. Lead guitarist and vocalist Porter Howell is still with the band, but Tim Rushlow left in 1997. However, Tim Rushlow was on the island, playing in his new outfit called The Frontmen with Larry Stewart of Restless Heart, and Richie McDonald with Lonestar. The trio ran through pretty much every hit from all three bands, as well as some songs they’re working on via their new label BBR.

Southern rock band BlackHawk played on Thursday evening (2-2), and The Outlaws played on Friday evening (2-3), but the bands were basically the same aside from the set list behind frontman Henry Paul. Yes, The Outlaws played “Green Grass & High Tides,” and yes, it was pretty epic, probably lasting a good dozen minutes. Neither BlackHawk nor The Outlaws missed a beat.

BlackHawk / The Outlaws

Another big takeaway from the week was the return of Terry McBride’s project McBride and the Ride. Not only did Terry McBride write upwards of 25 songs for Brooks & Dunn—and well as contribute songs to Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, and George Strait—McBride and the Ride had a string of Top 5 hits in the early ’90s too. For the folks who showed up early on Saturday to the amphitheater, they got a treat with a band that doesn’t feel like it’s riding off nostalgia, but is as fresh and relevant as ever.

Terry McBride of McBride and the Ride

A lot of folks who’ve attended Mile 0 Fest previously may wonder the logistical difference between the two festivals. There really weren’t any, but with a smaller lineup, there was less going on in the day during Key Western Fest, and it was mostly centered around the amphitheater shows at night.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t thing to do during the day though. There were “Gold and Platinum Parties” for ticket holders of those tiers featuring Pam Tillis and Suzy Bogguss. Lucas Jagnaeux and the Roadshow out of Louisiana were hosting daily sail parties that people could purchase tickets for, with folks exiting the two-hour excursions as new fans of the country revivalist who knew a lot of the ’90s hits down pat to blend with his ’90s-inspired originals.

Lucas Jagneaux and the Roadshow playing on a sailboat

Kendell Marvel also hosted afterparties at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon, while Cliff Cody played early sets at The Tuna for folks sipping mimosas. But still with the shortened schedule, Key Western Fest was a bit more laid back and easier to manage. You didn’t feel like you were missing out on something all the time. Then again, at Mile 0 Fest, you always had plenty of options on what to do.

Now a permanent Key West resident, Cliff Cody is worth seeing live.

You can probably expect some tweaking to the lineup for Key Western Fest when next year comes around. Weeding out some of the acts simply riding off of legacy names, and replacing them with performers that still put on a great show whether you remember them or not would be a good idea. Songwriters like Suzy Bogguss and Paul Overstreet were big hits, even if they didn’t have a ton of big hits themselves back in the day.

It might also be cool to see more cross pollination between Mile 0 Fest and Key Western Fest, with perhaps a band like American Aquarium reprising their ’90s cover albums at the fest, or Mike and the Moonpies doing their Gary Stewart material. Some bands work good for both fests. You could definitely see someone like Suzy Bogguss playing both. Some fans did stay for both fests, but a few tweaks in the lineup may facilitate more of this.

Promoter Kyle Carter promised there would be a Year 2 of Key Western Fest, and what they don’t need to wrinkle out are any of the logistics, which were just about perfect. Attending a festival in Key West is not cheap. But it’s also such a better experience than being out in a field in August. Holding festivals back to back in Key West creates an ease of operation, and the same company is also holding a classic metal festival the week before Mile 0 Fest.

Many of the patrons to Key Western Fest said they would love to be back, and so would Saving Country Music. What’s better than true country music in paradise? But what doesn’t need to make a comeback next year is the feeling by some performers that they need to explain or excuse who they are, and why they are there. The era of ’90s country artists were many of the last in mainstream country music to keep the roots alive in country, and to release quality songs to radio.

It shouldn’t be considered “’90s country music.” It should be considered “country music.” The excuse is what needs to be made with everything that happened after the ’90s. Along with giving these artists their rightful place on a big stage in front of adoring fans, Key Western Fest illustrated this truth with five days of great artists who never should have been deprecated from popular country. Thankfully, it’s the music of these ’90s artists and the resurgent appeal for it that is helping to save country music, just like the music from the new generation of up-and-comers represented at Mile 0 Fest the week before.

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All photos by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos.

Sincere apologies to any artist not mentioned or pictured.

Kendell Marvel led off the street party on Duval on Tuesday
Street party in front of Key West’s famous Sloppy Joe’s
Tim Rushlow of The Frontmen (formerly of Little Texas)
Frontman Richie McDonald of Lonestar
Frontman Larry Stewart of Restless Heart
Mark Miller of Sawyer Brown
Sara Evans
Little Texas
Porter Howell of Little Texas
Dwayne O’Brien of Little Texas
Duane Propes of Little Texas
T. Graham Brown played with the band Ricochet backing him up.
Sax player Tim Coleman playing with T. Graham Brown
Doug Gray of The Marshall Tucker Band
Marshall Tucker Band
Doug Stone
Pam Tillis playing on Key West’s famous Sunset Pier
Folks can ride floating tiki bars and listen to music
Suzy Bogguss playing the amphitheater.
Suzy Bogguss playing the 150-year-old San Carlos theater with Jamie Lin Wilson. It was sponsored by Robert’s Western World, and attendees received a fried bologna sandwich, a Moon Pie, and a bag of chips when entering, like the recession special at Robert’s in Nashville.
San Carlos Theater
The Outlaws
Henry Paul of BlackHawk and The Outlaws
Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel
Asleep At The Wheel
Neal McCoy acting crazy
Deana Carter
Jamie Lin Wilson
Lucas Jagneaux
Mile 0 Fest / Key Western Fest Owner/promoter Kyle Carter
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