It was a rather ambitious plan by the Austin, TX-based C3 Presents and their parent company LiveNation. But seeing the swelling appeal for independent country and country-adjacent indie rock/Americana, they decided to launch the inaugural FairWell Fest in Deschutes County, Oregon, which is in the central part of the state, anchored by the population hub of Bend that is known for having the last Blockbuster Video location in the United States (among other things).
Held at the impressive Deschutes County Fairgrounds in Redmond just north of Bend, FairWell Fest saw a reported 60,000 individuals participate in the event over the three days, with an estimated 30,000 showing up for what turned out to be the biggest crowd of the event during Zach Bryan’s performance Saturday night (7-22). The Turnpike Troubadours headlined Friday, and Willie closed out the festivities on Sunday, with dozens of other national touring acts filling out the impressive roster.
For independent country fans throughout the region and well beyond, the lineup was too good to turn down, and many traveled great distances to take in FairWell Fest, as well as the outdoor and recreational opportunities Central Oregon offers. More of a destination Festival than a regional one, the lineup lived up to any and all expectations according to attendees. No cancellations or subpar sets were to be had on the weekend, and the festival offered ample opportunities for discovering new artists as well.
For those living in the Central Oregon region, appeal is not what they were concerned about as much as the logistics of bringing such a large event to the area. It was only a few years ago that Central Oregon was considered one of the most isolated locales in the United States. That was the appeal of it for many of it’s residents, including many who moved to Bend, Redmond, or nearby Sisters from bigger cities.
“Bendchella” and other euphemisms were bandied about by some Oregon residents when they saw the ambitious size of the event. As a very independent-minded and locally-oriented state, there was little grousing about who was selected for the lineup of FairWell Fest since they were mostly independent artists. It was more a concern about the strain on infrastructure, the encroachment on established country and roots festivals in the region (read a detailed report), as well as the lack of support for local talent on FairWell Fest’s big stages that levied the most concern.
Word is that representatives from C3 Presents had scoped out arguably the first independent country megafestical Under The Big Sky Fest in Whitefish, Montana during previous years. In 2023, Under The Big Sky occurred the weekend before FairWell. Though 10 hours apart and two states over may not exactly sound “close” to those living back east, in the great expanse of the West, the two fests might as well be neighbors.
FairWell Fest and Under The Big Sky shared very similar lineups in 2023, including Zach Bryan, Charles Wesley Godwin, Charley Crockett, Luke Grimes, Shane Smith and the Saints, 49 Winchester, Bella White, and Drayton Farley all performing at both. Other big artists such as the Turnpike Troubadours, The Band of Horses, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, and Stephen Wilson Jr. had played Under The Big Sky Fest previously and FairWell this year. Part of the calculus for FairWell Fest clearly was that some artists would already be routing through the region because of Under The Big Sky.
Where Under The Big Sky Fest only has two stages, FairWell Fest took it to three. Where getting between stages at Under The Big Sky is rather arduous due to the distance and a large hill in between, FairWell Fest was relatively easy on flat ground. However, with three stages, fans had to sometimes make tough decision about who to see. For example, on Sunday both 49 Winchester and Drayton Farley were booked at the same time. Instead of staggering the stage times, the smallest “Metolius” stage would run simultaneous with the main “Deschutes” stage. Then in between, artists would perform on the 2nd biggest “Crooked” stage.
The FairWell Fest stages were named after nearby rivers running through Central Oregon. The “Three Sisters” peaks as part of the Cascade range could be seen from the site. The Deschutes Stage was also oriented to where you could see the crescent moon each evening during the headlining set, making for some cool visuals.
Despite the beauty and ease of the setting, FairWell Fest was still a bit taxing on patrons with temperatures in the 90s, and virtually no cloud cover for shade. Though the fest did provide shade under some general use tents and other places, throughout the day, people lined up around fence lines, beneath the few trees, and even used a FairWell Fest archway to grab some respite from the scorching sun.
Shade was not the only logistical concern that presented itself. On Saturday during Zach Bryan’s set, the crowd swelled so big, people were forced to stand or sit at the extremities and far away from the main stage. Though a set of satellite speaker bays were positioned behind the sound booth to help boost the signal for those in back, people could barely hear the music at all to the sides, with ticket holders frustrated they had paid a premium to see Zach Bryan, but could not hear him, or find somewhere to stand where they could.
Afterwards, 30,000 people all trying to leave the Deschutes County Fairgrounds at once resulted in a logistical nightmare, with many accounts of it taking as much as three hours to leave being shared online, while the traffic snarl also caused headaches for some individuals living in the area. Though not responsible for parking and traffic control, according to the Deschutes County Sheriff Department, they declared a safety emergency due to the traffic issue, worried about ingress and egress for emergency vehicles, and eventually stepping in to help in the situation.
Angry patrons took to social media to complain about the traffic experience. FairWell Fest currently holds a 2.2 out of 5 rating on Facebook, with the vast majority of negative comments coming from the traffic issue. Otherwise, when it came to public safety and arrests, FairWell Fest was uncommonly peaceful, especially considering the size, the age, and some of the frustrations of attendees for the Zach Bryan performance Saturday night.
“There were three arrests affected over the weekend,” Sergeant Jason Wall of the Deschutes County Sheriff tells Saving Country Music. “That is absolutely amazing. I would never have guessed three. I would have guessed it would be north of 20 or 30, which wouldn’t have been unreasonable given the amount of people there. We also had zero force responses. Our deputies did not have to get into any use of force throughout the entire weekend. That’s unprecedented. The patrons ensured a seamless event for us as law enforcement.”
However, there was a pretty serious medical emergency during the set of Luke Grimes (Kayce Dutton from Yellowstone). A man passed out in the VIP section and the show was stopped. The VIP section was cleared out, and the man was eventually taken away in an ambulance. This wasn’t just the normal heat exhaustion or drunk patron case, and some witnesses said first responders performed CPR. Saving Country Music has tried to find the status of the individual, but has not been able to learn any further information.
Entry into the event was also relatively easy, with C3 Presents mailing out wristbands prior to the event, and making sure prohibited items were clearly communicated. And though shade was at a premium, water stations were prevalent and easy, big water-cooled fans were available, and for VIP or Platinum upgrades, air conditioned areas were accessible.
The suggestions for improvement would be:
1. Better traffic management or capping capacity.
2. More clearly marked and enforced walking paths, and “no chairs beyond this point” areas.
3. More speaker bays on the sides of the main stage.
4. More opportunities for shade, especially in areas where the stages can still be viewed, if not moving some performance indoors in the cavernous venues on the Deschutes County Fairgrounds site.
5. Include more local/regional bands and businesses.
The reason FairWell Fest drew some 60,000 people from around the country was due to the beefy once-in-a-lifetime lineup the organizers were able to assemble. Despite being considered a regional band from Oklahoma for much of their career, the Turnpike Troubadours proved that the appeal for Red Dirt has made it to the Pacific Northwest when they took the stage to an enthusiastic crowd that sang along to many of their songs, and listened intently when they featured a few new ones from their upcoming album A Cat in the Rain out August 25th.
Despite the logistical issues that persisted during and after Zach Bryan’s set, the viral star also from Oklahoma put on a great show. As anyone who has seen Zach Bryan live will attest, fans were singing every single word to every single song throughout the performance. An extra special moment happened when Zach invited a fan named Andrew up on the stage to sing “Heading South.”
thank you andrew and thank you to the fairwell festival♬ original sound – Zach Bryan
The crowd was significantly different on Sunday night for Willie Nelson’s closing set, much older, but just as appreciative to see the 90-year-old country legend in the flesh. Willie performed on a stool flanked by his son Micah, who sang a couple of his own songs as well from his band Particle Kid. As is often the case, it took a bit for Willie to warm up. But by mid set, he was cracking jokes, and tearing it up on the guitar.
One thing Willie Nelson did not do was call out Jason Aldean from the stage due to the recent controversy over Aldean’s song “Try That Here in a Small Town,” despite a viral video alluding that he did. Instead, one of the highlights of the set is when Willie sang “Everything Is Bullshit” with son Micah, which takes on a special poignancy after the Jason Aldean falsehood spread online like wildfire. Willie was also wearing an “Everything Is Bullshit” Particle Kid T-shirt on stage.
Another one of the standout sets from the weekend was Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Though they’ve been around for years, they came out like they had something to prove. Whether it’s because they got put on the second stage, or because all drugs are legal in Oregon, they put on an uncommonly raucous and inspired set. It was one of those performances where you swear to yourself you’re going to get a tattoo of the band on your ass since they were so good.
The set of Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway took on special significance since it came on the day after the release of their new album City of Gold. Not all heroes wear capes, but Molly Tuttle did when she took the FairWell Fest stage. Leaping tall buildings in a single bound and blazing through impossible flat picking runs are Molly’s superpowers. Tuttle is saving bluegrass music by instilling it with a new enthusiasm and vigor that has the future of the genre in good hands.
Perhaps the biggest discovery of the fest was Wyatt Flores out of Oklahoma. Playing the smallest Metolius stage on Friday, he drew the biggest crowd on that stage of the fest. The crowd was filled with enthusiastic folks who knew every word to his songs, including his recent single “Holes.” After opening for 49 Winchester and others, Wyatt’s garnered a huge following, and Charles Wesley Godwin came out and sang with him too. Wyatt’s band is stellar as well, including his fiddle player Kenzie Sue Miracle.
Another great discovery on the bluegrass side is AJ Lee and Blue Summit. A supergroup of sorts, it’s not just about AJ, who is a kickass mandolin player and songwriter. Each player in the band could have their own bluegrass outfit and takes turns singing lead. The band also includes Sullivan “Sully” Tuttle, who is Molly Tuttle’s brother, and as inexplicable as it sounds, might be a better guitar player than even her. AJ Lee used to play in the Tuttle Family Band.
Though you had to get there early, songwriter Caitlin Rose also turned in a memorable set on the Metolius stage. It’s hard to convince someone who has just been in the audience of Caitlin that she doesn’t have one of the most sublime voices in music, with the songwriting acuity to activate that voice in ways that roil emotions often left dormant in everyday life. Though she disappeared for about a decade, she recently released a new album called CAZIMI.
FairWell Fest also included a little bit of soul and blues in the form of Gary Clark Jr. and Yola. Gary Clark Jr. is about the perfect guy to slide onto the lineup of a country fest for a little change of pace. He’s one blues-sligning bad mother from Austin. Though a could fan can be rendered a little frustrated that Yola has gone from being a country soul queen to more of a straight up soul singer these days, it’s still hard to not bow to the talent.
Though mostly a country music festival, the FairWell Fest lineup also had an ample amount of indie rock with bands like Mt. Joy, Band of Horses, and Lucius. Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig of Lucius have harmonies and a harmonious presentation that is incredibly soul-stirring and inspiring. They’ve collaborated with many alt-country/Americana acts, but you would love for them to throw their harmonies behind a straight up traditional country Gothic project at some point.
Shane Smith and the Saints, Charley Crockett, 49 Winchester, and Charles Wesley Godwin all did killer sets as some of the fastest rising independent country acts out there. The crowd for Crockett was incredible on the 2nd stage, even if it felt like he was dragging by about half a beat after finishing a run of 60 days on the road at FairWell Fest. But he’d earned a set where he could exhale as one of the hardest working men in country music.
Charles Wesley Godwin not only sang with Wyatt Flores, he had Zach Bryan step off a plane and come sing “Jamie” with him during his Friday afternoon set. The way Godwin gives it all in his music, you get the sense he’d jump on a grenade for his platoon, take a bullet for his friend, or ford a swollen river to rescue his kinfolk.
The quality of talent was never the concern about FairWell Fest, and the weekend was one killer set after another. The concern was always about a big out-of-town promoter coming into local-oriented Central Oregon and taking over. In some ways, FairWell Fest ingratiated themselves to the local community by bringing so much economic stimulus and importing so much talent to the region.
At the same time, overselling Saturday night and being ill-prepared for the traffic snarl that developed was exactly what naysayers were afraid of, and fed right into the hands of the critics of the fest. What didn’t happen was the widespread concerns over rowdy behavior, crime, arrests, and other issues that local residents had voiced going into the fest, which is a testament to the type of fans FairWell Fest attracted.
Whether FairWell Fest returns or not is yet to be determined, though Deschutes County Fairgrounds Director Geoff Hinds said, “I believe they had a fantastic first year experience. We’re certainly open to having that conversation and that’s the decision they need to make.”
It also remains up in the air if C3 Presents and FairWell Fest can be facilitators and good faith partners in the effort to expand independent country and roots music further into the Pacific Northwest, or if they will continue to impinge on the established festivals that helped open up Oregon to independent country music in the first place.
Independent country is no longer underground. Events like FairWell Fest and the 60,000 people it drew to a remote area illustrate this. Like anything, that is going to result in growing pains. But ultimately, if it remains about the music and helps support the artistry, it can still be a positive thing.
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All photos by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos. Apologies to artists not pictured or mentioned. With three stages, not everything could be covered. For more photos and media, check out Saving Country Music on Instagram.