Massive Two Step Inn Pulls Off Inaugural Fest in Texas

It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, you could only count on one hand the amount of annual festivals that put independent country artists at the forefront. Now not only are there scores of them and more coming online seemingly each week all across the country, we now have a handful of these mega festivals on massive sites with multiple stages drawing tens of thousands of people, and with names like Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers in the headliner spots.

The latest to make a bid as one of the best and biggest on the annual calendar is called Two Step Inn in Georgetown, TX, just north of Austin, which held its inaugural festival on April 15th and 16th. For a first year festival, it deserves credit for pulling it off with flying colors. Where we used to hope a few thousand people would show up to an event with artists not found on mainstream country radio filling out the lineup, Two Step Inn sold out almost immediately, and drew massive crowds over the two days, converting Georgetown’s San Gabriel Park into a teeming country music town with three stages.

Before we get to the music, let’s talk about the festival experience itself, which was surprisingly smooth for a first year festival, and for what they were trying to pull off. Throwing a festival with such a massive attendance with absolutely no on-site parking seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. For those who had to rely on Uber, it was definitely difficult when it came to leaving each night. But the fest’s shuttle bus system to the parking lots of two nearby high schools and a satellite lot in Austin worked surprisingly well.

The site was smartly laid out, and though it was super packed (especially on Saturday), you could make your way to the various shows, and with three stages going on simultaneously, you could take your pick of what to see. What you were missing was your biggest worry as opposed to what to do.

Large shade trees adorn much of the Two Step Inn Grounds between the two side stages.

The food situation did get out of hand come dinner time on Saturday, which did seem to draw a bigger crowd than on Sunday. It could take you upwards of 45 min to an hour in line to get your grub. A second official food section somewhere on the grounds would probably be smart. But on Sunday, the food vendors were more ready for the surge, and things ran much more smoothly. Water and beverages were readily available throughout the fest, and easy to get to.

The other issue had to do with the ticketing tiers for the main stage. Though the two side stages were open to everyone, the main stage had two levels of VIP seating. Though of course people pay for the perks of VIP, the GA audience really seemed to get deprecated a little unfairly. There was so much empty space in the VIP sections, and so little room in the GA area between the VIP fence and a hill and road that ran through the center of the festival, it made it hard for those folks to feel like they were a part of what was going on.

Even moving everything up 12 to 15 feet would have still given VIPs plenty of room, and the GA folks much more space to get comfortable, and be in on the action. Meanwhile, your VIP pass did little for you when it came to getting a better view at the side stages, where anyone could park out in front.

When it comes to the music, there were really four types of performers: independent country artists that made up the headliners and much of the undercard, 80s and 90s country legends that were mostly on the “Showdeo” side stage but a few on the main stage as well, mainstream up-and-comers who played mostly the “Country Curios” stage, and a handful of DJ/hip-hop acts also on the Country Curious stage.

Saturday night headliner Zach Bryan was great (read full review) and so was Sunday night’s Tyler Childers (read full review), with firework displays after each set. Nikki Lane and Charles Wesley Godwin got opportunities on the big stage early on Saturday, and with the way Godwin is catapulting ahead thanks to Zach Bryan, you feel like it’s only a matter of time before he’s headlining big festivals of his own. Zach Bryan came out to sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with Godwin and his backing band The Allegheny High to end his set.

Charles Wesley Godwin

Speaking of catapulting independent country artists, the reception Kaitlin Butts received might have been the most remarkable moment of the entire festival. She was the opening act on the “Showdeo” side stage on Sunday, and even though it was super early, the crowd for her was massive, with folks chanting her name before she came out, and screaming “one more song!” when she left. Even better, this was the stage where the country legends like Pam Tillis and Tracy Byrd were lined up to play the rest of the day. A young performer singing authentic sad country songs didn’t just resonate with Kaitlin’s established crowd, it won over a new audience.

Kaitlin Butts

You also have to give credit to Austin, TX’s Honky Tonk Sweetheart, Katheryn Legendre, who was also a Sunday morning opening act. Anyone who knew what’s up made sure to show up early to catch her set. She’s a perfect example of a local Austin talent that deserves international attention, and along with her badass band including Brian Broussard of Mayeux & Broussard, they put on a killer set of Real.Country.Music straight from the Heart of Texas.

Kathryn had also been working her ass off as part of the crew of Two Step Inn all weekend, speaking to how much Austin music is a community effort, and how much Kathryn Legendre is part of that community. She also benefited from the fact that Drake Milligan canceled last minute, meaning that it gave Kathryn the whole site to herself, and folks who flocked there really enjoyed her set.

Kathryn Legendre

Even with the other big mega festivals like Born & Raised in Oklahoma or Under The Big Sky in Montana, opening performers are usually playing for small crowds, however dedicated they might be. At Two Step Inn though, that wasn’t the case at all. Every performance had a massive crowd, and for the most part, they were enthusiastic.

When it came to the 90s country legends like Doug Stone, David Lee Murphy, Diamond Rio, Shenandoah, Little Texas, Pam Tillis, Lonestar, Tracy Byrd and the like, they all proved why it’s a big mistake that Nashville has been so quick to put them out to pasture. The mix of country fans that the Two Step Inn assembled who were raised on country music both young and old, they were perfect for these performers

“Looking at this crowd—and I love it—a lot of you weren’t even born when this song came out,” Tracy Byrd said at one point during his set. It’s because just like a good pair of blues jeans, good country music never goes out of style. These acts aren’t “90s Country.” Their “County,” period. That is why their music has withstood the test of time.

Tracy Byrd

On Saturday, newly-minted Country Music Hall of Famer Tanya Tucker played the main stage. And when you’ve been anointed a Queen of Country, you act like it. Or at least, Tanya Tucker does. She struts, poses, and sings the hell out of the great country songs that put her in the Hall of Fame. “Two Step Inn? I thought I was playing a Hony Tonk!” she said to the half a hundred thousand or so people at the fest.

Tanya Tucker

It’s a shame that culture war politics have made Travis Tritt so polarizing, because it’s empirically true that he still puts on one hell of a show with songs that helped define “Class of ’89” country. Word is that he and Zach Bryan hung out backstage, and resolved some minor differences stemming from the stupid Bud Light bottle that has now been stricken from production. When it comes time for country music, it’s all one big community, and the Two Step Inn even helped facilitate that.

Travis Tritt

Wynonna Judd also had a big set on the main stage, mixing in her “Big Noise” material with a few Judds classics. Mavis Staples made for yet another queen to take the Two Step Inn main stage, and helped represent the soul and Gospel influence in country.

Wynonna Judd

But two of the more classic performers that everyone was raving about were Saturday night Showdeo stage headliner Jo Dee Messina who put on a veritable sermon, and Sunday night Showdeo stage headliner John Michael Montgomery.

You could almost forget just how many hits John Michael Montgomery had back in the day. He came out holding a somewhat silly-looking Takamine guitar with an American flag graphic on it, and his set was almost wrecked by a power surge. But when he closed his eyes, stopped strumming, and crooned out classics like “I Could Love You Like That” and “I Love The Way You Love Me,” it could make you fall in love with anyone. How country music let this guy age off of radio is a travesty. Thank goodness for events like Two Step Inn that are putting these folks back on stages for appreciative audiences.

John Michael Montgomery

We thought we’d lost Texas country legend Charlie Robison forever. He retired in 2018, citing vocal issue after surgery. But ever since late last year he’s been probing a comeback. If his set at the Two Step Inn was any indication, Charlie Robison is back and in a big way, and doesn’t sound any worse for the wear. He may be sitting down these days, but it was a blazing set of Robison-style country rock backed by his legendary songs and everyone singing along.

Charlie Robison

Pound for pound, the performances at Two Step Inn fest were overwhelmingly positive. But there were some performers who were a big more spotty. Ben Burgess came out with plenty of bluster and attitude, name dropping Morgan Wallen who he’s written songs with. His set was fine, but he forgot his bass player back in Nashville, even though you still heard him on stage—a favorite cost-cutting trick from the Music Row world, but one that doesn’t fly down in Texas.

Alana Springsteen had definitely been through the school in Nashville that teaches you how to move around the stage, gesticulate, and point randomly into the crowd. But her music was light on substance, and she also had instruments in the mix that weren’t on stage, with electronic drum bursts peppering her pop country. Madeline Edwards also comes from the up-and-coming pop country world, but compared to her peers, put on a fully live and organic set.

You really wanted to love Pillbox Patti. After all, she’s the alter ego of songwriter Nicolette Hayford, who has written some quality songs, and she participated in Ashley McBryde’s Lindeville project. But I hate to say that it just didn’t work, at least not at Two Step Inn, with the DJ beats feeling out-of-place, and the main stage gobbling up whatever energy the performance had. It was like a punchline that didn’t land. Priscilla Block didn’t do much better, despite her peppiness. She still hasn’t figured out how to transition from Tik-Tok to being a true country star.

Hailey Whitters was a much healthier option from the Nashville crowd that made it to Texas. She’s spent a dozen year paying dues, and had the slickness of mainstream performance, but with quality songs and genuine appeal behind them. It’s hard to not root for Hailey.

Hailey Whitters

And that brings us to the non country performers: T-Pain, Blanco Brown, and Diplo. These were the wild cards when this festival was announced, and folks wondered how they would go over. There were definitely people at their performances, but that’s just the way Two Step Inn was, and each of these acts offered something a little different.

Coming from the perspective of country music, it was super easy to criticize even including T-Pain in the lineup. That goes without saying. Why not give an opportunity to a country performer? But witnessing the crowd’s reaction, and taking an objective assessment of the performance and music irrespective of genre, it’s hard to not tip your hat to T-Pain. He went into a hostile environment, and absolutely won over an audience who was familiar with his songs, and appreciative for his presence. And these were Texas rednecks mind you, meaning dudes in cowboy hats, and girls in booty short and boots all bouncing up and down to his music.

You can forgive T-Pain in the lineup as a change of pace. He also fits the sort of retro programming of Two Step Inn, because let’s face it, he’s past his prime relevancy. Nobody is trying to pass T-Pain off as “country,” and he seems like a genuine guy. Blanco Brown on the other hand is sold as country, even though he’s about as country as T-Pain. And at least T-Pain has songs. Blanco Brown is a one-hit wonder—the store brand version of Lil Nas X—who just like Priscilla Block, never rally developed. Sure, with a DJ behind him playing samples of things like Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” he got the crowd engaged. But it was basically a generic DJ club set for basic bitches.

And that brings us to Diplo, who for years now has been making these long-winded missives about how he’s connecting to his country roots, and he’s been working with artists inside the country community like Sturgill Simpson. And then he came out behind a big table and put on a straight up DJ set with absolute no country instrumentation involved. This was supposed to be Diplo’s big country moment where he ingratiated himself to the genre, and it was nothing of the sort aside from some of the samples he used later in his set.

Diplo

What Diplo did have was two women come out on and perform on stripper poles. Where Two Step Inn could have had a woman perform in that slot, instead we got Diplo’s objectifying presentation from a guy that’s been credibly accused by high-profile women performers like M.I.A. and Azealia Banks of using them and grooming young women, including Banks who was 17 at the time.

That ain’t country. Diplo is a misogynist and a con artist that has no business being at a country music festival. We don’t need this kind of guy in our community. And the same people who will try to cancel Miranda Lambert for writing a song with Morgan Wallen are curiously mum on this issue.

Did the people at Diplo’s set have a good time? Absolutely. He might have been one of the most buzzed about performers of the fest. Would the fest have still sold out without him? Absolutely. EDM and hip-hop festivals are not out there booking country acts. So why are we booking an EDM DJ of questionable character at a country festival? Book T-Pain or whoever as a change of pace if you must. But with country music’s emphasis on trying to support women in the genre, Diplo has no business being here.

But again, one of the great things about Two Step Inn with its three stages is that if you wanted to avoid Diplo or anyone else, you had plenty of other options, though it was a lot of running around trying to catch everything you might want to see. Expanding to three days, and trying to spread out the acts just a bit more next year might result in an overall more positive experience, along with working with the local cell providers to make sure service stays up since it was crashed out most of the weekend.

What Two Step Inn got right was that you can mix today’s independent country with country legends from the 80s and 90s, and even some of the cool up-and-comers in the mainstream, and have an event that breaks down barriers and cross-pollinates fans bases because it’s all great country music.

Here’s looking forward to Two Step Inn Fest 2024.



All photos Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos

Pam Tillis is an absolute dream live. And now that we’ve put Tanya Tucker in the Hall of Fame…
Doug Stone
Uncle Cracker has the energy of a step dad with delinquent child support and restraining orders. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Midland
Elvie Shane is mainstream country’s new Heartland rocker.
Soul Queen Mavis Staples
Pillbox Patti
David Lee Murphy
Two Step dance floors adorned the grounds
Paul Cauthen
Tanya Tucker on the main stage
Al Torrence and Charles Wesley Godwin
Ben Burgess
Blanco Brown
Calder Allen
Wynonna’s husband/bandmate Cactus Moser
Alana Springsteen
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