It’s real easy to rage against mainstream country radio these days with the way it dramatically underserves the interests of actual country music fans. But believe it or not, there are still radio stations out there that employ real live human DJs, play music from local and regional artists, invite performers into the studio for interviews and performances, and do it all while worrying first about the community they serve as opposed to obsessing over the bottom line.
This isn’t some bygone ideal, it’s the future of how radio will survive in the internet age—by insisting on making those personal connections with listeners, and hearkening back to an era where your local radio personalities felt like a members of your family, playing the artists you want to hear as opposed to what is dictated down from on high nationally.
Just this week, country radio trade periodical Billboard Country Update published a story about how some mainstream radio stations are starting to add Texas/Red Dirt artists to the mix to delineate themselves from competition, and with success. Well, welcome to the party. For ten years, KOKE-FM in Austin has already been doing that, and proving the local way of doing country radio is still possible after DJ Eric Raines and others revitalized the legendary Central Texas radio station that originally took up the mantle of Outlaw country in 1972 after Willie Nelson moved back to Austin.
Now celebrating five years of gathering in festival form, KOKEFest attracts a huge crowd of local KOKEheads, as well as people from across the country who want to get the genuine Texas country experience, including those who regularly listen to the station remotely online. With only one stage, and a super inviting site with installations and local vendors that make you feel like you’re walking into a Texas music village, KOKEfest is one of the best “hang” festivals out there.
But of course, the music is what people come for, and the 2022 lineup didn’t disappoint, whether you were looking for something new to discover, or wanted bask in the music of your favorite long-time Texas music favorites and headliners. The 2022 lineup was also Country with a capital ‘C’.
If you’re looking for the future of traditional country music, then look no further than Triston Marez, Larry Fleet, and Randall King, who all got things stated of Friday, August 5th. Country Music Hall of Famer Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn just released a song he co-wrote with Triston Marez called “Where The Neon Lies.” That’s how much Ronnie Dunn thinks about him, while Dunn also appeared of Triston’s version of the song that appears on his self-titled debut album from 2021.
Larry Fleet is a performer who is a bit more in the Nashville mind frame than the Texas one. It felt a little out-of-place when he stood up on stage name dropping Morgan Wallen and Luke Bryan. But undoubtedly, his music is much more country and soulful than what you expect from the Nashville crowd, and his Friday afternoon performance was impressive. Same can be said for up-and-comer Tanner Usrey from Prosper, TX, who also brings that soulful approach to country, opening his set early Saturday with the Rod Stewart-era Faces song “Stay With Me.” He didn’t allow technical issues with his guitar throughout the set to get in the way of delivering an impassioned performance.
Muscadine Bloodline may be from Alabama, but like so many artists and bands who take a more independent approach to country music, it’s the Texas market where they’ve been embraced, thanks to stations like KOKE spinning their songs when the mainstream outlets take a pass. The KOKEFest crowd already knew their big songs, and sang along, including their opening song “Dispatch to 16th Ave.” protesting music row, and their massive hit, “Porch Swing Angel.”
But the guy who you feel like is poised to slingshot right into the big time if just given the right opportunities is Randall King. Already signed to a major label, over the last few years he’s become even more of a seasoned performer, still remaining strikingly traditional as an artist, but with a cool factor few traditional artists can pull off. Think of Dwight Yoakam in his prime, with a swagger that puts him on the next level. If you want to hear the continuation of country music that sounds like the stuff George Strait and Alan Jackson released in the late 80s and into the 90s, Randall King takes the crown.
The lady from the early acts that really stood out was Jamie Lin Wilson, partly because she was the only lady to perform all weekend. But tasked for making the case for all the women in country music, she made a strong one with the time she had, sharing the stage with Bryon White of The Damn Quails who she also let sing a song during her truncated set. And as an extra surprise, Kyle Nix of the Turnpike Troubadours (& Kyle Nix & the 38’s), came out to perform with Jamie Lin on her final song. Later Wilson came out to guest herself with American Aquarium on a rather epic version of the song “Lonely Ain’t Easy.”
American Aquarium had somewhat of a surprisingly deep set. Instead of coming out guns blazing like they sometimes do, BJ Barham walked out in a reserved manner, singing the heartbreaking title track to their new album, Chicamacomico. The set also had some more energetic moments, like “Casualties” and other crowd favorites. But perhaps sensing an attentive audience that was willing to listen ahead of Robert Earl Keen’s much-anticipated set, American Aquarium pulled out their ‘A’ list songwriting material as well.
Speaking of songwriting, if you’re looking for a band that’s carrying the torch for Southern Rock forward without sacrificing that kind of songwriting the punches you square in the gut, don’t resign yourself to following that group of local dudes driving around in an old Methodist Church van that you’re pretty sure are cooking meth in their singlewide’s bathtub. Get clued into The Steel Woods. Despite the passing of Jason “Rowdy” Cope, Wes Bayliss and The Steel Woods continue to be one of the top torch bearers in Southern Rock, with guitarist Tyler Powers filling in admirably.
Aaron Watson came out on the KOKE Fest stage Friday night to get things warmed up for Clint Black with his snarly new song “Cheap Seats” that gives a what for to Music Row in Nashville. But the biggest takeaway from the set might have been Watson’s son Jake. When he first came out on stage with an acoustic guitar you thought, “Oh isn’t that nice. Aaron Watson has his son up there with him.” But when Jake Watson picked up an electric guitar and started shredding through a bunch of old classics, he damn near stole the show. Even pops was fan girling out with his iPhone.
We’re not ready for the road to end for Robert Earl Keen. We don’t think of him as an oldtimer. He’s the guy who came along after all of the old timers, and had us believing in music all over again. But after 41 years of touring, he’s hanging it up for good on September 4th. And on the final leg of his farewell tour, he made a special stop at KOKEFest to pay tribute to the radio station that has supported him over the years.
His set seemed a little short, and even though officially there’s been no pronouncement of a health ailment, you worry Robert Earl Keen is not at 100%. But even though he’s sitting now on stage, his energy was as high as ever, and you can tell he’s a guy who sees the finish line, and is giving it everything he’s got until the very end, while fans returned that energy, knowing they are very likely seeing him for the last time. He did seem a little uneasy, fussing with equipment and such in between each song. But every moment was cherished by fans.
Clint Black is also a guy that wouldn’t be insulted if you pointed out is past his prime. But that’s the great thing about country music. The legendary status of the music and the artists only grows with age. It’s not every day you get to bask in the greatness of a true country legend like Clint Black, but KOKEFest in Texas arranged that for attendees in 2022. It was a great set of of all the hits and then some to cap off Friday night, illustrating why it’s about time Clint Black joined his fellow “Class of ’89” members Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But of course, the biggest draw, and the most anticipated performance of the weekend was the Turnpike Troubadours making their return to the Austin area to close out KOKEFest 2022 on Saturday night. This summer they’ve been playing all the the most important events. And whatever event Turnpike plays, it immediately makes it important.
This is their moment. This is their era. The crowd was as enthusiastic as ever, singing every word to every song, and losing their minds during an epic version of “Long Hot Summer Day” to close out the show, and the festival.
Texas in August is unbearably hot, though cooling stations helped, as did a rain shower Saturday afternoon that had attendees cheering as the drops came down, and was perfectly timed between sets so as not to affect the music. KOKEFest also does a great job with presentation, with a backdrop on the stage making for an enhanced presentation for the artists.
Not all country music radio stations are built the same, and neither are all festivals. Some just “get it,” and KOKE is one of them.
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All photos below by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos.