We Need to Discuss the Curation of These New Texas Country Fests

For years, the Texas music market has been curiously untapped by festivals that cater to independent country and Americana music. Of course you have plenty of festivals that cater to the native Texas country and Red Dirt scenes all across the state, including the gargantuan Larry Joe Taylor Music Festival in Stephenville that’s been happening now for 35 years and draws massive crowds. You also have ACL Fest in Austin, which is one of the biggest multi-genre megafestivals in the United States.

Anything in the middle of these two has been curiously absent though. The Kerrville Folk Fest is legendary of course, but doesn’t exactly fit the bill. The long-running Old Settler’s Fest near Austin has been struggling for years after management changes and after purchasing a massive piece of property near Lockhart. They recently announced they’re now selling the property, and shuttering the fest for 2024. We’ll see if it ever re-emerges.

But now there are multiple country music megafests planned for the spring of 2024, and all within a few hours of each other, all catering more to independent fans than mainstream ones, three of which that are on consecutive weekends, and all with lineups that have a lot of great artists that appeal to independent country fans, along with some extremely strange bookings that call into question if the promoters really understand what’s happening here.

You struggle to give a critical assessment to these lineups because the last thing you want to do is discourage these kinds of festivals in Texas that otherwise are bringing great artists to the state. In multiple instances, they are also being organized by local promoters as opposed to the posers at Live Nation/Ticketmaster. But someone needs to play a little traffic cop here lest a crash happens, or radius clauses cannibalize all the events. And someone, anyone, needs to point out some of the strange selections in the lineup.

In 2023, the Austin-based C3 Presents (a partner of Live Nation) founded the Two Step Inn fest, which was really a first of its kind in Texas, aside from maybe Old Settler’s Fest. A true megafestival with some 30,000 attendees over two days and massive headliners like Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan, it sold out its first year, and has announced its return in 2024.

Despite Two Step Inn’s emphasis on independent country, resurgent ’90s stars like Joe Dee Messina and John Michael Montgomery, and up-and-comers from the mainstream such as Hailey Whitters were also booked. The fest also threw out the wild cards of Diplo, T-Pain, and Blanco Brown. This year, it’s Ludacris that sticks out on the lineup like a sore thumb. No offense to any of these artists necessarily (except Diplo, he can get lost). But you wonder why these artists are taking a spot from someone from the country/roots world who may be more worthy, including a Black or Brown artist.

Granted, attendees will attest that at the 2023 Two Step Inn, all these wild card hip-hop/EDM artists had huge crowds at their sets, and the girls in white boots and Panama Jack cowboy hats were bumpin’. Part of the calculus is to appeal to a wider crowd than just the country one. But it’s part of a widening trend that is potentially problematic for numerous reasons.

In late October, independent promoters announced the inaugural Big As Texas Fest to take place at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds north of Houston on May 10-12. Some of the eye popping names included on the lineup are Billy Strings, Dwight Yoakam, Midland, Clay Walker, Tracy Byrd, 49 Winchester, Morgan Wade, and Drake Milligan.

But this is contrasted by guys like Thomas Rhett, Breland, Colt Ford, and Kidd G. Dierks Bentley is also on the lineup, and Dierks makes for a great example of an artist that can cross pollinate between the independent and mainstream country world. Similar acts include Midland, Lainey Wilson, or even someone like Eric Church. There is enough bleed over to make these names compatible with both sides of the country music divide, even if they don’t appeal to everyone.

But Thomas Rhett doesn’t just symbolize some of the worst of major label-backed corporate radio country with no organic appeal, simply including his name on a poster will be a deal killer for many independent country and Americana fans who would love to see Billy Strings or 49 Winchester. Even if they can just avoid the Thomas Rhett set and the sets of others that might not appeal to them, why pony up for a 3-day ticket for 1/3rd of a lineup you’re downright repulsed by?

To most Dwight Yoakam fans, Colt Ford might as well be the Antichrist. It’s actually better to book a straight up hip-hop artist like Ludacris or T-Pain than a country rapper. There is a clear and obvious cultural divide in country music that is not being minded by these bookings.

The other thing that many Texans have pointed out is the lack of Texans on the Big As Texas Fest lineup. None of the headliners or first rail performers are from Texas. Clay Walker, Drake Milligan, Amanda Shires, and Jamestown Revival are. But the vast majority of the lineup isn’t. Big As Texas Fest has a distinctly Nashville flavor if anything.

Yet another country-oriented megafest called Cattle Country was just announced, set happen on April 12-14 at a private ranch just outside of Gonzales, TX, east of San Antonio. The curation of this festival is much more intuitive compared to Big As Texas. Headliners Eric Church, Whiskey Myers, and Koe Wetzel will work fine together. They’re all more rock-oriented stars finding their way through the country music landscape. The undercard is great as well with the fast-rising Red Clay Strays, Hailey Whitters, and country legends like Tanya Tucker and Tracy Lawrence.

But it’s quite puzzling to also see Icelandic indie rock band Kaleo, and the reggae rockers Sublime with Rome make the cut. Often Americana and roots festivals try to mix in a roots-adjacent indie rock artist to help broaden the appeal of the lineup. Artists like Lord Huron, Wilco, and similar bands come to mind. This may not be a bad way to expand the appeal of ticket. But the question is how effective these bookings are, and if their robbing a better suited country artist from an opportunity.

The most puzzling booking on the Cattle Country lineup is Breland. No offense to the guy, but just like his appearance at Big As Texas Fest, it makes little sense, though maybe it makes more sense at Big As Texas because of the other country rap artists on the lineup. There is another festival slated for November 3-4, 2023 in Scottsdale, Arizona called Dreamy Draw with a pretty great roots music lineup that Breland is also performing at. In fact, Breland seems to a favorite of promoters, likely due to them wanting to inject some diversity onto their lineups.

But neither Breland’s music nor to the approach of his career works with the rest of these rosters. It’s not just that it’s bad for the lineup, it’s bad for Breland, who won’t find new fans through the opportunity. Country and roots festivals should do what they can to make sure Black and Brown artists are part of these events. But there are plenty of these artist that are not being pushed as product by Music Row as hard as Breland. It’s just out-of-place.

Meanwhile you never see Gabe Lee even considered for many of these festivals. Matt Castillo and Triston Marez would be perfect for these lineups down in Texas. The War and Treaty is playing Cattle Country, and they’re great for independent country/roots lineups. So are Chapel Hart, Charley Crockett, Aaron Vance, and others that fit so much better with an independent country and roots lineup.

All of this bellyaching is not to run down these new festivals. But as a gold rush is occurring in the live music space for independent country fests, you’re seeing a lot of rookie mistakes being made, and not a lot of good “in the trenches” knowledge being employed about how to put a lineup together that puts the right people in the right place, and at the right time. This is what a country megafestival traffic jam looks like:

Cattle Country – April 12-14 – Gonzales, TX
Two Step Inn – April 20-21 – Georgetown, TX
Larry Joe Taylor Fest – April 22-27 – Stephenville, TX
Big As Texas Fest – May 10-12 – Montgomery County, TX

Meanwhile, there are no other country megafestivals booked at any other time in Texas at the moment. Old Settler’s Fest used to be in mid April as well, and right in between where Cattle Country and Two Step Inn are being held. Make no mistake, this was likely part of the calculus of why Old Settler’s Fest decided to not have a festival this year. That’s 36 years and a non-profit festival in jeopardy.

Overall though, this is also a symptom of more opportunities opening up for independent artists. Not necessarily with these Texas festivals, but with other festivals around the country that used to solely cater to radio country and major label-signed artists, they’re now using more independent artists to fill out their rosters, sometimes to sideways glances from mainstream fans.

Ultimately, these all may be good problems to have. They’re symptoms of rapid growth that may not be growing in the right direction. Over time, promoters will figure out what works and where, and hopefully play nice with each other, especially when you have a case like Texas in the Spring of 2024 when you will have four major festivals all transpiring in a month of each other, and three in consecutive weeks.

The festival space is only going to grow more crowded, which makes communication between promoters and communities more imperative. Otherwise, they will be unnecessarily competing with each other for fans, and for talent due to radius clauses.

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