CADOTT — Country Fest will be ready to deliver what music does best, festival general manager Wade Asher says.
“Nothing brings people back together like live music,” he said in a phone interview. “Politics, religion, sports teams, everything else divides people. But live music always brings people back together.”
That’s not all.
“Nothing heals like live music,” Asher added.
The festival gates will swing open Thursday and run through Saturday, June 26, at the scenic, rural concert site north of Cadott, with its gently sloping natural amphitheater in front of the stage. A Kickoff Party, for those with three-day passes, starts Wednesday evening.
The need for healing and return from isolation, both wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, feels especially strong after all large scale gatherings were canceled last year. That included Country Fest and Rock Fest, which Asher also leads.
Country Fest attendees will be treated to a lineup praised by publications such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which called it “impressive.”
The following headliners will take the stage:
• Thursday: Kane Brown, who in 2017 became the first artist to have simultaneous No. 1 hit singles on all five main Billboard country charts. Among his top hits is “Famous Friends,” the recent duet with Chris Young.
• Friday: Dierks Bentley, who has notched 17 No. 1s as well as a host of awards.
• Saturday: Thomas Rhett, who also has 17 No. 1 singles to his credit.
Other acts on the schedule include Dustin Lynch and Oak Ridge Boys on Thursday; Brothers Osborne and Lauren Alaina on Friday; and Cole Swindell and Rhett Akins on Saturday.
For Asher, assembling the lineup comes down to pleasing diverse tastes of the Country Fest crowd, or as he put it, “trying to find the best fit for all of our fans.”
Of course that means booking top hit makers.
“Kane Brown and Thomas Rhett, they’re at the top of their games right now, and people just love them, so they’re excited to see a good show,” Asher said.
More than the current favorites, Country Fest also seeks out artists who have thrived for decades, including the Oak Ridge Boys and Akins, the father of headliner Thomas Rhett. The elder singer-songwriter has scored numerous hit singles, including the No. 1 “Don’t Get Me Started” from 1996.
“Rhett Akins is going to be there with his son — how cool is that?” Asher said.
Tried and true
Besides the main stage stars, hit makers also light up the Kickoff Party on Wednesday night at the Bud Light Crossroads stage. Headliner is Neal McCoy, and the Kentucky Headhunters also are on the schedule.
“Putting Neal McCoy on as a headliner at my festival is a great honor because I have so much respect for that guy, and nobody’s played this festival more than Neal McCoy,” Asher said. “He’s just a great dude and great guy, and plays his heart out day after day. He’s getting up there too in age, and he’s still just killing it. He deserves that spot.”
When the main stage is quiet for the crews to change sets, fans can find popular acts on the grounds’ other stages. For instance, the Bud Light Crossroads stage will host national acts such as Runaway June on Thursday, Granger Smith featuring Earl Dibbles Jr. on Friday, and Cam on Saturday.
“With a well-rounded lineup on multiple different stages that don’t overlap so people can see all these different national acts, that’s what we try to focus on,” Asher said. “We try to focus to make sure that people have so many more experiences, so much more talent, so much more than they’ve ever had in the past.”
By the numbers, organizers have been achieving that goal.
“Ten years ago we probably had a third of the amount of acts on our bill that we have now,” he said.
In getting the lineup together, Asher found that, despite the pandemic, many artists were ready to get out in front of crowds again, and others in the business were ready to make that happen.
“Through this whole thing, we’ve had amazing support from our artists and agencies and agents and managers,” he said, “and throughout this whole thing everybody has just kind of supported each other.”
Time for healing
Elaborating on why healing is needed, Asher pointed to the mental health struggles the pandemic created or exacerbated.
“Abuse cases, suicide rates, all that kind of stuff has really skyrocketed,” he said. “”I’ve seen it personally myself. I’ve had to talk people off the cliff.”
Reiterating the role he sees for Country Fest and Rock Fest, Asher said: “These festivals have never been more important than what they are right now in the history of the festivals.”
Fans have been telling him that too, Asher noted, pointing out that Country Fest will be the first large festival in Wisconsin this year. As he described their comments: “‘Thank you for doing the extra work, thank you for going above and beyond, thank you for going the extra mile, thank you for taking all the headaches and the heartaches (laughs), to bring us back to your happy place.’ That’s our tag line for Country Fest: ‘Your Happy Place,’ and it’s never boded truer than it does today.”
Besides fans’ enjoyment, Asher noted how much Country Fest and Rock Fest boost the local economy. Between the two festivals, he said, a direct local economic impact of $25 million has been estimated.
With COVID-19 still a concern, the festival is going to great lengths to ensure the grounds are safe, including having a sanitization crew spraying down the grounds before opening.
“We are putting all the pressure on all of our infrastructure stuff to make sure we can return safely,” he said, describing the difference between this year’s safety protocols and previous festivals “like night and day.”
Masks will not be required. “It’s up to personal choice,” Asher said.
The grounds will have some new additions, but Asher wants the crowd to experience them fresh when they get to the festival.
“We always kind of change it up a little bit,” he said. “We always add new experiences and new art pieces and new photo ops, and new things that we continue to add to make it a better overall experience. That’s kind of the surprise that they know that they’re going to get something that they didn’t get last year.”
While the opening is less than a week away, Asher acknowledged, good-naturedly, a hectic atmosphere around the office.
“Last year I did three times the work to have no festival, and this year I’m doing five times the work to have a festival,” he said, chuckling. “Even though it’s way more work, it’s completely worth it. We get to have festivals and bring people back to live music.”