TWIN LAKES, Wis. — About six songs into his set Wednesday night (July 20), Tim McGraw sang one that best describes what the Country Thunder music festival is really like.
“Down on the Farm” is all about country boys and girls getting down. In this case, the farm was the Shadow Hill Ranch, nestled amidst the dairy farms of Twin Lakes, Wis., between Chicago and Milwaukee. And instead of having old Hank cranked up loud, Country Thunder had McGraw — and Joe Nichols, Josh Gracin, the Warren Brothers and Sugarland.
And that was just Wednesday’s lineup. Keith Urban headlined Thursday’s (July 21) show featuring Julie Roberts, Darryl Worley and Miranda Lambert, and the festival continues to run through the this weekend.
As you’d expect from a Louisiana boy, McGraw seemed to feel right at home in the country. He even brought out his wife, Faith Hill, to help him sing “Blank Sheet of Paper” and his daughters to help him with a few solos on “Something Like That.” But when it came time to turn “Watch the Wind Blow By” into something much sexier, McGraw got on his knees and belted it out to one adoring fan.
The whole crowd went crazy for the old stuff, especially when most of McGraw’s band, the Dancehall Doctors, came out onto the catwalk for “Indian Outlaw.” The new stuff went over big, too. Even if they didn’t know the words, fans loved listening to him sing “Let’s Get Drunk and Fight.” Of course, it’s hard to resist the song’s lyrics: “I get turned on when you’re pissed off/You look hot when you’re mad/So let’s get drunk and fight/And when the morning comes, we’ll make make-up love/While we apologize.” One of McGraw’s closing songs was a remake of one of his favorite oldies, Eddie Rabbitt’s “Suspicions.”
After a four-song encore, McGraw stuck around to sign autographs for at least 15 minutes before he finally had to leave the stage. It had been a long show for him, starting with a private pre-party for contest winners and a handful of fan club members. A pair of passes for the party was auctioned off earlier in the day to raise money for children’s charities in the Twin Lakes area. The winner paid $2,600 for the pair, so she could hear McGraw play two songs (from his new album) up close and personal. That’s $1,300 per song.
Before McGraw came out — and before all 30,000 fans were in their seats — Nichols took the stage and immediately told everyone in the way back of the audience to come on down and sit in front. The fans who took him up on it had the best seats in the house when he sang his soon-to-be-released “My Brain Can’t Trust My Tongue.”
Gracin played his hits and some cover tunes, including a remake of Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” that he recorded for the soundtrack of the Disney film, Herbie Fully Loaded. However, the fan favorite from Gracin’s set had to be his Garth Brooks-inspired version of Aerosmith’s “The Fever.”
The Warren Brothers had fans singing along with their songs, especially “Change,” a track featured on their 2004 album, Well Deserved Obscurity. Sugarland was there for Wednesday’s show, too. Celebrating the fact that their debut album, Twice the Speed of Life, is now certified platinum, the lyrics of “Baby Girl” seemed to hit a little closer to home.
Thursday’s Country Thunder concert was filled with even more good music and lots and lots of fans. So many, in fact, that latecomers with general admission tickets were turned away. But for the fans who did make it through the traffic, rain and mud, the show was worth all the trouble.
Even though the Wisconsin dairy farms are a long way from his native Australia, Urban didn’t have any problems fitting in. During “You’re My Better Half,” he laid right down on the stage, still playing guitar and still singing. And during “Somebody Like You,” he threw a cowboy hat on his head as if he wore one every day.
But it was the playful way Urban interacted with the audience that made the fans feel like one big happy family. He spent most of the night on the catwalk, making the 30th row feel like the first row. “How many Country Thunder virgins we got out there tonight?” he asked, later urging fans, “If you’ve got a cowboy hat on, I want you to stand up and sing the chorus.” After having endured Mother Nature’s worst to get to Thursday’s show, Urban got a huge response from the crowd when he improvised the lyrics to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”: “Long day, stuck in traffic trying to get here today.”
It was Worley who really showed what a genuine rough-around-the-edges country singer sounds like. Other than an old Merle Haggard song, Worley stuck to his own material, including “A Good Day to Run,” “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” “Was It Good for You?” and “Tennessee River Run” before ending with the crowd favorite, “Awful, Beautiful Life.”
Roberts came on stage right before Worley and never sat still. She sang every song with everything she had, all the while dancing her way up and down and across the catwalk and signing autographs for the crush of fans around her. Her sultry voice sounded strong when she did her own material and even better when she took an old hit, John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good,” and made it her own.
Even though she performed early in the show — before everyone in the audience had arrived — Lambert made an instant connection with the fans. Noting that she’ll begin touring with Urban in September, she told fans, “All the sudden, all my girlfriends are calling me wanting backstage passes.” Every woman there nodded her head knowingly.
Country Thunder continues through Sunday (July 24) with a list of artists including Sara Evans, LeAnn Rimes, Montgomery Gentry, SHeDAISY, Terri Clark, Big & Rich and the Charlie Daniels Band.