GEORGE, Wash. — Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton joined thousands of country fans for a big, fun, middle-of-nowhere event called Watershed Music Festival this past weekend in central Washington state.
It’s the first time a country music festival has settled into the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash. With scarce hotel options in the area, many fans piled into tents and RVs from Friday through Sunday (Aug. 3-5), enjoying perhaps the most incredible view of any venue in the U.S. From my blanket on the lawn, I could see the mighty Columbia River weaving behind the main stage, flanked by a magnificent butte and blanketed with a sprawling blue sky.
My friends who came in from Seattle said that a Top 10 list about Watershed would read something like this: “1. The view. 2. The view. 3. The view.” Of course, with an exceptional country music lineup, my Top 10 list digs a little deeper. Listed in alphabetical order, here are 10 of my highlights:
Dierks Bentley: Dressed casually in a ball cap, white T-shirt and jeans — about twice as much clothing as the typical fan was wearing — the amiable singer-songwriter headlined Friday night. Up until that moment, I thought attendance was average because so many people were wandering around. But from my vantage point up on the ridge, there were fans as far as I could see. With a hot streak on the charts, most recently with “5-1-5-0,” he easily earned the day’s biggest reception.
Kix Brooks: Watershed proved something of a homecoming concert for Kix Brooks, who told the audience the last time he played there with Brooks & Dunn, they filmed the video for “Only in America.” Unlike the old days, Brooks did not employ a confetti machine for his finale, but he did fire off some groovy harmonica solos. His set list mixed new material like “New to This Town” from his upcoming solo album, along with B&D favorites like “Lost and Found.”
Dusty 45′s: For me, this Seattle-based band was the big surprise of the weekend. They’re totally independent — no label, no manager, etc. — and they emphasized how grateful they were to have an audience on the side stage, even if it was only about 50 people. “With undeniable swagger and smart songs like “Walking in the Rain” and “Chase Your Dreams,” this highly-entertaining band left me wanting more, even after lead singer Billy Joe set his trumpet on fire!
Miranda Lambert: Brandishing her pink guitar and bragging “Mama Tried” on her black T-shirt, Miranda Lambert kept the energy high as Saturday night’s headliner. She led with “Fastest Girl in Town” and grabbed a response as big as any of her other singles. With a growing arsenal of huge hits, I’m grateful she still sings two of my early favorites — “Brand New Strings” and “Famous in a Small Town.” She impressively kept up her momentum on the slower “Over You,” then rewarded adventurous fans by stepping out on a limb for an appealing cover of Lady Gaga’s “You and I.”
Tracy Lawrence: Why is it I can’t remember where I put the blanket, but I can still sing every word to Tracy Lawrence’s “Can’t Break It to My Heart” ? I listened to a whole lot of his music in the ’90s, especially that first album, so this set was like traveling back to my high school/college years. But there’s truth in his hit, “Time Marches On,” so it shouldn’t be a shock that he got the biggest response for a newer hit, “Paint Me a Birmingham.”
Reckless Kelly: After hearing “Castanets” up close, I traded the paved floor in front of the main stage for a patch of grass on the hill. After recalling a road trip in the ’90s to see Phish at the Gorge, lead singer Willy Braun said the band could finally cross their longtime wish to play the venue off their bucket list. Fiddler-singer Cody Braun nailed “Wild Western Windblown Band” and little brother Micky Braun dropped by for “I Hold the Bottle, You Hold the Wheel.”
Thomas Rhett: With a likeable personality and a knack for melody, this newcomer certainly converted a few thousand fans into “front-porch junkies,” to borrow a line from one of his tunes. Playing the festival on Saturday and Sunday, he simply seemed happy to be there. For someone so early in his career, he’s a natural at crowd interaction. “Something to Do With My Hands” gave him a break at radio, and I predict there are more hits where that came from.
Blake Shelton: It’s been years since I’ve seen a full set by Blake Shelton, and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long. He’s a gifted entertainer who’s come a long way from “Austin.” He milked the audience to get excited for old stuff like “Nobody But Me,” yet still delivered new favorites like “Honey Bee” and “Over.” Yes, his wife Miranda Lambert did join him at the end for “Hillbilly Bone,” but indisputably Shelton owned Sunday night. I can’t argue with a guy who dedicates “My Prerogative” to his sister, then apologizes to the crowd for hating that song.
Thompson Square: The husband-and-wife dynamic between Thompson Square’s Keifer and Shawna Thompson makes them probably the most charming duo in modern country music. Bonus points for talking from the stage about helping children in need without being preachy. Along with “Glass,” “I Got You” and “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?” the duo previewed new material with “You Don’t Get Lucky That Many Times,” a nod to God and gratitude.
Dwight Yoakam: When it comes to Watershed’s wide open spaces, there is no more suitable song in Dwight Yoakam’s catalog than “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” His Friday night set coincided with sundown, drawing attention from the artist and audience alike. (He praised the beauty of the area, but he had to kindly remind the crowd to stop looking at the gorge so much.) Yoakam also tested new material, with a highlight being his version of a country classic, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music.”