It was the summer of 2005. I still didn't know my editor. I didn't know the way to Country Thunder. I didn't know all the right contacts in the country music industry. But I was armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of Tim McGraw. So off I went to Wisconsin for my very first CMT.com assignment.
That was nine years ago this week. So in the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I had to share that 1,000-word story from all those years ago. (Especially because I had no way of sharing this story back then. It was a time when the world was social-network free. Remember those days?)
I actually remember being there like it was yesterday. I think I may still have dust and mud on the Converse Chuck Taylors I wore during my two-night stay in Twin Lakes.
And yet when I look back on what I wrote, it's fascinating how much has changed.
McGraw is still very secure in his headlining position like he was that night. His wife Faith Hill came out onstage and joined him on "Blank Sheet of Paper," and his very young daughters helped him on vocals for "Something Like That."
But check out who his openers were in 2005 -- Joe Nichols, Josh Gracin, the Warren Brothers and Sugarland. And when Keith Urban headlined the next night, his openers were Julie Roberts, Darryl Worley and Miranda Lambert.
Both days, I got there early enough to see the first act play to half-empty seats. But standing there in the pit in front of the stage, notebook in one hand and heavy camera in the other, I felt a little bit like an opening act myself -- just trying to make a good impression to people who didn't really know me.
I managed to pull it off pretty well, I thought, but the journey was not without its mini-catastrophes. I got stuck in the mud and didn't get out of the parking lot until three hours after the show ended. I had some issues with backstage security. And I lost my pen. (I know that doesn't sound like a catastrophe, but try taking notes without one. Before smart phones and Siri.)
So I lived, and I learned. I no longer drive myself to festivals when there is a torrential downpour. I make sure I establish my credentials early with security, and I always bring plenty of extra pens.
Lambert, who plays Country Thunder again on July 25, was one of my favorite performers at the festival nine years ago. I already knew all the songs from her four-month-old debut album Kerosene. But I had no idea how sassy, funny and connected she'd be with the crowd.
When she told the Urban fans that she'd be touring with him full-time later that fall, she said, "All the sudden, all my girlfriends are calling me wanting backstage passes."