The COVID-19 pandemic hit as “West of Tulsa” singer-songwriter Wyatt Flores was just beginning to launch his career. With opening for bigger artists in large venues not an option because of the shutdown, he began playing a slate of smaller clubs and venues that were allowing performances.
But as the nation has rebounded, nearly a dozen festivals highlighting Americana, Red Dirt, alt-country, and bluegrass artists have sprung up, providing new financial and touring avenues for artists including Flores. In 2023 alone, inaugural festivals include the three-day Redmond, Oregon’s Fairwell Festival (headlined by Zach Bryan, Turnpike Troubadours, and Willie Nelson & Family), Bethel, N.Y.’s two-day Catbird Festival (Tyler Childers and the Lumineers), which brought in 25,000 attendees, Gordy’s Hwy 30 Texas Edition in Fort Worth, Texas (Bryan, Koe Wetzel), Marietta’s Georgia Country Music Fest (Cody Jinks, Wetzel, Turnpike Troubadours), Georgetown, Texas’ Two-Step Inn (Bryan, Childers), Rush South Festival in Columbus, Georgia on Oct. 14-15 (Dawes, The Texas Gentlemen, Paul Cauthen) and Nov. 3-4’s Dreamy Draw Music Festival in Scottsdale, Arizona (Trampled By Turtles, Margo Price, Stephen Wilson, Jr., American Aquarium).
“It’s made things a lot easier on routing, because we’ll just base other shows around festivals,” says Flores, whose team surrounded his appearances at Fairwell Festival and the California music festival Rebels & Renegades with a slate of West Coast club dates. “With Fairwell Fest, I didn’t think that many people listened to my music on the West Coast, [but] we estimated 10,000-12,000 people were watching us on that stage. The new fans we gained being in front of the people there to see Turnpike [Troubadours] or Zach Bryan, it was great.”
Other newly launched festivals over the past few years have included Kentucky’s Railbird Festival, Oklahoma’s Born & Raised Festival and Monterey, California’s Rebels & Renegades festival, as well as Goldenvoice’s Palomino Festival in Pasadena, California (though the Palomino Festival did not return in 2023).
Like many already-existing festivals in the space— such as Bristol (Tenn.) Rhythm & Roots, Nashville’s Americana Music Festival & Conference and Franklin, Tennessee’s Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, Master Musicians Festival and MerleFest — the lineups for these events draw heavily on artists who operate outside of mainstream country, and who traditionally have not received much terrestrial country radio support.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in genre-specific festivals,” says Sophie Lobl, a global festival talent buyer for C3 and Live Nation, who curated the inaugural Fairwell Festival, which welcomed 60,000 music fans over three days. “Americana has been pretty popular for a while, but in the past [8-to-12] months has definitely become a really hot topic. For us, especially for Fairwell in that market specifically, it’s definitely the biggest ticket seller so far there.”
Shannon Casey, senior vp of fairs and festivals for booking agency Wasserman Music Nashville, says the pandemic famine helped lead to the current feast. “During the pandemic, there were so many artists who have had to dig into platforms, like Instagram, TikTok and then Spotify playlists, to stay in touch with audiences,” says Casey. “I think that has allowed fanbases to really discover new artists who have an underserved lane of artistry. I think a lot of this was stuff starting to brew right before COVID and now you have all these environments that are supporting it.” Wasserman Music’s Americana and alt-country roster includes Childers, Allison Russell, Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves, Price, Trampled by Turtles and Colter Wall.
“It’s not like we haven’t had Outlaw country before, and it’s not like Americana is something new,” Casey continues. “I think it’s a time and place where there is so much music discovery. We are seeing that separation from the mainstream, which has always been there. There is just an explosion of all of these genres — Red Dirt, Americana, alt-country, folk, bluegrass — in a time and place that people are absorbing it.”
The Zach Bryan Effect
Dan and Amy Sheehan worked to launch the Rebels & Renegades festival in 2022, which featured Trampled By Turtles, Godwin, Kat Hasty, and Nikki Lane and drew 5,000 attendees each day. This year’s Oct. 6-8 lineup expands the fest from two days to three days, and features Flores, The War and Treaty, Old Crow Medicine Show, Whiskey Myers, Shane Smith and the Saints, Morgan Wade, Jaime Wyatt and Flatland Cavalry.
“There’s been this blossoming, obviously, with Tyler [Childers], but I do think Zach Bryan has definitely pushed this space even higher,” Dan Sheehan says. “I think he’s one of the bigger factors in all of this. A rising tide lifts all boats, and I think that’s what’s happening right now. But we’re also seeing artists like Charley Crockett become more and more of a staple and [acts like] Paul Cauthen and Sierra Ferrell and Morgan Wade — they are all selling tickets at a rapid pace.”
Simultaneously with the surge in these festivals, more acoustic and/or roots-oriented artists are ascending to new career heights on Billboard’s charts, thanks to streaming gains. Bryan’s Aug. 25 self-titled album release (on Belting Bronco/Warner Records) spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, while his collaboration with Musgraves, “I Remember Everything,” debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100. Meanwhile, Childers notched his first Hot 100 entry with “In Your Love,” which debuted at No. 43. Roots-oriented artists including Dylan Gossett, Charles Wesley Godwin and Sam Barber have also made inroads on the charts, while Turnpike Troubadours’ current album, A Cat in the Rain, debuted in the top 10 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums — the album marked the first from the group since 2017’s A Long Way From Your Heart.
“I think we got lucky with a lot of serendipitous timing,” Lobl says of the Fairwell Festival. “Obviously Turnpike and Willie [Nelson] for example, have crushed it for a very long time, and I think it was just perfect timing that Willie’s kind of doing this huge run. Turnpike had not had an album out in a while. I think that Zach is doing phenomenal things in that space and now crossing over into other spaces. It’s exciting to see that a lot of these artists are garnering a lot of new fans.”
Sheehan notes that many of these festivals offer tickets at more reasonable prices than events featuring bigger mainstream names and fill a gap in the mid-sized festivals space.
“If you have a 25,000-capacity venue, you can do a Morgan Wallen or a Zach Bryan,” he explains. “If you have a 10,000 cap as we do, there’s a certain level of artists you pursue. Developing some of these artists into the next headliners is also crucial.” Expenses, including insurance and van rental costs, have soared since Covid, but Sheehan stresses there is a price point they can’t go beyond: While the festivals want to break even, “You have to set your ticket price, but you can’t make it too expensive. It’s a delicate balance.”
Casey also credits Stagecoach, particularly its Palomino Stage, as helping seed the ground by highlighting a wide swath of musical styles since the California music festival debuted in 2007. While the Mane Stage is generally reserved for mainstream country superstars, among the artists who have played on the secondary stage are Bryan, Wall, Cauthen, Crockett, Price, and Rhiannon Giddens.
“If you look at the Palomino Stage at Stagecoach, you can see that [Goldenvoice vp of festival talent] Stacy Vee and her team had their fingerprints on the pulse of all of this,” Casey says. “I think that’s what has sort of slowly been translating and going into other markets, including markets where there traditionally hasn’t really even been a country festival.”
Sheehan, who is both a festival promoter and a venue owner, notes that as with live performances in general, oversaturation can be a concern.
“I think it comes back to what can the consumer actually afford. There are only so many events that one person can physically, let alone financially, go to,” Sheehan says. “On the West Coast, I don’t think we are oversaturated yet, but right now, touring lanes [overall] are very oversaturated, and venues and festivals alike feel it.”
For Flores, the surge in popularity of roots-oriented artists, marks a change in musical tastes since the pandemic.
“I definitely believe a lot of people went through some difficult times — emotionally, financially — and the stuff they were listening to wasn’t adding up to how they were actually feeling inside. I think their music tastes maybe changed, because they were trying to find something they could relate to… So many songs were about happiness and positivity, and I don’t think a lot of people were happy when COVID hit — a lot of people’s lives changed completely,” Flores says.
And as people re-emerged, they wanted to hear the artists who they discovered during their hard times. “It’s really good music,” Sheehan says, “which is why [people] are building festivals around them.”
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