The Country Fest's first round in 2021, held June 16-19 at Clay's Park Resort in a rural stretch of northeast Ohio, marked a return to some sense of normalcy for more than just the artists that were stuck at home this time last year. Local vendors serving up snacks ranging from fresh-squeezed lemonade to deep-fried Nutter Butters got a more-than-welcome financial boost, while country music fans gathered once again from far and wide to celebrate the genre's lifeblood: live music.
Wide Open Country was on site in the Canton, Ohio area for the locally-operated and long-running event, which once again boasted a lineup that was a proverbial cavalcade of the current and future voices of country radio-- from expected show-stealer Luke Combs to current CMT Next Women of Country selection Ashland Craft.
5. A Natural Amphitheater in the Countryside
Even with names the caliber of Sam Hunt and Old Dominion atop the bill, one big takeaway is less about who all performed and more about the setting. A curved hill facing the stage made for a gorgeous and natural amphitheater, with every "seat" in the God-made arena offering a VIP wristband-quality view as the sun went down, lightning bugs began making their rounds and headliners took the stage.
4. A Kickoff Party Better Than Some Music Festivals' Main Events
Campers and commuters first gathered on Wednesday for as good a one-two punch as you'd find on any night of any comparable festival: RaeLynn and Chris Janson. Two elite singers, songwriters and on-stage performers set the bar high for such fellow triple threats as Cody Johnson, the artist tasked with getting Thursday night's record crowd primed for Combs.
3. The Emergence of Ashland Craft
Aside from creating opportunities for fans to see multiple established names with one multi-day ticket, these festivals typically offer a rising artist or three a shot at winning over new ears.
Craft made the most of Friday's opening slot by wowing a relatively small yet captivated crowd with "Two Wildflowers and a Box of Wine," "Trainwreck" and other selections from her growing catalog. The South Carolina native and former The Voice contestant brought along a stacked band, featuring fiddler and guitarist Tori Allen.
2. Everybody Get Together
Although many jump to assumptions about mainstream country's audience, it's hard after four days of intense people watching to believe that the Country Fest crowd neatly fits in a box. Presumed undergrads sang along to Hunt and Combs, but so did presumed grandparents and others you might want to believe would be scared away by "pop country." In between sets, recordings of obvious classics by the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings sparked comparable singalongs that hardly back up the existence of youthful ignorance about or disdain for "real country music." It's as if the genre's alive and well, and it still bridges generational gaps.
1. Luke Combs Holds Court
Highlights of Combs' fest-defining set included a band introduction that doubled as a medley of "Man of Constant Sorrow" from O Brother, Where Art Thou?; "Queen of My Double Wide Trailer" by Sammy Kershaw; "John Deere Green" by Joe Diffie; and "The Dance" by Garth Brooks. Again, the Country Fest audience knew its stuff and reacted as you'd hope to this nod to Combs' musical forerunners.
The biggest crowd pop for something other than a string of covers or a live rendition of a semi-recent hit came when Combs explained that he never stopped paying his band and crew during the pandemic because he treats them like family.
Indeed, Combs captivated his audience by mixing big-stage showmanship with candid, between-song banter comparable to what you'd hear during songwriters-in-the-round performances in front of hundreds at a listening room, not thousands at a festival. Fans got to see Combs live out his dream on a huge scale, yet they came away knowing him a little better.