Dave Carty
Dave Carty
HEARTLAND USA  |  March/April 2008
Cowboy Woodstock

At the Country Stampede, the music and partying never ends.

I can’t escape the humidity. In the 92-degree temperatures, it’s like a heavy, damp blanket that finds me no matter where I try to hide – under the vast, white canvas tents set up behind the concession stands, beneath the green, arching limbs of the cottonwood and sycamore trees in Tuttle Creek State Park, even in the shade of the stage, which towers three-stories above tens of thousands of sun-baked Country Stampede music lovers below. Sweat drenches the back of my SPF-45, long-sleeved and mesh vented hot-weather fishing shirt and trickles in moist rivulets down the inside of my legs. Fortunately, there is beer.

Gallons of it. Tanks of it. Truckloads of it. Beer greases the wheels that keep this vast, constantly moving assemblage of twenty-something party animals rotating through four days of nonstop music, drinking games, watermelon seed-spitting contests, carnival rides, really bad pick-up lines, mud wrestling, coed bathrooms, sunburns, beer bongs and torrential downpours. Beer is king. Beer is good.

However, there are rules. The rules are that you will take off almost all of your clothing and not put it on again until the concert is over. I’m a creaky rowboat adrift in a sea of buff and tanned bodies, swaying in time to whoever happens to be on stage. As an aging white boy – white as in Irish, red-haired, freckle-faced and blindingly pale -- I stand out in my long-sleeved shirt, long pants and hiking shoes like a monument to middle-aged nerds.

Not surprisingly, this does not go unnoticed.

"Aren’t you hot?" Asks April, who with her buddies Brian, Trishelle and several others is camping out in the swamp, a city of tents, rust-pocked RV’s, converted school buses and mud puddles east of the stage. They’re comfortably settled a stone’s throw from Tuttle Creek Reservoir, under the shade of an ancient sycamore. Somewhat comfortably, anyway.

"It’s fricken hot around here," April announces, fanning herself. "And the lines at the showers…but other than that, this place is awesome." She takes a sip on her beer, then offers one to me. More rules: No one will give me his or her last name. Evidently, no one wants the folks back home knowing what they do on vacation.

Brian chips in. He perfectly typifies the laid-back mood hereabouts when he tells me he’s been coming to the festival annually for thirteen years, exactly one year longer than the event has been in existence. No wonder he’s got a good camp site. I ask him what he likes best about the Country Stampede, but before he can answer, several of the women howl with laughter.

"Boobs!" they shriek. Brian is a bit more diplomatic. "It’s coming back and seeing your old friends, you know?" he says. "Friends you only see here."

"That is so sweet," Trishelle says. "Woodstock," she continues, apropos of my comparison between that long-ago event and this one, "was my previous life." She pauses for a moment, perhaps waiting for the import of her words to sink in. On the other hand, she could be waiting for another beer. It can go either way with this crowd. Around us, generators hum like locusts.

Many of the campsites have homemade banners. On one is a meticulously recreated listing of this year’s Stampede headliners, which serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever, insofar as fliers listing the bands drift like wind-blown leaves across the damp and muddy grounds. Sitting in the shade a few feet away are a half dozen friends, mostly women and a couple of spare husbands who meet here every year to listen to music, drink beer, and exchange the hot and humid environs of their Kansas and Nebraska hometowns with the equally hot and humid environs of Tuttle Creek State Park. Shellee warily eyes my long-sleeved shirt. She and her friends are gathered under an awning attached to a pop-top camper, and after introductions, they invite me into the shade.

"We’re from Fremont, Nebraska," Shellee explains. "We’re used to the humidity. You wanna beer?"

Becky nods. "This is our Stampede reunion," she says. "We all met each other here." But Becky has other reasons for coming back. "Did you see Trace Adkins last night?" (I did.) "Did you see him move his hips like that? Oh. My. God. I dreamed about him all night." Appreciative murmers from the other women confirm Becky’s analysis of Trace Adkins’ moving his hips like that. Strangely, none of the husbands say anything. Makes me wonder if I can move my hips like that. If they give me another beer, I just might. Some of us white boys know how to dance.

Laura’s question puts an end to my reverie. "Have you been to the crazy campground?" she asks. "It’s ridiculous – that’s where the naked sports are going on." Naked sports? I chug down my beer and ram my notes into my briefcase.

The "crazy" campground sits lower than the stage, a damp, wooded park where amenities are few but esprit de corp runs high. Campers wait peacefully for hours to use the showers, wading through drifts of crushed beer cans, abandoned flip flops and mud. The "men" and "women" designations on the bathroom facilities have long since lost any practical relevance; women have been crashing the men’s bathroom for days.

It’s a testimony to event organizers Gil and Liz Cunningham that the sprawling festival runs as smoothly as it does. I spend a few minutes talking to them in command headquarters, a Spartan trailer behind the stage that is an oasis of air-conditioned tranquility. Liz has a radio in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Despite the constant ringing from her cell phone, she seems amazingly relaxed.

Any normal person would be having a heart attack by now. Last night, just after Alan Jackson finished his set, the wind picked up.

"It started out at 30 to 40 mph, then went up to 50 to 60 mph," Liz tells me. "We plan for everything, but we couldn’t plan for that." A torrential downpour followed.

The next morning the grounds were a wreck. Trees were down and vendor’s booths were flattened and scattered from one end of the park to the other. Liz and Gil rolled up their sleeves, put together a crew, and went to work. By the time I arrived in early afternoon, everything was back on track.

Surprisingly, injuries were few. "Anytime you get fifty thousand people in a weekend, you have to deal with the normal emergencies that go on in any town of fifty thousand people, the alcohol and heat related stuff," EMT Eric Ward tells me later. He’s relaxing in the shade of the swamp’s medical tent. "But," he says, waving his hands for emphasis, "The humidity is not as bad as we thought it would be after last night’s rain." Particles of moisture dance around his fingertips.

This is certainly news to me. Saturday, however, is slightly cooler, perhaps in the high eighties instead of the low nineties. Looking for relief, I dart into the Air Force recruitment trailer, which is air conditioned and cold as a slap in the face. After I watch the recruitment film two or three times, they finally kick me out. I head immediately to the shade of Copenhagen tent, who let me in only after I swear I’m writing a story for Heartland USA magazine. But the guy in charge, who is stripped to the waist in the suffocating heat, is giving me the once over.

"What’s with the shirt, man?" he asks.

When all is said and done, the music is what keeps people coming. The headliners -- Alan Jackson, Big & Rich, Trace Adkins, and others -- draw the crowds, and in three days of listening to music and interviewing attendees, I never heard a complaint.

But it is some of the new acts that really rock the house down. Blaine Younger and Jake Owen put on shows to sparse crowds (they both played early in the day, before the evening concerts were in full swing) that those who saw them won’t forget any time soon. My favorite was Little Big Town, a band I’d never heard before the Stampede. They closed with "Heartache Tonight," an old Eagles standby that brought the roaring crowd to its feet. Call it country if you will, but it sure sounded like rock and roll to me.

Despite the heat and the humidity and the mud, the music made it bearable. That evening, standing front row and in thrall to ten thousand screaming and mostly naked fans, it almost made me feel like taking off my shirt. What the heck! As the sun went down and Alan Jackson took the stage, I rolled up my sleeves.

Cowboy Woodstock Cowboy Woodstock Cowboy Woodstock

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