Are you ready for the country?
They’re calling it “one of the greatest lineups ever assembled” in the state of Arizona. And by they, I mean the folks at Country Thunder.
The formerly local Dierks Bentley, Blake “The Voice” Shelton (who also headlined in 2015), Thomas Rhett and Chris Young are set to headline Arizona’s biggest country-music festival, which takes place Thursday, April 6, through Sunday, April 9, in Florence.
Here’s a guide to those headlining acts, as well as a handful of critic’s picks, ranging from a young female duo Spin magazine thinks could fill the Taylor Swift void and a band that includes John Wayne’s granddaughter to ’80s pop crossover stars the Oak Ridge Boys.
THURSDAY HEADLINER: Chris Young
It’s been 11 years since Young became a Nashville star by winning “Nashville Star.” Since then, he’s sent five singles to the top of Billboard’s country chart — “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song),” “The Man I Want to Be,” “Voices,” “Tomorrow” and “You.” And he’s gone platinum with a few that didn’t even make it to the top – “Aw Naw,” “Who I Am With You” and “I’m Comin’ Over.” The last of those was also featured as the title track of Young’s first album to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart. 10 p.m. Thursday.
These guys were one of last year’s Country Thunder standouts. As I noted at the time: “Watching LoCash, it’s easy to see how Chris Lucas and Preston Brust became so tight with (Chris) Janson, who came out to join them on ‘I Love This Life.’ They have the same sort of loopy charisma, although their sound is often closer to the country-pop side of the tracks. They joke with the crowd about seeing way too many Speedos at the campsite and introduce a rousing ‘Drunk Drunk’ by noting that sometimes you get to overthinking a song and ‘We did not do that at all with this song.’” Their hits include “I Love This Life” and “I Know Somebody,” which topped the country airplay charts last year. 8 p.m. Thursday.
This Canadian country star went platinum with her first three albums in the ‘90s while sending a string of Top 10 singles up the country charts, including “Better Things to Do,” “When Boy Meets Girl,” “If I Were You,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Now That I Found You” and her first chart-topping entry on that chart, “You’re Easy on the Eyes.” She returned to the top in 2004 with “Girls Lie Too,” a clever spin on traditional gender roles recorded for her greatest hits collection. 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Also playing Thursday: Brandon Ray (3:30 p.m.), Jackson Michelson (5 p.m.).
FRIDAY HEADLINER: Dierks Bentley
This Phoenix native has topped the country chart with six of eight studio albums since moving to Nashville to launch a career, including last year’s “Black,” which also sent a platinum smash called “Somewhere on a Beach” to No. 1 on Billboard’s country songs chart. “Somewhere” is the star’s third platinum single, following two from his previous effort, “Riser” (“I Hold On” and “Drunk on a Plane,” a song that looms so large in Bentley’s legend that it now ends all his concerts). Other hits include chart-toppers “What Was I Thinkin’,” “Come a Little Closer,” “Feel That Fire,” “Sideways,” “Am I the Only One,” “Home” and “5-1-5-0.” Before he gets to Country Thunder, Bentley returns to the ACM Awards to co-host with Luke Bryan. 10 p.m. Friday.
Pardi cracked the country Top 10 with the breakthrough single “Up All Night” in 2013, but really hit his stride two years later with “Head Over Boots,” a platinum smash that topped the country airplay charts, as did his next release, “Dirt on My Boots.” He’s a natural fit for a lineup topped by Bentley, having opened two of Bentley’s tours – in 2010 and 2014. Last year, Pardi’s second album, “California Sunrise,” topped the country charts. Rolling Stone responded to the album with: “Though it has touches of rock & roll influences, the LP largely reflects Pardi’s affinity for the Merle Haggards and Buck Owens of years past — along with the recording styles of his elder heroes.” 8 p.m. Friday.
Maddie & Tae
They made a name for themselves in 2014 with banjo-driven answer song to the bro-country movement called “Girl in a Country Song.” “I hear you over there on your tailgate whistlin’,” they sing. “Sayin’, ‘Hey girl’ / But you know I ain’t listenin’ / ‘Cause I got a name / And to you it ain’t ‘pretty little thing’, ‘honey’ or ‘baby.'” That single went platinum, topping Billboard’s country airplay chart. And they followed through with a second Top 10 single, “Fly,” from an aptly titled debut, “Start Here.” Spin responded to the album with “Maddie & Tae’s emergence conveniently arrives in the wake of Taylor Swift’s departure from country, a 2015 radio landscape still dominated by male-driven nostalgic remembrances of tailgates past. Maddie & Tae … provide a much-needed teen-girl perspective.” 6:30 p.m. Friday.
This Texas singer cut his teeth on classic country records by the likes of Haggard and George Jones while singing gospel hymns at church. He was six albums deep before he hit the Billboard country charts at No. 60 with “San Angelo” and topped that chart six albums later with “The Underdog,” an aptly titled triumph. Rolling Stone heard “confident, polished vocals from Watson that recall fellow country storyteller Dierks Bentley” on a track the singer shared from this year’s “Vaquero.” 5 p.m. Friday.
It should be noted that one of these women, Jennifer Wayne, is John Wayne’s granddaughter. So you can definitely tip a cowboy hat in her direction. As of now, they have one breakthrough single, “Lipstick,” to their credit. But everyone seems to agree that they’re destined for greatness, from Huffington Post (“Top 10 Artists to Watch in 2017”) to Rolling Stone (“10 New Country Artists You Need To Know”) and Pandora (“Country Artists to Watch in 2017”). 3:30 p.m. Friday.
Also playing Friday: Gunnar & the Grizzly Boys (2:30 p.m.).
SATURDAY HEADLINER: Thomas Rhett
Rhett co-wrote a song on Jason Aldean’s triple-platinum smash “My Kinda Party” and released his own first single – the Top 20 country hit “Something to Do with My Hands” – two years later in 2012. Since then, seven of his songs have topped the country airplay charts. The biggest-selling of those hits – “It Goes Like This” and “Die a Happy Man” – went double-platinum. Four others – “Get Me Some of That,” “Make Me Wanna,” “Crash and Burn” and “T-Shirt” – were certified platinum. If that seems like a lot of hits in a very short time, that may explain why he won Country Artist of the Year at the 2017 iHeartRadio Music Awards. 10 p.m. Saturday.
A former country DJ, Nichols topped the country songs chart in 2002 with second single “Brokenheartsville” after losing steam at No. 3 with his previous single, “The Impossible.” He returned to the top in 2005 with “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” and again in 2010 with a single called “Gimmie That Girl.” More recently, he topped the country airplay charts with “Sunny and 75” and “Yeah.” 8 p.m. Saturday.
He took top honors for the state of Michigan in Kenny Chesney’s Next Big Star competition in 2008, opening dates for Chesney as part of his prize before inking a deal with Reprise in 2010 and releasing a self-titled album that contained two minor country hits. It was “Sunshine & Whiskey,” Ballard’s second album, that put his career on a somewhat faster track with the success of three big hits – “Helluva Life,” the platinum title track and “Young & Crazy,” all of which topped Billboard’s country airplay charts. 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Randy Rogers Band
These Texans have gone Top 10 on the Billboard country album charts with five consecutive releases. And although their highest-charting entries on the Billboard country songs chart both lost steam at No. 43, Rogers is waiting on a breakthrough hit to take his music to the masses. As he told Rolling Stone when they released their latest album, “We know that this is not going to get a whole bunch of mainstream radio airplay. We can just say that outright, instead of dreaming that maybe it’s going to be different. So what do we do for a living? We make people dance at our shows. People dance to almost every song. They drink beer and fall in love or they dance. Or they fight.” 5 p.m. Saturday
Also playing Saturday: Dorado (2:30 p.m.), Ryan Hurd (3:30 p.m.).
SUNDAY HEADLINER: Blake Shelton
Shelton may be best known in the mainstream as the leader of Team Blake on NBC’s “The Voice.” But he’s bringing a truckload of huge country hits to the party, including the 13 tracks that topped the Billboard country songs chart — “Austin,” “The Baby,” “Some Beach,” “Home,” “She Wouldn’t Be Gone,” “Hillbilly Bone,” “All About Tonight,” “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” “Honey Bee,” “God Gave Me You,” “Drink on It,” “Over” and “Sure Be Cool If You Did.” His latest album, “If I’m Honest,” topped the country charts in May and sent two singles — “Came Here to Forget” and “A Guy With a Girl” – to No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay charts. He’s won Male Vocalist of the Year five times and Entertainer of the Year twice at the CMA Awards. 9 p.m. Sunday.
Farr went platinum with 2013’s “Redneck Crazy,” a breakthrough hit in which he memorably mocks his ex-girlfriend’s new lover for having a smaller truck than his. Now, that’s country. A followup single from the “Redneck Crazy” album, “Whiskey in My Water,” also cracked the Top 5 on the country airplay charts, which he went on to top with the following year’s “A Guy Walks Into a Bar.” “I’ve had people call my music new traditional, which I’ll take as a compliment,” Farr told us as he was releasing “A Guy Walks Into a Bar.” “I love traditional music. But you’ve gotta get the young kids involved, too, and this was my way of getting the new generation involved without losing the roots, because if you lose the roots of country music, you lose the genre.” 7 p.m. Sunday.
Oak Ridge Boys
Can I get a “Giddy up a-oom poppa oom poppa mow mow?” The Oak Ridge Boys crossed over in a big way in the early ‘80s, going Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 while topping the country charts as well with their platinum remake of the Dallas Frazier cut “Elvira.” A year later, they crossed over one more time with a track called “Bobbie Sue” that was clearly recorded to capitalize of the ‘50s rock vibe of “Elvira.” In a good way. And those are just two of the Oak Ridge Boys hits that topped the country charts, from the wistful “I’ll Be True to You” (1978) to “No Matter How High” (1989). They were inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015 (and covered the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” in 1989, with the riff reworked as doo-wop-flavored vocal part). 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
Also playing Sunday: LANCO (2:30 p.m.), High Valley (4 p.m.).
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