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Presented at a little old dude ranch in Detroit Lakes, Minn., We Fest -- which celebrates its 30th year this week -- has become one of country music's biggest and most important festivals.
Kenny Chesney, who sells more tickets than any other country star, remembers the first time he played We Fest. It was the biggest crowd he'd ever seen: "I remember getting offstage and going back to the bus and hugging all my guys and saying, 'Guys, it doesn't get any bigger than this.' I called my manager, I called my mom. We were so excited."
Jason Aldean, a first-time headliner at the festival this year, had a similar reaction when he arrived in Detroit Lakes. "It's people as far as you can see," he said. "It's a huge deal. It's one of the biggest festivals we play all year. Country music is huge up there."
Of course, promoter Jeff Krueger didn't really know what he was getting into when he founded We Fest in 1983, inspired by the mammoth Us Festival, a California rock gathering the year before.
Over the years, there have been marriages and reunions, and births and deaths near the site. Everyone has a story to tell -- including me, because I've been there nine times.
Founder Jeff Krueger: The first year I had an OK lineup. Then I got Alabama 2 1/2 weeks prior to the acts stepping onstage. When we landed them, it really made it work. But people in Detroit Lakes didn't believe we had Alabama [country's hottest act at the time]. So when Alabama's people came to town, I said to them: "We're going to do this parade down Main Street to the lakefront. Would you let us use your bus?" They scratched their heads and said, "No problem." People were cheering as we drove down the street because it was proof that we weren't as crazy as they thought we were.
Mary Lundberg, backstage caterer and massage therapist: Our first catering kitchen was this little baby Airstream trailer. One refrigerator, one card table and one 6-foot table. I [decorated] the dressing rooms and they [entertainers] ate their main meals at the ranch house. VIP was one 6-foot table with two trays of deli, and the guy in charge had a fly swatter to keep all the flies off the food. This was a horse ranch.
Star Tribune critic Jon Bream: That first year I flew up in a little plane and saw the staggering number of lakes in the Detroit Lakes area. I remember seeing Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard and Jerry Lee Lewis and Alabama and talking to Lynn Anderson, who grew up nearby in North Dakota. And there was the weirdest thing between bands in the afternoon: skydivers landing in the middle of the dude ranch corral where the concert was being held.
Country icon Merle Haggard: They asked us to go onstage early. Jerry Lee Lewis always wanted to go on last. They were trying to get him to go on. But he didn't see it that way. That happened more than once over the years. Probably 40 or 50 times.
Krueger: In 1985 I was a little over $600,000 in debt. I'd been thrown out of my apartment, my girlfriend had left me, I owed all this income tax, I was living in my car. The guy who owned the property was trying to enjoin me from doing the festival. I walked into [Twin Cities businessman] Ray Mithun's office with a business plan. I asked if he'd buy the ranch and pay all my bills. He said, "Find somebody in the business that can partner with you and I'll do it." I went to Randy Levy [a veteran Twin Cities concert promoter]. He became my partner and Ray Mithun paid those bills. And he's been our investment partner.
Jayne Stauffer, media director: We had press conferences in this really nice rented trailer backstage. One time -- this was in 1985 -- we were doing an interview with [singer] Charley Pride and the phone rings. He picks it up and says "Hello." It was the porta-potty people wanting to know if they could come back and empty out the porta-potties.
Bob Spilman, retired Detroit Lakes radio personality who has attended every We Fest: In 1991, Roger Miller was a showstopper. I can't remember who he followed but it was a big, big act, with lots of guitars, drums and the whole thing. And all of a sudden, Roger Miller, all by himself, walks out with his guitar, sits down on a stool and everybody thinks this is going to be a downer. And then he mesmerizes the crowd for the next 90 minutes.
Sue Huebsch, who serves 8,000 meals a day as the fest's VIP food supervisor: In 1993, we received word that Vince Gill wanted to eat the dinner we were making for guests in VIP hospitality that evening. Everybody on our staff was begging to help. A human train of 25-plus people -- one carrying the forks, one the knives, one the broccoli salad -- carried the food to Vince's bus. The road manager met us at the door, saw our entourage, and said "Wait a minute." He disappeared back into the bus. Soon, a sleepy, disheveled Vince appeared. He came out of the bus, greeted and thanked everyone, and shook all their hands.
Country star Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn: I remember the first time we played it in '93, we were just starting to catch "the big wave" -- we'd played some big coliseums and stuff, but nothing like this. The scope of what I was looking at as a performer made me shake my head -- it was a great lesson. From one side to the other, it was a lot of folks to communicate with, and it was deep, too. By the end of the night, I think we had done a pretty good job of connecting. It was a great crowd, and they helped us along, gave us some tools that we would call on the rest of our career.
Spilman: At the end of the show in '93, Kix Brooks threw his hat into the audience. Here's a beautiful Stetson hat -- I was able to catch the hat, fell backwards and landed on the ground. Later on, I went back to their bus and asked one of their security guys if I could get an autograph or a picture taken. The only answer I got back was: "Tell the S.O.B. that the hat was enough."
Promoter Randy Levy: I was standing by Trisha Yearwood and John McEuen of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, thinking, "Here's that moment to see Ray Charles." It was 55 degrees, a northern mist coming in, it was the last show of the 1994 We Fest. Everybody was freezing. Ray had a road manager who was as old as he was and they walk out of the trailer with linen sportcoats on. We were all too stupid to have space heaters onstage. So he's at his piano, playing as coldness is blowing in his face. He literally walked off after two songs. Then Trisha and John looked at me: "What are you going to do?" I went and talked to Ray and begged and begged him to come onstage and he just refused. He was just frozen to death.
LeeAnn Weimar, director of artist relations: Black Velvet whiskey was a sponsor for Tanya Tucker in 1994, and when she was asked to put her hands in cement as a commemorative piece for the site [something all stars are asked to do], she proceeded -- after enjoying a bit too much of her own sponsor's product -- to plop her chest smack dab in the center of the cement slab. That gave Nathan, our sweetheart of a cement guy who has since passed on, the thrill of his career.
Country star Tim McGraw: I remember getting out and running with some of the guys in my band and ending up, like, on a 12-mile run out in the middle of nowhere and being too tired and thirsty to make it back. So we had to hitchhike and get a ride with somebody going to We Fest. A couple of guys and a couple of girls gave us a ride back.
Krueger: In 1995 Willie Nelson came out and played one of the best-crafted sets I've seen. Every song was better than the last song. After two hours I had to get my children and my wife home, so I drove them across town to our house on the lake. When I came back, Willie was still playing. He played over three hours.
Stauffer: Tim McGraw and Faith Hill [his future wife] were touring together in 1996 and they had just started dating. She went on before him. He was scheduled to have an interview in the media trailer and his tour manager comes up and goes, "We have a slight problem. Tim doesn't want to do the interview because he thinks it would be an insult to do it while Faith is onstage." He did it later. It was quite endearing.
Krueger: In 2003, we lost a considerable amount of money and we were $1.7 million in debt. The booking agencies thought that was it for We Fest. I called up George Strait's people: "Would you play We Fest for 2004?" They said, "We'll need to have a good percentage of the money by December." I said, "No problem." It was six figures. Then I called Tim McGraw's people. I said, "I've got George Strait. Will you play?" They said, "We'll have to have money upfront." Then I called up Kenny Chesney's people. All three confirmed. I think they thought I wasn't going to come up with the down payment. There was some talk in Nashville and they listen to the grapevine. The bank I'd had for 20 years wouldn't give me my credit line. I went to a new bank and took all the sponsorship contracts I had. On the 11th hour of the day I had to have the deposits in December, [the bank] approved it, and I wired the money. Those three artists played, and it was called Triple Star Power -- and We Fest has never looked back.
Stauffer: We were scheduled to have a Martina McBride interview in 2006 and she was late. Her road manager comes to me and says, "We can't find a baby sitter. Can you come and watch the girls while she does this interview?" Of course. I go to the dressing room and meet Martina and her two kids. She apologizes. I baby-sat her kids. They colored. We talked about school; one was going into kindergarten. The attitude we always have at We Fest is: "Whatever it takes to keep the show going."
Bream: Every festgoer has traditions and rituals. My end-of-the-night ritual was to visit some friends from St. Paul who rent an RV and park in the same corner every year. While we were sitting around having a late-night beverage at the 2006 fest, all of sudden a golf cart comes whipping around the corner: It was Big Kenny Alphin of Big & Rich, those "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" hitmakers, looking for a party at 1 a.m.
Vince Frost, director of VIP Campgrounds: This girl with [leg] braces, she was 8 years old, her mother came up to me and said her daughter really wanted to meet Taylor Swift. This was 2008 or '09. I found Taylor's mom, and after the show, the girl spent an hour and a half on Taylor's bus.
Weimar: In 2010, Kid Rock walked into the [media] trailer with a case of his brand new Bad Ass beer, and proceeded to take photos with a few folks and autograph posters and such. We ask all the year's artists to sign a banner. He left a message on it for the next evening's headliner, Kenny Chesney, that said, "If he can reach this high, he can read it." [Chesney is a half-foot shorter than Rock.]
Shannon Curfman, Kid Rock's guitarist/backup singer: I grew up several months a year in the Detroit Lakes area and then we'd commute to Fargo. We Fest was always that time of year when we wouldn't drive on the roads because everyone was so wasted. Everyone would come to our lake house to crash [during the festival]. We Fest was something that was so mysterious to a child. My first time there was playing it with [Kid Rock]. It was crazy.
Joe Lokken, of Bismarck, N.D., who has attended every fest since 1995: We do Jell-O Shot Junction in the Lake Sallie campgrounds. We go through two cases of vodka and six cases of Jell-O to make 1,200 to 1,800 shots. My 11-year-old son loves to help; he puts lids on the Jell-O shots. I have a cooler that holds 1,100 shots. I hand 'em out. In 2000, I gave them to Brooks & Dunn's guys on their bus. It costs me a couple hundred bucks but I get a couple hundred bucks' entertainment out of it.
Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719