DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – The cowboy hats are back, the masks are off, and the party is back on at the biggest and maybe rowdiest music festival in Minnesota.

A summer tradition since 1983, WE Fest returned with a vengeance Thursday, opening day of the three-day country music mega-bash on the shoreline outskirts of Detroit Lakes.

You could tell it was going to be a wild weekend even before Nashville duo After Midtown opened the main stage around 3 p.m. Thousands of campers had already settled into RV and tent sites before parking themselves in lawn chairs and beer lines surrounding the massive hillside stage, where Florida Georgia Line was due to headline.

Serving as the music fest's host, "American Idol" alumna and Minnesotan-in-law Kellie Pickler set the fest's redemptive tone early while introducing Best New Artist Grammy nominee Ingrid Andress.

"It's been a long time since we all got to be together!" Pickler yelled excitedly.

COVID-19 wasn't the only problem WE Fest had to overcome in 2021. The festival had already been put on hold for 2020 pre-pandemic, after a few years of declining attendance that led to new ownership with industry giant Live Nation in 2019.

Attendance still hasn't fully rebounded, with a little more than 20,000 people on hand Thursday. More are expected Friday and Saturday, with lineups including Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton and LANCO. Still, the fans already there were quick to make up for lost party time.

"Hell yeah, we're ready to tear it up after the year we had," said William Hayden of Anoka, roaming the crowd with two friends in matching red, white and blue suspenders, jorts and no shirts.

Almost no one on site Thursday donned any face coverings.

"We're outside, and we feel safe enough to have a good time," Kris Richard said. "We deserve it."