Tasha McDevitt and Kari Brueske knew the protocol. Before the two Mayo Clinic staffers hopped on the shuttle bus to last month's Darius Rucker concert at Mystic Lake Casino, they instinctively put on face masks.
"We were the only ones on the bus wearing a mask even though a sign said masks were required," said McDevitt, of Rochester.
Mystic's outdoor amphitheater was packed. There was no social distancing. No masks. The music was loud, the beer flowing and the party full on — once again.
COVID or not, country music is back in a big way in the summer of 2021. The casino in Prior Lake drew full houses for Alabama and Rucker in June. Lakes Jam in Brainerd had its biggest year ever, showcasing Brothers Osborne and Big & Rich. Last weekend, Lakefront Music Fest in Prior Lake sold out its country night featuring Lady A and Jake Owen. And Carrie Underwood and Zac Brown Band will headline Twin Cities Summer Jam in Shakopee next weekend.
There is certainly COVID awareness in Nashville — fans can forget about meeting stars backstage, while promoters have added sanitizers and extra toilets — but country music, with its conservative reputation and red-state following, is playing by its own rules in the pandemic.
At the Rucker show, concertgoer Mark Davis of St. Paul not only wasn't wearing a mask, but said he feels no need to get vaccinated.
"I haven't been sick since COVID. People get worked up over things they can't control," said Davis, who owns landscape and construction businesses. "COVID shouldn't have been political. They twisted that. Is the flu political? I don't think it is. Was polio political? I go to work. Do my job. I don't bother anyone else."
Country fans are antsy to get out of isolation, drink a few and share in the communal spirit, while performers are eager to return to the road and give their crews and musicians full salaries.
Alabama's Teddy Gentry sensed it even before his band played its first note onstage in 2021. "I think it is the deep urge to listen, feel and see live music again," he said. "It is almost a primal experience, and we and the people need it bad."
By contrast, big stars in other genres seem to be mostly sitting out the summer. The Twin Cities rock schedule has been limited to John Fogerty on July 4th as well as August shows by Green Day at Target Field and Hall & Oates at Xcel Energy Center.
"It was so tough to get any rock bands to commit, especially during the COVID time," said Jerry Braam, chief executive of TC Summer Jam, which likes to mix rock and country but had to settle for Thursday's headliner Lynyrd Skynyrd as its lone rock attraction.
Country music is flooding the Upper Midwest in the next few weeks. Next month brings Blake Shelton to We Fest in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and red-hot Luke Combs to Winstock in Winsted, Minn. And the Minnesota State Fair grandstand is going country on its first two nights with Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris.
Touring is simply a way of life for many country artists, who hit the road every weekend 10 or 11 months a year, year after year. By contrast, "rock or other styles of music go out and do a 60-city tour to support a new album and then do not tour for two years," Gentry pointed out. "Country music has a much closer relationship with the fans and, honestly, many more venues to play than other types of music."
Moreover, major rock acts tend to rely on more elaborate stage productions.
"Country knew we'd always be the first back, because we're nimble," said Brian O'Connell, president of country touring for mega-promoters Live Nation, which is involved with the 38th We Fest for the first time this year.
"The shows are straightforward; there's not the kind of production that requires a lot of people or months and months of creating the physical staging," O'Connell told Hits, a trade publication.
Touring acts have to be nimble this year because COVID-related regulations vary from state to state, county to county, city to city.
"There will be challenges to walk through based on what state we're in," said Lady A's Dave Haywood, whose band is playing exclusively outdoors this summer. "This has been the year of the pivot. Our philosophy is we're on standby."
The varying regulations have prompted country stars Rucker and Eric Church to try to level the playing field by advocating for vaccinations. Church, who self-identifies as a libertarian and has never gotten a flu shot, posed for the cover of Billboard magazine getting his COVID jab.
Vaccinating "is the only way I see for the quickest return to normal," Church, who plans an arena tour this fall, told the concert journal Pollstar. "I view this vaccine as a godsend that we got it when we did, because early on, I was hearing spring 2023 [as a return to touring]."
Dierks Bentley, one of the We Fest headliners, decided vaccines were mandatory for his touring entourage. One employee opted to leave instead of getting the shot. "That's just the way it is," Bentley told Billboard. "We want to get back out there as safely as possible. We're mingling with people backstage and with stagehands, and none of us want to be responsible for passing something along to somebody else."
Even though Garth Brooks' wife, singer Trisha Yearwood, caught COVID and recovered, country's biggest concert attraction didn't hesitate to return with her to sold-out indoor and outdoor stadium concerts this month with a disclaimer: "Purchaser assumes COVID risk. All COVID rules apply."
But no proof of vaccination is required to enter, as has been the case with rockers Bruce Springsteen on Broadway and Foo Fighters at Madison Square Garden.
Pent-up fans are rowdier
This summer, nearly every country act has abandoned "meet and greets," those coveted backstage moments where fan-club members or contest winners take a photo with a favorite star. About the closest thing to that right now is Ashley McBryde performing a short acoustic set backstage for a select few fans at Twin Cities Summer Jam.
Because of COVID, promoters are taking extra steps with sanitation issues. The number of portable toilets have increased by 25% at TC Summer Jam and 30% at Winstock. Dressing rooms have to be spick and span.
"I've got three pallets of hand sanitizer," said Dave Danielson, chairman of Winstock, which is a fundraiser for Winsted's Catholic school. He's added a doctor and ER nurse in an onsite triage trailer, courtesy of Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia.
And for the first time at the little festival that could, all concertgoers will be "wanded" for metal objects before entering, a security upgrade requested by Combs' management. Combs is also forgoing his usual runway from the stage because a rambunctious fan tossed a bottle onstage recently in Nebraska.
Concertgoers seem rowdier than ever, said Holly Gleason, a longtime Nashville journalist and artist development consultant: "All of the pent-up 14, 15, 16 months seems to be trying to come out in the space of a night or two. People are drinking a lot more. People are rocking a lot harder.
"People are also more charged for disagreements. People's nerves are frazzled. It doesn't matter what you believe, everybody believes something is wrong."
Whether it's about the vaccine, politics or football, the climate has become increasingly divisive, concert industry observers say. Bob Bliss, organizer of ND Country Fest, noticed the polarization as he toured small towns in North Dakota to promote the festival.
"North Dakota is a little different breed than other areas of the country," said Bliss, a Chaska resident who was chief operating officer of We Fest. "They're pretty independent. They're: 'You're not going to tell me I can't do something.' "
About 40% of the people 18 and older in Morton County, site of ND Country Fest, have been fully vaccinated.
By comparison, 59% of people 16 and older have been fully vaccinated in Minnesota's McLeod County, where Winstock will be held. That's about the same rate as the Nashville area.
"Especially in a lot of small towns and rural America, they're not so much worried about the virus," said country radio veteran Gregg Swedberg, program director at Twin Cities station K102. "Down South, things didn't close up as much as it did in more metropolitan markets."
At Alabama's Mystic Lake concert, a bearded, ballcap-wearing young man told me he didn't get vaccinated because he believed in freedom of choice. He said his wife, a nurse, supported his decision. He declined to give his name for fear of ramifications.
"I speak for a lot of people in small-town America," he said.A man wears a shirt with a thin blue line flag on it as Darius Rucker performs at Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake
Unlike rock stars, country performers scrupulously avoid talking politics, with the notable exceptions of liberal Tim McGraw and conservative John Rich of Big & Rich.
This year, Nashville's power brokers suddenly seemed more woke, barring fast-rising superstar Morgan Wallen from award shows and radio airplay for saying the N-word in a drunken cellphone video. Nonetheless, Wallen's streaming numbers actually have risen, and his album ranks as the biggest seller for 2021 in any genre, even though his name isn't on the lips of other country stars.
"When a country artist gives you the party line 'I don't talk politics,' it really means tacit conservatism," said Dallas-based journalist Natalie Weiner, co-founder of the opinionated country newsletter Don't Rock the Inbox.
Countered Abby Wells Baas, veteran Nashville agent for Chris Stapleton, Bentley and others: "Music shouldn't be political."
Don't tell that to the Chicks, the outspoken but ostracized Texas trio formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, notorious dissers of President George W. Bush in their heyday. They still may not be ready to make nice, but some in country music seem to be.
McGraw, 54, recently teamed up with Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard, 34, who was forced out of the 2020 CMA Awards because of a positive COVID test, for a song called "Undivided." At President Joe Biden's inaugural celebration, the duo performed their new anthem, which essentially says we're all one nation, red and blue united by those white stars.
Or maybe people are overthinking it.
"It's just about entertainment," concertgoer McDevitt, 37, said before the Rucker show. "It doesn't matter what your politics are."
Added her friend Brueske, 38: "People just want to get back to a semi-normal way of life."
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719
COUNTRY STARS COMING SOON
Luke Combs: He tops a bill Aug. 20-21 at Winstock in Winsted, Minn., that includes Sam Hunt and Big & Rich. (winstockfestival.com) Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris: They'll headline the Minnesota State Fair grandstand Aug. 26-27, respectively. (mnstatefair.org)