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Spotlight On 2016 Country Thunder In Florence, Arizona
Photos by Glenda S. Paradee 

Arizona Country Thunder was held in Florence, Arizona on April 7-10, 2016.

Day 1

Newcomer Eden kicks off 2016 Country Thunder

Brooke Eden confessed to Thursday's early afternoon Country Thunder audience: "You don't know me. I'm brand new."

And then she proceeded to perform as if she was a seasoned veteran, someone with the confidence to hold the audience's attention for a full hour and have them attempt to sing along to songs they had never heard before.

Eden, who opened Country Thunder here before a crowd that numbered several hundred, doesn't have a record out yet; she's working on it. But she has a single, a hot rocker called "Daddy's Money" that she saved until the end. That's a trick they teach you in Country Music 101 - save your best until the end.

But Eden didn't have to convince anyone to hang with her through her 60 minutes in the spotlight. She had the audience on her side from her opening rocker "Let's Get Crazy" to her soulful, bluesy cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep."

She did only two covers during her show; the Adele hit and a cover of UK artist James Beck's "Hold Back the River" a nod to her experience last month playing the Country2Country Festival in England.

Instead she did something pretty daring: a whole show of songs no one had ever heard before unless they trolled YouTube and saw a few of those songs performed in radio station shots and songwriter showcase concerts.

Chase Bryant

Chase Bryant had that pivotal role of middle man at Thursday's opening day of Country Thunder 2016.
 
He was the artist charged with setting the tempo, setting the mood for the night.

He could bring the energy and create a fired-up atmosphere for Thursday's headliner Kip Moore and openers Old Dominion. Or he could play it low key.

Yeah, right, Chase Bryant play it low key.

Maybe at a funeral, but on Thursday at Country Thunder West festival grounds, with some 25,000 people in the audience, Bryant played it anything but low key.

He jumped up and down, strutted the length of the catwalk as the sun set and played rock-infused country loud enough to entice a few people in the front row to move back a few - or 20 - rows.  It started as spittle really, an annoying drizzle that arrived just as Old Dominion was singing about rain at Country Thunder Thursday night.

Kip Moore

The drizzle graduated from annoyance to bothersome, accompanied by a breeze that quickly turned into something more gusty. Gusty enough to cause concern among those stage hands responsible for keeping the Country Thunder stage and all its parts in place.

So they delayed headliner Kip Moore's 10 p.m. show about 30 minutes - enough time that a couple hundred people headed to the exits. But when you have 25,000 or so people packed into the Country Thunder West festival grounds, missing a couple hundred didn't really make a difference.

Moore, dressed in tight jeans with strategic rips, a tank top and a backwards snapback, bounded atop a stage speaker and thanked the crowd that stuck out the rain.

"Y'all give us all you got and we'll give y'all all we got, I promise," he said a few songs into a 90-minute show that had flashes of Springsteen - a little rough-hewn with a genuine working man's authenticity.

Moore sings about life in a world that most of his fans can probably relate: first-time love in the backseat of car on an unlit street; scraping together just enough "Beer Money" for a Friday night out; and "Something 'Bout a Truck" and the pretty girl that came with it.

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Day 2
 
Tucker Beathard
 
Tucher Beathard was the first performer on day 2 of Country Thunder.  He put on a great show.

Haley Georgia

Haley Georgia then came on next, a former hip-hop artist and "American Idol" aspirant who's now all in for country. But her flavor of country has screaming guitars and girls who rock attitude.

Cadillac 3

Then there was Cadillac 3, an unapologetic metal country act whose hour-long show was all screams, thumping drums and crazy guitar rants with country at its core but not its mission.

Cole Seindell
 
Cole Swindell followed not quite as loudly as the Nashville trio, nor as hard. His rocking country leans more on the country side of the dial. He sings songs about getting to see the girl and the urge of just wanting her to need him as much as he needs her.

As the opener for headliner Florida Georgia Line, Swindell had the task of keeping the crowd energized for the main event. He did that in spades, performing his rocking "You Ain't Worth the Whiskey" and infusing it with the bluesy chorus from Justin Timberlake's "Drink You Away." He tossed in a couple covers of Tim McGraw's "Real Good Man" and Kenny Chesney's "Don't Happen Twice." He also covered Thomas Rhett's "Get Me Some of That," but it wasn't really a cover; Swindell penned the song.

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Cole Swindell

Day 3

Casee Allen

Florida country singer Casee Allen had to compete with the sun for attention Saturday afternoon from the several hundred folks at Country Thunder.

So he did what any aspiring country singer in his position would do: He sang about sex.

Sex sells, especially when the temperature outside is hoovering near 80 and the sun feels like it's blazing at least 20 degrees hotter than that.

Allen's sexy ballad "Perfume" surely had all the ingredients of an attention grabber - it had some sultry come-hither lyrics and bluesy, hip-swaying innuendo. And it worked, sort of. The people in the concert bowl - that's what they call the main festival area near the stage - stuck around for his 45-minute set.

But it seemed nothing could lure away the small crowd standing in bunched up lines at the Country Thunder merchandise tent in the shadow of the giant slingshot.

Band members of California country newcomer Cam bravely mounted the sling shot ride, a behemoth proposition for the drunk much less the sober among the Country Thunder crowd. Here's how it works: You're strapped inside a metal cage attached to giant rubberbands and it hurls you 100 mph 200 feet straight up in the air. OK, that is the simple explanation; judging from the computer setup and control panels, it's much more complicated and safer than it looks.
 
Cam

California country singer Cam walked gingerly on the metal ramp bridging the Country Thunder stage and catwalk Saturday night.

She was wearing yellow high heels, not impossibly high but high enough to intimidate when faced with a potentially slippery metal surface.

On her first attempt, she crawled, sitting on the ramp and scooching down. After a few attempts, she conquered her fears - "Oh snap! I got the ramp!" she exclaimed.

Chris Janson

There had been mentions from the stage, and a few sobering recollections, but until Saturday night no one had paid a truly proper tribute to the late country icon Merle Haggard.

Both the headliner Jake Owen and his opener Chris Janson, gave the Hag his due, Janson going so far as to devote a big chunk of his hour-long set to the singer who died Wednesday - on his 79th birthday.

"Some people pass and you're OK with it," he told the audience that had swelled beyond 25,000 by the time he took the stage at 8 p.m. "But Merle's a different deal, people."

Janson was one of the last artists to tour with Haggard, who became ill early this year and cancelled a number of concerts in March. Janson got to stand on a stage with the man, rub shoulders with a legend who influenced the 30-year-old, and those experiences needed more than a song or few sobering words to fully appreciate.

Janson, sporting a 1979 Merle Haggard and the Strangers tour shirt, performed Haggard's "Footlights" and a medley of other classic Hag hits that included "My Favorite Memory."
 
Day 4
 
Casey Donahew
 
Texas singer Casey Donahew kicked things off at 4 p.m. before a crowd that grew to several hundred, many wading through puddles of mud and water to get close enough to hear Donahew and his band sing about his "Double-Wide Dream" and other red dirt country songs that have propelled him from regional Texas success to notice on a larger stage.

Thirty minutes into his show, the sun again muscled out the clouds and the audience started to shed the rain gear.The buzz at last year's Country Thunder festival was about a band out of Nashville called A Thousand Horses and their debut radio single "Smoke."

A Thousand Horses

The song was burning up radio play and all the radio guys/gals and industry types couldn't say enough about the song and the band. Many were wishing out loud that A Thousand Horses would land on the 2016 Country Thunder lineup.

On Sunday evening, A Thousand Horses made its Country Thunder debut and lived up to all that hype in a 60-minute Southern rock-tinged show. I think I and thousands of others among the crowd that filled the muddy festival grounds found our new country music crush.

This is a band with members who wear their hair long in the Southern rock tradition and sing a love song that compares their best gal to the addiction of smoking. They rock, yet there's strong country tradition beneath the pulsating percussion and driving rock guitar riffs.

Eric Church
 
When it comes to great finishes, Country Thunder has shown in recent years that it's got a knack for putting the most electrified finishing touches on its four-day country music festival here.

On Sunday night, it enlisted one of Nashville's most energetic entertainers to do the job, and Eric Churchdelivered.

We got him champing at the bit for a live audience, and he got us primed to send off Country Thunder 2016 with a bang.

Nevermind that rain tried to wreck havoc on the last day Sunday, leaving in its wake a muddy, slippery, soggy mess. That didn't stop the tens of thousands filling the Country Thunder West festival lawn Sunday night. If Church was looking for a party, he found one with the thousands of folks in the lawn bunched up in a knot around the fenced in reserved-seating area, and in the reserved spot, where fans tussled for the stagefront spots and squeezed into every spot along the catwalk.

It would be easy to throw down a setlist - a rundown of his greatest hits from "Talladega" and "Homeboy" to "Smoke A Little Smoke," 'Springsteen" and "Creepin'" - and let that testify to the merits of Church's show. But there is so much more to the award-winning country singer than simply a rundown of what he sang.

It's the way he sang them, with heart and soul, naturally, but also with the confidence that comes when he knew the only person he really had to impress was himself. We were going to be impressed just to hear him perform his new song "Mr. Misunderstood" for one of the first times live; he won't tour on the months-old album of the same name until 2017 so Country Thunder got a rare treat.

See you all next year at Arizona Country Thunder!

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