For decades, state and county fairs were the key part of the summer touring season for country artists. But in recent years, festivals have become at least equally important, if for no other reason than they attract people who are there specifically for music.
On one recent weekend, Jerrod Niemann played three consecutive dates at different festivals — Country Thunder in Twin Lakes, Wis., on July 23; Guthrie’s River Ruckus in Guthrie Center, Iowa, on July 24; and Country Jam in Eau Claire, Wis., on July 25 — lending a real air of authority to his new single, “Blue Bandana.” Released to radio via Play MPE on July 10, the song surrounds a chance meeting between two music fans at MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C. The “girl in the blue bandana” invites the guy to join her the next weekend at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, and he now finds himself — in a move akin to following the Grateful Dead — searching crowds at music festivals hoping to bump into her again.
“‘Blue Bandana,’ for me, represents a lot more than a cloth on a hot chick,” says Niemann. “It sort of reminded me of so many cool places we’ve been and cool faces we got to meet. I never really recorded a song that said thank you to all the fans out there that withstand the heat all day and pay their hard-earned money to let us play our music, and that song just kind of hit home.”
In the course of its three-minute, 24-second run, “Blue Bandana” references a litany of music festivals — including Coachella, Woodstock, Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival — but never bothers to mention CMA Music Festival, the one that is likely most familiar to country fans across the United States. (ABC will air CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock on Aug. 4). It’s not like the songwriters didn’t consider it — they just couldn’t make it rhyme.
“It’s not lyric-friendly,” says co-writer Andy Wills. “We talked it over, but it didn’t seem to fit the personality of the song.”
Or, to be more specific, the personality of the girl. There aren’t a lot of details about her, but what is there — the sundress, the flower in her hair, the fact that she “hitchiked a ride in a beat-up van” — portrays her more as an earth mama than as a contemporary cowgirl.
She is, says co-writer CJ Solar, a “gypsy, hippie girl who might like country music but is just kind of following bands or whatever around. You go to Bonnaroo or Coachella or the other ones, and it made sense for her to be there [at a] jam-bandy kind of festival. I would assume that this girl liked country music, but it was more fitting around the girl than it was around country music.”
She came to life in February 2014 when Wills, Solar and BMG Music Publishing Nashville creative manager Ben Goldsmith held a songwriting session after 6 p.m. at the BMG offices. The “Blue Bandana” title came to Wills in the parking lot just before the appointment, but he didn’t mention it until they had spent about a half-hour chasing another idea that wasn’t really jelling. When he brought up his title, it was immediately more interesting. The bandana itself is familiar — Willie Nelson alone has made it an accepted piece of country clothing — though it has rarely been central to a song. Only twice has the word been part of a top 10 country single: Faron Young’s “The Yellow Bandana” (No. 4, 1963) and Merle Haggard’s “Red Bandana” (No. 4, 1979).
“It seemed that perfect blend of something a little different but also something that was in popular culture,” reasons Goldsmith. “Everyone wears bandanas.”
As they talked about that fictitious girl, Solar threw out the phrase “Bonnaroo baby,” which became part of the first line of the chorus and the inspiration to follow the festival trail. As they popped the obvious choices into the lyrics — Bonnaroo in Tennessee; Coachella in Southern California; Woodstock in upstate New York — they pulled up Google Maps to spur thoughts about other regions in the country. They dropped in the Hangout Festival at Gulf Shores, Ala., and Lollapalooza in Chicago, but still wanted another event closer to the dead center of the country. Richlyn Marketing partner Kate Richardson and Richlyn project manager Tori Tullier had told them a story about manning a Martin Guitar booth at the Wakarusa Festival near Ozark, Ark.
“[Tullier] told me that it rained, it was like a hurricane, and there was just mud everywhere,” says Goldsmith.
So they inserted “the mud at Wakarusa,” which, of course, rhymed with Lollapalooza.
There’s also a reference to smoke, which most people will likely interpret as weed, though the songwriters point out that standard cigarettes, e-cigarettes and fog machines add to that effect.
“I just figured that it was a cool image,” says Solar. “I remember being at those festivals and kind of like a smog hanging over the crowd.”
When the song was finished, Solar played it frequently at gigs around Nashville, but it was months before he ever had a chance to make a demo of it. Finally, when Sea Gayle put together a demo session in the fall, he convinced the musicians to tack “Blue Bandana” to the end of the session, and they laid it down in a single take, giving it a Southern rock feel that fits Solar’s own sound as an artist.
Kenny Chesney was their first choice to record it, but he had already wrapped The Big Revival. They turned to Jake Owen, who liked it well enough that he put it on hold for three months. But Owen was also of a mind to shake up his musical direction and felt “Blue Bandana” was a little too familiar. In the meantime, two different people — neither of whom had any vested interest in “Bandana” — told Niemann about it within days of each other. He wanted it, and the same day Owen relinquished his hold, Niemann snapped it up.
He co-produced it with Jimmie Lee Sloas at John and Martina McBride’s Blackbird Studios in Berry Hill, with Danny Rader laying down the acoustic guitar bed that opens the song. Derek Wells and Rob McNelley played a twin guitar solo that brought out more of the Southern rock vibe from the demo.
“It’s pretty much the same thing, except just on steroids,” says Wills.
“I wanted it to have a lot of energy, but I didn’t want to lose that charming, earthy feel to it,” explains Niemann. “You have that when you’re at a concert for two days: You stink like a dead cow on the side of the road. At least, I did.”
Niemann tested it among several tracks with trusted allies, including about a half-dozen radio programmers, and the verdict was unanimous: “Blue Bandana” was the best choice for a single. Fortunately, when new Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman officially started July 13, three days after the single’s release, he agreed.
“Obviously you wouldn’t want to hear the opposite,” says Niemann with a laugh. “That would’ve really sucked.”
“Blue Bandana” debuted at No. 53 on the Country Airplay chart dated Aug. 8 and rises to No. 43 in its second week.
While the guy in the song looks in vain for the girl wearing the blue accessory, Niemann feels a real attachment to the fans he has seen at past music festivals who keep showing up again.
“There’s some people who are fans and have come to our shows well over 100 times,” he says. “They could be in a ball cap — or whatever their blue bandana may be — and you look forward to seeing a familiar face. There’s a million places they could be at that moment, and they still want to come be a part of what we’re doing onstage.”
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.