The 4th annual Pepsi’s Rock the South festival in Cullman, Ala., brought over 40,000 fans to the southern town to hear some of country music’s marquee acts — and to also help out local causes in the process. The event began four years ago to assist rebuilding efforts after the 2011 tornadoes that ravaged the area and focuses its efforts on benefiting organizations in the area.
The two-day (June 19-20) event proved to be a mixture of different styles and sounds. Friday’s lineup seemed designed to satisfy the edgy Southern rock and blues fan, with some of the top performances coming from acts such as rising favorites The Chris Weaver Band, Tyler Farr, and Brantley Gilbert — who closed out the evening with an exclamation point-driven performance that showed just how much he has grown as a live performer — and that his slot on the Kenny Chesney tour was well-earned. Some of the high points of Gilbert’s set included “Bottoms Up” and his current single, “One Hell of An Amen.”
Two acts that played on Friday who were enjoying the scenery included Mississippi-based family trio Southern Halo and ACM nominee Eric Paslay.
“We jumped out of bed this morning just wanting to take the stage,” Natalia Lee, lead singer of Southern Halo, told Billboard. “I think this is one of the biggest events we’ve ever gotten to do,” adding that they have opened shows for acts such as Parmalee, Uncle Kracker, and John Michael Montgomery. The group, which consists of 18-year old Natalia, Christina (16), and Hannah (15), captivated the crowd with their current single, “Little White Dress,” which emphasized their tight family harmonies. “We’re always around each other, and we can practice anytime we want, so that helps us get better,” Christina said. “You can feel the love.”
For Paslay, the event was reminiscent of home. “It’s hot, humid and fun,” he said. It reminds me of being home in Texas.”
The event is one of the first that the singer-songwriter has played since his honeymoon, following his recent wedding to Natalie Harker. “We spoiled ourselves a little bit and went to Italy,” he told Billboard. “It was amazing to see buildings and the Roman ruins that were over 3,000 years old. We’re so young here in America, and there is so much history there, when you are learning about the Coliseum or the Vatican, old Rome and all of it. It’s amazing to me how well they built everything.”
The singer, who is working on his sophomore project, said that he has recently started headlining some shows. “It’s gone great,” he said. “We’re selling out clubs. We just got our own lighting gear. It’s been a lot of fun, and it means we’re playing later in the gig at night. So, we’re moving up in the schedule. I’ve been on some tours where you don’t really know who’s there to see you that night. I’m just so grateful for how things are going right now.”
Saturday’s Rock the South lineup featured an energetic set from singer-songwriter Mary Sarah and the Southern-fried rock/soul approach of Andrew Leahey and The Homestead. But the show closed with three acts who brought over 60 years of country classics to the stage. Sara Evans delivered a flawless set of her hits, including “Slow Me Down,” “Suds In The Bucket,” and “A Real Fine Place To Start.” Next up was Travis Tritt, who kept the night simple by delivering one smash after the other, including “Anymore,” “Country Club,” and “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde.”
Finishing up the night was Alan Jackson. The veteran performer kicked his set off with 1994’s “Gone Country.” And perhaps the most emotional part of the evening was “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” which also included an appearance from local veteran (and Dancing With the Stars alum) Noah Galloway, who lost his left arm below the elbow and left leg below the knee while serving in the Iraq War.
Though Jackson’s performance sent the crowd into the Alabama night, plans are already underway for next year’s Rock the South fest. Shane Quick, who organizes the show through Premier Productions, told Billboard that they’re “already looking at artists for 2016.” Fans from 40 states were represented at the festival, which his company has tried to keep affordable.
“This event has become people’s summer vacation. It helps them get through working every day. One of the things we pride ourselves on is being a festival that everyone can afford. We work really hard to do that,” Quick said, noting that starting prices for the event were $49, and the VIP tickets were in line with the general admission prices at most festivals.