25 years ago, WE Fest held its first show: Organizers breathed easier after 'Alabama' agreed to perform
Now 25 years old, WE Fest seems like it's always been a part of summer in Detroit Lakes -- but the country music festival nearly ended up in Wisconsin.
The 1980 film Urban Cowboy starred John Travolta and started a country music revival craze that disco-exhausted Americans grasped with glee.
New traditionalists like Ricky Skaggs and George Strait burst onto the scene, and more and more country started crossing over to pop. Country folks and cosmopolites alike wore cowboy attire and country music was the largest selling genre of music in America in the early '80's.
"Promoter Jeff Krueger and his partners originally planned to establish the WE Fest in River Falls, Wis., when most of WE Fest was still an undeveloped wheat field," explained festival co-owner Chyrll Sparks. "When carefully developed plans were presented in a fifty-seven page application for a large assembly permit, the River Falls Township Board failed to give the event their blessing."
(Krueger has been the president of WE Fest -- in whatever form or shape the corporation/organization has taken -- for the past 24 years.)
This was in May of 1983, and the promoters scrambled to find a new site. Terry McCloskey, who was one of the owners of WE Fest for about the first 20 years, recalled a small dude ranch in DL where his daughters had taken riding lessons.
According to Sparks, when presented with the same proposal, the DL and Becker County community "whole-heartedly embraced the proposal to establish WE Fest at the Soo Pass Ranch."
WE, not US
With only a few months left, Krueger set out to put together the best talent roster possible for WE in '83. The WE in WE Fest was a spin off from the rock "US Festivals" of the early 80's. Sparks said it was not easy to convince wary agents and managers that the WE Fest could draw people from across the Midwest, "despite the fact that there had never been an event of this kind staged anywhere north of the Mason/Dixon Line."
Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, The Bellamy Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Tom T. Hall eventually signed on. But the turning point in the success of the first WE Fest was when the country rock band Alabama, nearly at the peak of a plateau that the group would travel on for 20 more years, signed on.
"It was a great leap of faith, for which we are still grateful," Sparks said later. And she's still saying that today. "Not only did Alabama come to play, they agreed to come early to hold a press conference at the DL Holiday Inn to kick off the event!"
Over 30,000 people attended the first WE Fest, which had a very small box seat section and first-come, first-seated in the rest of the "concert bowl." The event broke even financially and employed 250 people. Jerry Lee Lewis destroyed his piano stool.
Much More in '84
A year later, at More in '84, the festival was expanded to five days and booked Tanya Tucker, Ricky Skaggs, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels and Ronnie Milsap as the main attractions. Fifty-thousand people attended over the five days
By Alive in '85, the 271 acre ranch was bought from Curt Hegg by WE Fest investment partner Ray Mithun, Sparks wrote in the Official 10 Year Anniversary Souvenir WE Fest Program.
Rand Levy joined the organization as chief financial officer. Levy was already a 16-year veteran in the business of music promotion. The box seat section was expanded to 250, and 55,000 fans attended the three-day event, served by 400 employees.
When Kicks in '86 rolled around, the box seats were expanded to 600, the WE Fest employed 450 folks, the number of (portable) bathrooms had increased from 150 to 170, 70,000 people attended over three days, and a fence was completed all the way around the amphitheater, which enclosed 15 acres.
Meanwhile, WE Festers continued to see great acts like Charlie Pride, Hank Williams, Jr., John Anderson, Sawyer Brown, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
By the fifth anniversary of WE Fest, Johnny Cash was back, again along with Nitty Gritty. The Oak Ridge Boys, Crystal Gayle and The Whites were other national acts. The Everly Brothers cancelled a week out and were replaced by the late great Roy Orbison. Ten more bathrooms, 100 more box seats and 50 more employees were added.
Willie Nelson brought in a record number of walk up (non-camping) attendees at Feelin' Great in '88. Waylon Jennings, Ricky Van Shelton, Lee Greenwood, Mel Tillis, Mel McDaniel Juice Newton and Tammy Wynette were other national acts, but Roy Clark stole the show that year.
And Mother Nature weighed in: It rained two and a half inches in 40 minutes, causing mudslides in camping areas while backstage hospitality and artist's hospitality areas floated in water.
At Stars Shine in '89, VIP camping had electrical outlets installed, and publicist Les Strand was tragically killed in the vehicle accident.
The Judds put on a memorable performance, and the box seats were up to 1,280. The campgrounds expanded to 3,800 sites and number of bathrooms increased to 200.
And improvements continued on the grounds: Asphalt roads and concrete floors were put down to fight future rainstorms and four brand new sound towers were added. By then, the festival employed 600 people who took care of 90,000 WE Festers over three days.
Alabama and Tanya Tucker came back. So did Ronnie Milsap, Gary Morris, John Anderson and the Judds. And it was a year for bands like Asleep at the Wheel, Restless Heart, Exile and Desert Rose Band.
Randy Travis and Dolly Parton headlined at Let's Go in Nine-O and WE Fest had the "best sponsor promotion year ever," Sparks wrote. Glen Campbell stole the show, the new Oatfield Campground sold out and 93,000 attended.
Havin' Fun in '91 increased the box seats to 1,900; bathrooms went from 212 to 240; and 96,000 attended. Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers, George Strait and Reba McEntire all gave great performances.
Carl Perkins was replaced by Dottie West.
"Roger Miller showed up but his band didn't," said Dave Schulustad of Goodridge, Minn. who has attended 22 of the last 24 WE Fests. "And that was a good thing, because Roger Miller and his guitar put on the best WE Fest show I have ever seen! The crowd went absolutely nuts."
As the tenth WE fest was fast approaching, WE Fest was well established and ready to celebrate. Sparks reported that box seats had expanded to 2,200. A Jumbatron concert screen was added so everybody in the concert bowl could see the show.
The campgrounds were expanded to 5,000 sites and WE Fest proclaimed that "30,000 campers" would constitute an anticipated attendance of nearly 100,000 over three days. Saturday night was expected to hit nearly 50,000.
The Just for You in '92 show slated Clint Black, Alabama, Charlie Daniels Band, Marty Stuart, Travis Tritt, Restless Heart and female voc's Kathy Mattea, Emmy Lou Harris, Lorrie Morgan, Suzy Bogguss and Mary Chapin Carpenter. And a giant fireworks display was planned.
The future was brimming with potential and included the bright possibility that city sewer and water was coming to WE Fest -- which would mean permanent showers and permanent restrooms in the concert bowl!
Long bathroom lines for men and especially for women posed a major problem and major discomfort to the beer-drinking audience of early WE Fests.
That problem was alleviated long ago, but back then it was serious. When discussing a moniker for the first show going into the second decade of WE Fests, the 900 employees at a pre-WE meeting for Just for You in '92 jokingly chanted "A Place to Pee in '93."
Sure enough, permanent bathrooms and permanent showers would be ushering WE in '93 into the next decade of WE Fests.
(This is the first of several stories exploring the history of WE Fest on its 25th anniversary)