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WE Fest: From upstart to biggest in the country

Memories of WE Fest past are captured in the buttons that date back 30 years. Photo by - Brian Basham

Thirty years ago, as organizers were preparing for the inaugural WE Fest country music festival at Detroit Lakes' Soo Pass Ranch, the fact that they had managed to book one of the hottest bands in the business at that time -- Alabama -- was met with much skepticism.

To alleviate all doubt, the band actually drove its tour bus up and down Detroit Lakes' main street, speakers blasting from the roof and inviting everyone to come see them perform at the festival.

"I love to tell that story," says John Gourley, vice president of concerts for FACE, Inc., the company behind WE Fest.

"The concept of WE Fest and major headliners performing in a field out by a lake was not necessarily one that everybody believed could happen 30 years ago."

Since then, WE Fest has grown into the largest outdoor camping and country music festival in North America, Gourley added.

And this week, Alabama will be making its fourth appearance at the festival, which begins its 30th annual run on Thursday.

"They (Alabama) have been here for the first, the 10th, the 20th, and now the 30th," Gourley adds.

'An incredible lineup'

When wracking their brains trying to come up with the best way to celebrate such an important historic milestone, Gourley said, WE fest organizers came up with the idea of seeing whether Alabama would consider coming out of retirement to perform there.

"They hadn't performed or recorded for some time, but what we didn't know was that at that time they were already in the studio, recording with Brad Paisley," he said. "Unbeknownst to us, they were considering touring again."

Because they were actually the first venue to make a formal request, the band said "yes" to them first, Gourley added.

"We were lucky enough to get them to confirm our 30th anniversary as their first tour show in America," he said. "It made for a really nice way to kick off our 30th anniversary year."

Shortly thereafter, Toby Keith and Jason Aldean were booked to fill the other two headliner spots, and they were soon followed by long-time WE Fest favorite John Anderson -- who will be celebrating a milestone of his own.

"He (Anderson) has played WE Fest 11 times," Gourley said.

Anderson and Sawyer Brown, both scheduled to perform this year, are currently tied for the most-ever WE Fest appearances. This year, the tie will remain unbroken, as they both raise their total to 12.

And then, there's Steve Martin. Yes, THAT Steve Martin.

He and his Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, will perform on Friday, Aug. 3, right before headliner Toby Keith.

While Martin is a world famous comedian and movie star, Gourley said, what many people don't know about him is that he actually got his start in the entertainment business as a banjo player, performing for crowds at Disneyland.

WE Fest fans will get a chance to hear Martin's musical talent first-hand this year, he added.

Other featured artists on the schedule this year include some of the industry's hottest up-and-comers like Brantley Gilbert, Eric Church and Luke Bryan, as well as emerging stars like Colt Ford, Florida-Georgia Line, Little Big Town, Levi Riggs, Hitchville, Rocket Club and Boomtown.

"We've got an incredible lineup," Gourley said. "We've been fortunate to capture some of the amazing new talent on their way up, as they are still forming their careers and their music."

Many site improvements made, surprises planned

Some of those up-and-comers will get a chance to perform a second time after their main stage appearance, as the festival's popular Songwriters Showcase returns to the Barn Stage.

"We've expanded the Barn Stage and put a roof over it, made it more elaborate," Gourley said. "It's an opportunity to see some of these emerging artists do a little longer set."

Besides the expanded Barn Stage, fans will also notice several other improvements that have been made to the grounds especially for the 30th anniversary.

While enhanced sound and high definition video jumbotrons were added at the site last year, further improvements have been made to enhance audience members' concert experience even further.

"One of the things we spent a lot of time on last year was the sound system," Gourley said. "We've added some elaborate new delay towers to take the sound to state-of-the art, so you have perfect sound, not only close up to the stage, but also in the rear of the bowl ... the sound experience is the same no matter where you are sitting."

The jumbotron screens are also larger this year, making what's happening on stage clearly visible from anywhere in the concert bowl, he added.

Another new addition that is sure to be a big hit with concert-goers is that more traditional restrooms have been added than ever before.

""We're the only concert venue of our size where there are no port-a-potties in the concert bowl area," Gourley said, adding that while it might seem to be a strange thing to take pride in, it's a big selling point for WE Fest attendees.

The stadium seating that was added last year also proved to be popular with festival attendees, and this year, even more has been added. All of the reserved seating sections now include stadium seating, Gourley said.

Documentary debut

Another 30th anniversary surprise that's being planned for this year's event is that a new PBS documentary on the history of WE Fest is going to have its official debut during the festival.

"We'll be showing it during some of the breaks (between music acts)," Gourley said. "It will be the first time for people to get a look at some of the amazing historic footage, and some of the explanations for why it ended up in Detroit Lakes, the back story of how it's become one of the icons of country music's summer touring business.

"It's the largest country music and camping festival in America now."

And that's not all. WE Fest organizers have designed some unique 30th anniversary memorabilia that will go on sale Thursday in the concert bowl -- and what that memorabilia is, will remain a secret until the venue opens, Gourley said.

"We have a bunch of tricks up our sleeves," he added. "We've got a surprise planned for everyone after Alabama performs (Saturday night, as the final scheduled act on the main stage).

"I think we've got more going on this year than ever before, to make sure we kick off our 30th anniversary with a lot of fervor."

WE Fest 2012 music schedule

Here's a brief look at the music lineup for WE Fest's 30th anniversary:

• Wednesday, Aug. 1: Kickoff Party, featuring Colt Ford.

• Thursday, Aug. 2: Rocket Club, Colt Ford, John Anderson, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean.

• Friday, Aug. 3: Hitchville, Levi Riggs, Brantley Gilbert, Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, Toby Keith.

• Saturday, Aug. 4: Florida Georgia Line, Little Big Town, Sawyer Brown, Eric Church, Alabama.

A very limited number of tickets are still available for the festival, which is expected to sell out prior to its official opening, Gourley said.

Call 800-4WE-FEST, or visit for more information.

Tickets on sale for 2013

Tickets are already on sale for the 31st annual WE Fest, featuring headliners Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban.

"We've already had an overwhelming response," Gourley said. "It looks like 2013 is shaping up to be another huge year for us."

More of the 2013 lineup will be announced during the festival, he added. So far, tickets are only available online, but starting Thursday, they will be on sale at the venue as well.