All photos by the author
This past weekend, hordes of country music fans stormed Randall's Island in search of funnel cake and steel guitar. The event—dubbed Farmborough—spanned three days and survived a nasty downpour to deliver the goods to several thousand of the faithful. Headlined by radio country godheads Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, and Luke Bryan, the fest pulled together a nice mix of mainstream (Justin Moore, Kip Moore, Cassadee Pope), the legendary Dwight Yoakam, and under-the-radar gems like Chris Stapleton, Mickey Guyton, Brandy Clark, and ascendent star Sturgill Simpson.
Despite growing up in a super rural town surrounded by forests and farmland in a family of country and Southern rock obsessives, I'd never been to a country festival until I passed through the gates to Farmborough. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect; honestly, I was curious to see if there'd even be anyone there at all. The audience at the last NYC country show I'd been to had been sparse at best, and traditionally, New York City and country music are basically antithetical to one another. As Bocephus once grumbled, "Just send me to hell or New York City, it would be about the same to me."
The whole experience was an extremely pleasant surprise, though, from the cordial staff and mostly well-behaved attendees to the ace sound system and quality bands. It reminded me of my first Ozzfest back in 2004, which was a crucial moment in my young life because not only did I get to see Judas Priest and Slayer, it finally drove home the point that there really were more people out there like me—enough to fill a stadium (or a big-ass field).
Farmborough offered a similar moment of realization that, weirdly enough, a shitload of people in NYC like the same stuff I used to listen to on my dad's truck radio. In a city of millions, even if you're already part of a solid social circle and music scene, it's heartening to find a new, unexpected tribe of like-minded souls.
Here are a few other observations from this weekend's star-spangled, waterlogged festivities:
1. New York City is full of rednecks
And "hillbillies", and loads of people who definitely do not identify as "city folks," as I discovered during Justin Moore's set. A number of performers noted their surprise that so many people had some out to see them play in New York City—a place that's far, far North of the usual country tour routing—but it made sense. Of all the millions of transplants that populate this fair city, a significant percentage undoubtedly come from the same kind of small towns and Southern backwaters that this strain of country music both lionizes and laments. Hell, I'm from Bumfuck, New Jersey, and half the songs I heard on Saturday could've been written about my uncles or the kids at my high school. The festival's healthy attendance and the unbridled enthusiasm of its patrons really spoke to country's universal appeal, even in the midst of a self-absorbed metropolis like ours. There's a reason country consistently ranks as one of America's favorite genres—it resonates with people, whether that appreciation is borne of nostalgia or current relevance. Hank Jr. might not be that big on New York City, but a whole lot of people here like him just fine.
2. Country music still loves covers
3. Mickey Guyton is going to be a star
I'm kicking myself for missing her full set (3PM on a rainy Saturday was tough to pull off) but Mickey was one of the performers I was most excited to see. As one of the few women—and the only person of color—playing Farmborough, she undoubtedly stood out, but it's her powerhouse voice that truly highlighted her as one of the festival's strongest acts from the onset. When tourmate Brad Paisley brought her out for the gut-wrenching duet "Whiskey Lullaby," there wasn't a dry eye in the house—and it wasn't just the rain.
4. Country festivals are a lot of fucking fun
Everyone was stoked! No one was fighting! Everyone was singing along and dancing and bear-hugging their bros and generally having the best time, even when it was pissing down rain like a vengeful god had awoken in a foul mood. Booze was too expensive to get wasted without making a serious financial commitment, the food options were dope—many hails to Hill Country Barbeque—and even the scattered clusters of sweaty cops were smiling. I was there with a #squad of badass writer pals, and even the rain couldn't bring us down (even if it did fuck up our hair). The amount of good cheer and rampant chill vibes were almost uncanny, at least for someone who's only ever encountered the contrasting chaos of a metal festival.
5. Summer festival style transcends genre
As long as the sun is shining, a PA has been rented, and a stage has been erected among a litter of food stalls and beer tents, you really can't go wrong with a flowy white peasant blouse, denim short-shorts, wavy hair, and boots of various description.
6. Sturgill Simpson's Estonian guitar player is a genius
Sturgill's set was phenomenal. He headlined the second stage, and the tent was already packed to the gills by the time he came onstage in jeans and sneakers. No cowboy hat, no light show, not a drip of pretension—he was there to play us some country music, and that's what he did. As engaging as he was as a frontman, I couldn't help but direct my attention to his Estonian guitarist, Laur Joamets—known onstage as "Lil Joe." His electric slide screams Nashville, but his own background in hard rock and blues shines on through his licks and solos. He was a joy to watch, especially coupled with Sturgill's easy magnetism and a damp but rapturous crowd.
7. Cowboy hats make excellent umbrellas
Once the sputtering drizzle turned into a full-blown torrential downpour, the $35 cowboy hats that Down & Dirty were selling started looking mighty tempting… so tempting in fact that I am now the proud owner of a black cowboy hat that I can wear exactly zero places outside country music festivals, but hey, my face stayed dry!
8. Brad Paisley is the best
Look, Brad Paisley's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but he's the kind of country star that ladies love and bros appreciate. He's thinking man's redneck that bleeding heart liberals can get behind (I am still seriously bummed that he didn't play "Welcome to the Future"); my mom loves him and keeps texting me asking if I bought her a T-shirt (I didn't, because they were a zillion dollars and I am a bad daughter), and my dad judged me for seeing him. It was still pouring rain when he came out to headline Saturday night, but to his credit, he walked right out and got soaked with the rest of us, snapping selfies with fans' iPhones and flashing those pearly whites. He hauled out banger after banger (kicking off the set with "Water" like a total mensch) and made us all cry with that Mickey Guyton duet. In short, he really was crushin' it.
9. The American flag never goes out of style
Anyone who wasn't wearing a flowing white blouse or generic polo shirt was wearing an American flag hoodie, American flag bikini top, American flag shorts, American flag sunglasses, American flag cape, American flag cowboy hat, American flag bandana… there was a lot of patriotism in the air, and that's without mentioning the ginormous American flags bookending the main stage, the sprays of red, white, and blue balloons, or the countless cans of Budweiser being hoisted in the name of God and country. We also only spotted one bonehead with a Confederate flag (and a few cowboy hats emblazoned with it).
10. Every outdoor festival should have a blow-up slide
Kim Kelly's long hair just can't cover up her red neck - she's on Twitter: @grimkim