Despite Country USA taking place in Wisconsin, one of the most northern states in the Midwest, people still really love the Confederate flag.
“This is fucking paradise, man. You’ve got alcohol. You’ve got perfect weather. And you’ve got country music,” Dan, a college kid from UW-Madison tells me, as we drink Fireball cocktails and watch the main stage at Country USA in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Thomas Rhett, an up-and-coming Next Big Thing in Country is wrapping up his cover of Garth Brooks’ seminal “Friends in Low Places,” and, despite the overcrowding, the overcharging for everything, and the general clusterfuck nature of Country USA, I’m having trouble disagreeing with Dan. “Sure it’s crowded, but where on earth would you rather be, man? This is paradise.”
For most people, the words “Summer Festival Season” conjure up images of sunburned hypebeasts, tone deaf Native American headdresses, bro tanks, drunken days spent in beautiful locales, lineups that include at least two famous rappers from the 90s, and posters that are ripe for parody. But there’s a whole other summer festival economy out here in flyover country, where the festivals draw big names, even bigger crowds, but get virtually no “social media buzz.” They have names like Country Thunder, Rock USA, Rock Fest, Hodag, Moondance, and are often the biggest thing to happen in the region during any summer.
Country USA, colloquially referred to as CUSA—pronounced KOOSA—is one of the biggest annual festivals in small town Wisconsin. CUSA is in its 19th year of bringing country stars to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a city between Green Bay and Milwaukee on Highway 41. It is five (five!) days of music. The festival sold out this year on the strength of headliners like Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood, Brantley Gilbert and Luke Bryan, drawing a whopping 40,000 people a day. That might not seem like a lot of people in comparison to Coachella or Lollapalooza, but Oshkosh is a city that only has 66,000 people. That’d be like five million people attending a musical festival in New York City.
Turn up for big gulps.
Country USA is not quite the Youth Branding Opportunity that most major festivals are, and it’s a cultural experience like none other. At CUSA, you see boots and cutoff shorts as far as the eye can see. You see people in flip flops try to navigate ankle deep mud, stumbling around dazed and blank eyed like they’re in the outskirts of a disaster in a Michael Bay movie. Sixteen-year-olds brag to 30-year-olds about gaming the alcohol wristband system, and cowboy hats, especially ones made out of empty beer cases, are the most prevalent headwear. It’s the only fest you can go to where when a performer mentions fishing in a Catfish pond in their spare time, people cheer and lose their minds.
Despite 12,000 troops from Wisconsin dying in Union uniforms in the Civil War, it takes roughly 35 seconds inside the festival grounds at CUSA to see the Confederate flag in more configurations than you thought possible. Are you interested in a Confederate flag wallet, a Confederate flag bro tank, a Confederate flag belt buckle, or an expensive framed artistic rendering of the Confederate flag? A Confederate flag with a strap that allows it to be turned into a cape, or a Confederate flag cowboy hat? What about a cross-branded sleeveless shirt that features a Confederate flag in the shape of shotgun brand Browning’s logo? The vendors at Country USA have you covered. The guy selling luxury hot tubs in the marketplace would probably help you paint one on the side of one if you asked. The South will rise again, on the side of a koozie.
It becomes clear that it’s not just the magnitude and spectacle of the event that’s drawing people in; it’s a genuine appreciation for country music, which is having something of a moment right now. Like the radio DJ who introduced the bands all week said, “Country music has never been bigger.” Country is far and away the number one radio format, and it’s the most popular music in the Midwest, not just in the south. CUSA itself bears the country boom out; it used to take place on the north side of Oshkosh in the fairgrounds, but now it has its own massive festival park south of town. Nearly every performer at CUSA mentioned “our first radio single” or “our next radio single,” because they have a real stake in making sure people know to look for these songs on radio; it’s a very real revenue stream for them in a way it isn’t for rappers or indie bands in 2014. As such, big businesses are realizing there’s a large audience out there waiting to be advertised to, to have money wrung from; there’s a reason Rolling Stone, music magazine of record, just launched its country vertical. There’s money in them there hills of fans piling up to see Florida Georgia Line.
And make money they do. If there’s a theme uniting CUSA to the music festival economy, it’s how much money it’s able to take from the people who show up. You pay $4 for water and are not allowed to bring any fluids in under any circumstances, even if the heat is untenable (as it was the last day of the fest especially). If you pay the $300 plus to camp onsite, you have to pay to shower ($5 for short shower, $8 for medium, $10 for long). You pay $3 for an alcohol wristband, $6 for a Miller High Life (which is un-American, plain and simple) and $9 for simple cocktails. You pay $15 to park onsite, and if you make the eco-conscious (or money conscious) decision to park off site and walk in, you get penalized and have to pay $5 for a “safety wristband,” which seem to exist solely as a way to make money off people who already paid $200 for a general admission ticket months ago.
Not that any attendees at CUSA seem to care; many just see it as the cost of getting Luke Bryan to Oshkosh. People complain, but they still pay the $5 safety band price even after walking on the side of a frontage road that is without a sidewalk, without adequate lighting, and which was the scene of some people getting hit the first night of the festival. They don’t have to worry about convenience that much at CUSA; there isn’t the media clusterfuck that would arise from the same problems at Governors Ball or Coachella or Electric Daisy Carnival, and ultimately, people will come either way. There is virtually no competition in this part of the state; if you want to see relevant stars play within under a 90-minute drive, CUSA is the only game in town. They know they have a captive audience.
The author performing rap squats while wearing a camo cowboy hat at the festival.
The lineup at CUSA was a testament to the “bro country” that has helped form a tsunami of new country talent and fans. Luke Bryan was the first night’s headliner, and he showcased why he’s become one of country’s main attractions; he dresses like his audience, he seems like a humble, normal dude, and he’s got a catalog of songs ready made for parties (“Country Girl Shake It For Me,” “That’s My Kind of Night,” “Rain is a Good Thing”) and the makeout session post-party (“Play It Again,” “Crash My Party”). His set was heavy on the slower songs, which meant he had to work harder to get the crowd to turn up on a Tuesday for the rowdier stuff. But I find it reassuring that a guy as simple and dorky a Luke Bryan—he played the Commodores’ “Sunday Morning” as “Tuesday Evening”—can be a mega star in any genre of music.
Bad boy Brantley Gilbert headlined the fest’s second night, and though his ambitions are as a sensitive howler for the Sturgis set, he fits right in with bro country, in that his songs and videos are heavy on outlaw imagery, hitman tendencies, and gravelly intonations for a better way. His band, who dressed like the Wyatt Family, are built for maximum shredding—his guitarist opened one song by playing the intro to “Enter Sandman”—and he too took the stage to a video package that has you ready for a bar fight as his wingman. “Bottoms Up,” his mega hit ode to getting Schlitzed, was the set’s centerpiece, even if it got outshined by his band’s especially searing take of “Dirt Road Anthem,” a hit that Jason Aldean Gilbert co-wrote. The real revelation of night two was Randy Houser, who has had some medium sized hits of his own while writing some mega sized hits for others (the immortal “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”). Houser is from the last administration of country hitmakers, but he’s got the fire of the new wave; his songs have nasty guitar solos and his songs are full of cowboys, drunkards and city girls.
The audience was never bigger than Friday night, when Florida Georgia Line headlined the fest’s strongest day (Thomas Rhett shredded and strutted earlier, and Eli Young Band, despite being of the Rascal Flatts Mall Country variant, had the crowd singing along the whole time). FGL are a big reason why the festival sold out; they are one of the most modern country acts working as they blend hip-hop lingo, hair metal riffs, and country themes into something that has country music sounding country while also undeniably sounding meant for mass consumption. “Round Here,” “Cruise,” and “This Is How We Roll,” had the crowd going apeshit, probably due to the fact that the level of alcohol consumption was high because a) it was finally Friday night and no one had to worry about being to work in the A.M. like the shows earlier in the week, and b) representatives from Fireball gave out free shots to all of-age adults in order for us to break the record for “biggest shot of all time.” You haven’t lived until you’ve heard 40,000 people scream “that Fireball whiskey whispers temptation in my ear” while drunk on Fireball.
Carrie Underwood, one of the few performers with two X chromosomes the whole week, headlined the fest’s final night, confirming the suspicion that women performers (like Carrie, Miranda, Taylor, Kacey, Brandy, and Angaleena) are actually the genre’s best. She did none of the pandering that marked the guys’ performances—Luke Bryan did backflips to mention Oshkosh and Wisconsin in his songs—she just showed up, crushed her hour long set, and took no prisoners. She howled and growled during “Cowboy Casanova,” showed off her pipes on “All-American Girl,” and sang the hell out of set highlight “Two Black Cadillacs.” By the time she got to the new classic “Before He Cheats,” she had the crowd, which was tired from five days of pointed hepatological destruction, of mud, and country music, energized and riled up.
I went to CUSA to document what it was like to go to a festival that isn’t on the larger music press’ radar, and to maybe understand what compels so many people to go through the nightmare it takes to enjoy country bands on a former farm in Oshkosh for five days every summer. After five days I’m not sure I understand the culture anymore than I did before—the constant Confederate iconography by people nowhere near the south reads as racism, even if the people wearing Confederate flag capes seemed nice—but I understand the appeal. There’s no artifice to an event like Country USA. You just show up, get drunk, and listen to country music, year in, year out. And for the people who come, that’s paradise, man.
Follow Andrew on Twitter — @thestorfer