Lexington entertainment news got off to an impressive start this year with WBUL’s Monday morning announcement that its popular Red, White & Boom country music festival is getting a major upgrade.
The one-time el cheapo Independence Day lineup of second-tier and up-and-coming country acts has become a three-day affair of major country headliners with a comparable major festival ticket price. With arena acts Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Florida Georgia Line topping the bill each day, it will be a level of festival Lexington has not seen in quite some time, if ever, and it will show whether the Horse Capitol of the World is up for hosting a big-time music fest.
Certainly Lexington has hosted its share of music fests over the years, and Rupp Arena regularly plays host to just the sort of fare Boom is bringing in. Church and Aldean have headlined the home of the Wildcats in the last couple years, and Florida Georgia Line played a big show at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in October 2013.
But a three-day, 12-act event on the scale that is being planned for Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the Lexington Legends, has been the sort of stuff Lexingtonians have traveled to Cincinnati or Louisville to see. The closest comparison may be the Ichthus Christian music festival in its heyday down in Wilmore. (The jury seems to still be out on the rebooted Ichthus at the Kentucky Horse Park.)
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We do have the Festival of the Bluegrass, which is extremely popular in the bluegrass community. But it does not match the mainstream country audience in size or level of production.
The first indications of how well the now-Labor Day weekend soiree will go will come Friday when tickets go on sale. Online, there were numerous expressions of sticker shock as initial sale tickets went from $20 for last year’s event to $179 this year — that’s a 795 percent increase, for those of you who like to know that sort of thing — to $358 for a VIP pass.
It’s understandable that would drop some jaws, and fest director Michael Jordan, senior vice president of programming in Kentucky for iHeartMedia + Entertainment, acknowledged it would probably prohibit some people from attending the event. But, he also said, the biggest request from past RW&B attendees was bigger acts, and that means higher ticket prices.
If you paid to see each Boom headliner individually, you would probably be shelling out $179 or more for the combined tickets. The undercard already includes two guys who have been burning up the country charts lately, Cole Swindell and Thomas Rhett, and one of country’s most acclaimed artists of recent vintage, Kacey Musgraves, making her Lexington debut. And six additional acts will be named later this year.
As a middle-income American, I’m as down on the ever-inflating price of event tickets as anyone else. But in this day and age, that’s the way it is.
Will fans, particularly Lexington fans, pay that sort of major headliner premium? We’ll see.
If you are going to launch a festival of this level in Lexington, country is the genre to do it with. Contemporary country gets widely slagged — particularly the bro-country style Florida Georgia Line exemplifies — for a pop-rock and even growing hip hop sound.
But country outpost WBUL is consistently the top-rated radio station in Lexington, and country concerts do very well at Rupp and other venues. RW&B in its prior format was a consistent sellout. So while Waylon Jennings may indeed be spinning in his grave (we saw that, Facebook friends) current country has a strong fan-base here, and if you aren’t a fan, this fest isn’t for you.
Louisville’s Forecastle and Cincinnati’s Bunbury festival have kind of locked up the indie rock market in the region. Last year’s Forecastle brought in two Kentucky-based traditional country acts in Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. The Bunbury folks have announced a second Buckle Up country fest, which launched in 2014 and took a hiatus last summer, though no acts or ticket sales have been posted.
So really, in this region, Red, White & Boom’s new iteration is an intriguing move to establish Lexington as a major music festival town. As a guy who covers this stuff for a living, I like the idea. Some of those other events are a lot of fun, but I never look forward to the drive home from out of town.
It’s sort like having a Triple Crown-level horse race in town, like we had with the Breeders’ Cup last year. It was great seeing that happen here.
Maybe it can happen here with music? As is usually the case in entertainment, the fans will decide.
If You Go
Red, White & Boom
What: Three-day country music festival with headliners Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Florida Georgia Line
When: Sept. 2-4
Where: Whitaker Bank Ballpark, 207 Legends Lane
Tickets: $179 general admission, $358 VIP pass. Only three-day tickets sold. On sale 10 a.m. Jan. 15.