By Dave Parsons
By the time the music started at 1 PM on Sunday, October 22, the largest crowd for the first act of the day, had gathered at Oceola Heritage Park, in Kissimmee, Florida. The crowd was asked several times if they had been there all weekend, and the enthusiastic “yes” made one act compliment the crowd on being “pros.” And they proved that almost 10 hours later when Keith Urban took his last bow as the clock approached 11 PM.
Keith Urban knows how to entertain a crowd. From his huge hit records to the incredible guitar solos, Urban rarely stayed at one mic stand more than a few minutes. 5 mic stands were placed on the stage before he came out with one at center stage, one on either side of him in front of the giant screens and the edge of the crowd, and two on the catwalk that extended well into the audience. Urban ripped through his hits catalogue including “Blue Ain’t Your Color”, “Somebody Like You” and “Days Go By” keeping the crowd into the set until the very end.
Urban was preceded on the stage by multiple award winning female country artist, Carly Pearce. Pearce has won many major awards including female vocalist over the last few years and proved why to the Country Thunder crowd with a very slick moving 75 minute set. “Never Wanted to Be That Girl”, “Next Girl”, and “It Won’t Always Be Like This” were among the hits that had the crowd singing along and wanting to hear more. The one thing that can be said for her music is that it IS Country. There were very few bouncy pop country songs in the set. Most of her songs are country songs about heartaches and love and stories about folks that were the subject matter that made female country singers into household legends 40 years ago that people still talk about today. Pearce is well on her way.
Newcomer Bailey Zimmerman went on as the sun was starting down and was the most surprising act of the day for two very different reasons. His band sprinted on stage first, hyping the arrival of Zimmerman, who literally never stopped moving through the first 20 minutes of his set. For a relative newcomer, the crowd knew his songs and he had them from the first note of “Never Comin’ Home”, “Fall In Love”, and “Rock And A Hard Place”. The latter was the closing song and following it, Zimmerman stood center stage and spent at least 5 minutes giving his testimony to his faith. The band played some subdued music underneath Zimmerman’s words. For a Sunday afternoon, it could be said he brought a little church to the Country Thunder Festival. Most surprising was that was how the show ended, as Zimmerman finished his words, said thank you and left the stage. You don’t see many country acts at a festival attempt to do such a thing, let along as the closing of a late afternoon show, but he pulled it off as the crowd sent him off with the same enthusiasm, they showed his entire set.
Country group Parmalee has been around for over a decade and garnered a nice fan base, as well as a great stage show. Put on in the heat of the hottest of the three days, Parmalee turned it up another few degrees with a powerful set including their hits “Girl In Mine”, “Take My Name” and “Carolina”. Despite the heat of the day, they had the crowd on their feet the entire set, and put on a very professional 60 minute show.
I heard several people in the audience say they were there so early in the day because the second act on Sunday was country music legend Tracy Byrd. Tracy Byrd has been pleasing festival and concert audiences for 30 some years. As he said on Sunday, “I either get ‘I was raised on your music’ or I get ‘My grandma just loves you’. I’ll take either one!” Byrd Worked his way through a setlist of hit after hit, ending with mega hits “Lifestyles Of The Not So Rich and Famous”, “The Keeper Of The Stars”, and “Watermelon Crawl” before saying goodbye to the enthusiastic Florida crowd who wanted more.
As I mentioned earlier, the crowd at 1 PM Sunday was the largest of the weekend for that time of the day, and viral TikTok sensation, Chase Matthew, rewarded them with a very upbeat set. A lot of the newcomers seemed to be there to see him as well, as they were interacting with him from the outset. Saving his most well-known songs, like “County Line” and “Love You Again” for the end of the set, it was the high energy start of “Come Get Your Memory” that set the high energy tone for the day.
By the time it all ended on Sunday evening, 19 major acts took the main stage, 7 hit songwriters from Nashville performed in their own area, and line dance lessons and continuous dj music in an air-conditioned circus tent, and perfect sunny weather is all any country music fan could ask for from a festival. Without a doubt, Country Thunder Florida 2023, delivered all of that and more.