Arizona’s biggest country music festival returns to its springtime slot in Florence with headliners Riley Green, Blake Shelton, Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line.
Opening acts and additional performers include Randy Houser, Gabby Barrett, Hardy, Chase Rice, Michael Ray and Tracy Lawrence.
Opening for Blake Shelton on Friday, April 8, “American Idol” alumna Barrett is excited to finally make her Country Thunder debut. Her set was scheduled for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it.
“It is awesome now getting to come back after being off the road for a good amount of time and get to open up right before Blake Shelton comes out, which is pretty amazing,” Barrett says. “I am still very humbled to be part of this show.
“I know it is a big event and there are some other amazing big names apart of it, so I am just excited to be a part of it.”
Ray is returning for his second stint with the longtime festival.
“You know what I love about shows like Country Thunder is the fans who create the atmosphere before the buses even get there,” Ray says. “The party starts when people get there and set camp up.
“It’s a place where memories are made, and families come together. Strangers become friends, strangers become family, and it starts when the campers get set up. The energy is already there when the buses get there.”
Ray says that isn’t always the case when he’s on the road.
“Makes you excited inside. No matter what time slot you go on stage, it’s a great crowd,” Ray says about performing at Country Thunder. “It’s a fun place and it’s a good energy, and I think coming off the last couple of years that we’ve had it’s going to be bigger than it normally has been because people are finally back.”
Barrett does not know what to expect at Country Thunder.
“There was such a gift in taking that large break through the pandemic I think for everybody, especially myself, because I got to spend time with my daughter and just really got to dive into her little first year,” the new mom says. “And pregnancy and all of those things, but there was a lot of wonderful gifts in the break for me.
“But getting to be back on stage, it’s a great feeling. I really missed the live energy from the live shows.”
Ray and Barrett are promoting new material. Barrett released her debut, “Goldmine,” in 2020 followed by a deluxe version that came out this year. Ray released his seven-song EP “Higher Education” August 2021.
“I don’t want to give anything away specifically, but, of course, I am excited to do ‘I Hope,’” she says.
“That is a fun one to do, because we have a really cool transition into that song that makes it feel special,” Barrett says. She also plans on performing her 2022 iHeartRadio Music Award-nominated song “The Good Ones” as well as other tracks off “Goldmine.”
“We are working on adding new songs, new originals into the set,” she says.
“We have some really fun covers that everybody knows. They get everybody hyped up and just makes sure everybody is smiling and having a good time.”
One of her newer songs includes “Pick Me Up” from the “Goldmine” deluxe version. She says she wrote the song to add a laidback, classic country song to her repertoire.
“Half the time my husband and I actually live in east Texas on dirt roads, driving around in the truck listening to George Strait,” Barrett says.
“I always like to write songs that are genuine to my life. I thought I needed it, and I liked how it came together. I was excited to release it as part of the deluxe version of my album ‘Goldmine,’ and just really excited to see where the song goes and what it does. I’m just glad to have a very realistic country song out in the world.”
Ray is anticipating the crowd’s reaction to his “Higher Education” songs.
“When you are gone for a year in anything that you do, you should never come back the same way,” Ray says about returning to the stage. “You should always be elevated. Our biggest goal, me and my band here, we are making sure that set in the show, the fans feel like, ‘Oh, (expletive), this isn’t the same people we saw in 2019,’ and really give that to them.”
He plans on playing “Whiskey and Rain” because the pandemic hindered his ability to perform the 2020 song live. Ray’s latest single “Holy Water” and its accompanying video came out last month.
Both performers thrive on connecting with fans on a personal level.
“I think, as artists, you want to write music that moves people, that makes somebody want to ask the girl out, makes somebody want to go out on a Friday or makes somebody want to stay in and just cry through it,” Ray says. “It’s incredible to be part of something that is bigger than us.”
It is not lost on him that people are choosing to spend money to see him, in light of COVID-19 and increasing gas prices.
“You are working for your hard-earned money and then you are choosing to go to a show that is just something to do. It’s not a necessity,” Ray says. “I think, for me at least, when I look out and see people there the last four shows (of this tour) that we have just been playing back, I feel like, ‘Wow, these people really had to jump through some hurdles to get here,’ like just buying a ticket and coming out. That means a lot.”
After Ray’s first Country Thunder gig, UFC legend Dan Henderson tagged him in a photo saying he and his wife saw him perform.
“I was like, ‘I watched you knock out dudes since I was a kid,’” Ray recalls. “I go to my tour manager, and I said, ‘How do I get a hold of him?’”
Since then, Ray and Henderson have been friends who duck hunt together.
“I FaceTimed my dad immediately and fanned out for a little,” he says with a laugh.
WHEN: Various times Thursday, April 7, to Sunday, April 10
WHERE: Country Thunder Arizona, 20585 E. Water Way, Florence