MUSIC | WE Fest Friday: Sugarland, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, and leathery tans aplenty


DETROIT LAKES, MINNESOTA, August 6—If you’re from the Midwest and you haven’t experienced WE Fest yet, what are you waiting for? It’s your duty as an American citizen!

Well, okay, that may be a bit of a stretch. But each year, thousands of folks from all over the nation gather together in Detroit Lakes (about three and a half hours north of the Twin Cities) for three August days of camping, beer drinking, and good ol’ country music. (I’m not kidding; I met people from Montana, Florida, and even Ireland.)

The Fest, which began 29 years ago, takes place at the sprawling Soo Pass Ranch right outside of Detroit Lakes, a relatively small lakeside town. Through the years, such massive country stars as Alabama, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, and Tim McGraw have taken the stage, and the festival continues to attract the biggest names in the business.

Though I have a history in the Detroit Lakes area, I’d never been through the gates of the Soo Pass before. I missed Thursday’s shows, headlined by Brad Paisley, but if Twitter is any indication, he and Blake Shelton (now of The Voice fame) made the crowd very happy indeed. Both men ooze down-home charm and chart-topping hits. Easy sell, I think.

The WE Fest crew, most of them longtime attendees who know the Soo Pass and its campgrounds, watering holes, and VIP showers by heart, ranges from 21-year-old girls in teeny bikinis, cutoff jeans, and cowboy boots—the WE Fest uniform of sorts—to men in their 50s with magnificent tans that made me feel like a tanning rookie. The Fest is a destination spot for most of them, a getaway from their 9-to-5 lifestyle often sung about in country songs. It’s kind of like Vegas in a cowboy hat.

Some come for the music, but most seem to come for the fun. The booze flows freely—if you’re VIP, $5 gets you a massive plastic mug that you fill up for nothin’ all night long. There are beer stands aplenty and even a Saloon where you can stop in and play a round of Hammerschlagen, a nail-pounding game that seems a little bit dangerous when cocktails are involved. The Soo Pass crew has got WE Fest down to a science; everything, from ticket gates to the cattle-barn style restrooms, moves efficiently. Kegs arrive by semi truck on the regular.

First on my WE Fest agenda was returning favorite Mr. Willie Nelson, who loves to come out to Detroit Lakes (or, as the locals call it, D.L.) and serenade the crowd. His two-hour set rattled through his hits: “Always on My Mind,” “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” a gorgeous cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and “Whiskey For my Men, Beer for my Horses.” (Nelson’s original duet partner for that one, Toby Keith, was nowhere in sight, but he’ll be at the Fest next year.)

For an outdoor arena as large as the Soo Pass, the acoustics are phenomenally good. Each act sounds as clear as a bell, never pitchy. Next up was Lynyrd Skynyrd (or an assembled crew to replace those who died in a plane crash in 1977), an easy choice to rile up the crowd, most of whom had now been drinking for several hours. Skynyrd played a tight set; original singer Ronnie Van Zant’s baby brother Johnny now leads the band and sounds enough like his brother to please your ears, especially if they’ve been dunked in some Miller Lite. And admit it, the whole world loves “Sweet Home Alabama” and it is best experienced in the WE Fest manner: dancing in the moonlight with 50,000 others.

Headlining Friday night were Sugarland, a girl/guy duo popular amongst 30-something women. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles has a “love it or hate it” twang, and though I fall into the “passionately hate it” camp, you could hear their fans singing along to “Stuck Like Glue” miles away.

While WE Fest is a music festival, you have to do a little traveling through the campgrounds to fully experience all it has to offer. Returning visitors pack tents and campers to the hilt; I saw a full bar splayed out in front of one camper, and more than one young guy passed out face-down on the grass covered in Sharpie doodles. But there’s still one day left of the Fest, so your intrepid girl reporter (yes, I am wearing cutoffs and a John Deere baseball cap) has much, much more exploring to do.