Carrie Underwood brings the party to Faster Horses

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

One of the songs that played before Lee Brice hit the stage Friday at the first of three nights at the Faster Horses country music festival was Randy Houser’s “How Country Feels.”

“Let me show you how country feels!” Houser sings on the song, which was a perfect anthem for Faster Horses. Because the festival, now in its third year, is how country feels.

Talk to any group of attendees at the fest and one of them is likely to either call it “the party of the year,” “the best weekend of the summer” or even “the best weekend of my life.” Fans who came the first year in 2013 went home and told their friends about it and those friends tagged along in year two, and now in year three the fest is sold out with 40,000 fans camping at Michigan International Speedway for the long weekend.

It’s a hard-partying but friendly weekend, like a supersized college tailgate or Spring Break for cowbros and cowbabes. Groups of campers wander in and out of each other’s campsites, sharing a beer, tossing around a football or playing any number of backyard games. New friends are made and the cycle gets ready to repeat the following year. (You better believe fans are already hammering out plans for next year’s fest.)

Faster Horses is one of a number of Live Nation-sponsored country music festivals that now dot the summer touring landscape. Faster Horses followed in the wake of the Watershed Music Festival in George, Washington, which launched in 2012. Now Chicago’s got one (LakeShake), Delaware has Delaware Junction, Vegas has Route 91, New York has FarmBorough, and more are on their way.

For Live Nation, it’s perfect: They route the tours, which they already own, through their own festival circuit. Faster Horses’ three headliners – Brad Paisley and Florida Georgia Line – are already out on their own summer tours, and Faster Horses is plugged in as one of many dates on those respective outings. (Carrie Underwood is only playing festivals this summer, including next month's Watershed.)

But it’s the fans, and the ownership they take of the festival, that make Faster Horses what it is. Several festivalgoers said they’d been planning their Faster Horses weekend all year, that the festival is the reward they give themselves for working hard the other 362 days of the year. There weren’t any deep philosophies assigned to the meaning of the festival, or any ideologies linked to it. It’s simply a great party, a once a year gathering that has the feel of a distinctly Michigan event.

“The energy is great, the atmosphere is phenomenal, and I haven’t even been to a concert yet,” Riley Arendsen, 21, of Holland said early Friday. It was his first year at the fest, and he came with Hannah Lane, 21, of Zeeland, who came last year and had the time of her life.

Brandon Wascha, 23, of Swartz Creek was also a first timer, and had been told about it by friends. “It’s quite the get up,” he said, surveying the scene. “I had heard about it, and now that I’m here, I already know I’ll be back next year.”

Fans come decked out in American flag apparel: The flag is on bikini tops, board shorts, T-shirts, bandanas, sunglasses, fanny packs, socks, sandals, you name it. Being a country music festival, a fair number of Confederate flags are on display as well. It’s still a symbol of rebellion, of Southern pride, of country music, and the recent events in South Carolina and the protests that have followed have not diluted its presence.

Temperature-wise, Friday was a scorcher, with muggy temps lifting into the upper 80s. Saturday is supposed to be even hotter, with forecasts calling for low 90s, which will have staffers on high alert for fans suffering from heat exhaustion. Crews will be on the ready.

Carrie Underwood’s hits-packed headlining set Friday had the crowd singing along to “Jesus Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats,” the closer to her 95-minute performance. Underwood packs the most starpower of any performer this weekend, though Sunday night’s closing set by Florida Georgia Line is likely to be the weekend’s biggest party performance.

And at Faster Horses, it’s all about the party.

“I’m not even a huge country fan, and I’m having a great time,” said Jordan Moore, 18, of Jackson. “I’d encourage everyone to come to this festival.”

And that is how country feels.