Upcoming country stars gallop to Faster Horses stage

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

This weekend the fourth annual Faster Horses festival will feature such country music superstars as Lady Antebellum and Alan Jackson, but founder Brian O’Connell says the real excitement will come from its lesser-known performers.

While the festival’s main stage at the Michigan International Speedway will spotlight such legends as Wynonna Judd and contemporary stars Eric Church, a second “Next From Nashville” stage will feature up-and-coming talents who are likely to make the country main stage. In the three years since Faster Horses debuted, O’Connell cites past “Next From Nashville” performers Sam Hunt and Cole Swindell, who have already transitioned from semi-obscurity to name-brand hitmakers.

“One of the fun things for me is always to say, ‘Hey, I saw Tara Thompson at Faster Horses at whatever o’clock in the afternoon on the second stage, and now she’s a giant star playing the Palace or playing DTE,’ ” O’Connell says. “The other ones have already made it.”

Thompson, a native of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, will appear Sunday on the smaller stage. The appearace will be her first on the music festival circuit, and her first major tour. The singer-songwriter, now in her 20s, cut her teeth playing countless cover songs in Nashville’s Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, recalling one day when she sang four straight shifts at the bar, from opening at 10 a.m. to closing time at 2 a.m.

Tara Thompson says she feels motivated rather than pressured after receiving praise from Rolling Stone and Huffington Post.

Now, Thompson says, playing a music festival feels like “taking a deep breath.”

“Now, I get to sing my own songs,” she says. “It’s a surreal feeling. I’m not taking anything for granted. Literally every single day I count my blessings.”

Rolling Stone and the Huffington Post have already noted Thompson as an up-and-comer, and she says she feels motivated rather than pressured by that recognition.

Michael Hobby, 29, another fresh face in the country game who is scheduled to play the main stage on Saturday with his band A Thousand Horses, says he also is motivated to be in the show. The group hit the No. 3 spot on the U.S. country charts last year with its first full-length CD, “Southernality.”

A Thousand Horses performs at 3:55 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s something we’ve always wanted, to be able to play for a living and tour and have people come to your shows and sing the songs that you’ve written,” Hobby says. “For us, it’s just a dream come true.”

You say ‘tomato’…

The festival also presents an interesting perspective for women in country music. Hannah Mulholland, a member of the all-female trio Runaway June that will play the “Next” stage on Sunday, says she was inspired by the female country musicians in the ’90s.

“When we were all younger, particularly female country singers were kind of on top of the world and they were crossing over into pop,” Mulholland says. “It was really acceptable when I was young. The Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Shania Twain — all those people encouraged me so much to get into country music.”

That’s changed in recent years, however, with the “bro-country” movement, as male country singers have taken the lead with lyrics that often focus on partying and objectifying women. The rise has been so pronounced that radio consultant Keith Hill last year was quoted in trade publication Country Aircheck, saying: “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.”

Hill, who also described women as the “tomatoes” in the salad of country music, in the article, launched discussion and controversy with his comments. But the women performing at Faster Horses aren’t taking that situation too seriously.

“That’s my favorite thing in salad,” Thompson laughs. “I take that as a compliment. I don’t want to be the lettuce. I want to be the tomato. I never took that as an offensive thing.”

On a less playful note, Thompson admits that there are challenges to being female in the country business, but she thinks the tide is turning. Naomi Cooke, Mulholland's Runaway June band mate, echoes that sentiment.

“There’s been an absence over time, but I feel like it’s an ‘under pressure makes a diamond’ kind of thing,” Cooke says. “There’s some really great talent coming through.”

Following in the footsteps

The up-and-comers at Faster Horses may be young, but their tastes are old school. Thompson describes the classic repertoire of covers she played in Nashville.

“I’m like a 90-year-old woman,” she says. “I would sing all old-school country, like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette. That’s all I would do, unless someone had a $20 bill. Then, of course, I would sing whatever they wanted me to sing.”

In many cases, events such as Faster Horses, give the younger stars a chance to perform alongside some of their iconic idols for the first time. Hobby, for instance, is playing on the same stage as the first performer he ever saw live, country legend Alan Jackson.

“It was the bug that kind of bit me when I saw his show,” Hobby says. “I haven’t gotten a chance to meet Alan, but I hope to because that would be awesome.” Hobby says he’s been “blessed” by recent opportunities to learn firsthand from more contemporary country tourmates, including Darius Rucker and Jason Aldean.

Thompson’s country music master class, on the other hand, began much longer ago. Country legend Loretta Lynn is Thompson’s first cousin, twice removed. Thompson says she was about age 2 when she attended her first Lynn show, and has been backstage for countless performances since then.

Lynn hasn’t been a direct mentor, but did offer Thompson some words of wisdom when she was told the country legend she was planning on “keeping it country” with her first album.

“(Lynn) was like, ‘I wouldn’t worry about that. I would just stay true to yourself and be different,’ ” Thompson recalls. “I just happened to be really country and really different, so I didn’t have to try very hard in that department. But I’ll never forget her telling me that.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Faster Horses

Campgrounds open 9 a.m. Thur.; Budweiser Campfire Kickoff Party 6 p.m.-midnight Thur.;

Festival, noon-midnight Fri.-Sun.

Michigan International Speedway

12626 U.S. Highway 12, Brooklyn

Festival passes: $199

fasterhorsesfestival.com

Music schedule

THURSDAY

Budweiser Campfire Kickoff Party

6:30 p.m. Audrey Ray

7:20 p.m. Bear Creek Brothers

8:10 p.m. Paulina Jayne

9 p.m. Matt Austin

10 p.m. Locash

FRIDAY

Main Stage

2:35 p.m. Locash

3:40 p.m. Jana Kramer

4:55 p.m. Jon Pardi

6:15 p.m. Wynonna & the Big Noise

7:45 p.m. Sam Hunt

9:15 p.m. Eric Church

Next From Nashville Stage

1:30 p.m. Jameson Rodgers

2:20 p.m. Haley Georgia

3:15 p.m. Ryan Hurd

4:15 p.m. Brett Young

5:25 p.m. Aaron Watson

6:40 p.m. Whiskey Myers

SATURDAY

Main Stage

Lindsay Ell performs at 2 p.m. Saturday.

2 p.m. Lindsay Ell

2:55 p.m. Mo Pitney

3:55 p.m. A Thousand Horses

5:05 p.m. David Nail

6:20 p.m. Travis Tritt

7:50 p.m. Gary Allan

9:20 p.m. Jason Aldean

Next From Nashville Stage

1:30 p.m. Seth Ennis

2:20 p.m. Jon Langston

3:15 p.m. Kelleigh Bannen

4:20 p.m. Aubrie Sellers

5:30 p.m. Lanco

SUNDAY

Main Stage

2:45 p.m. Brooke Eden

3:45 p.m. Granger Smith feat. Earl Dibbles Jr.

5 p.m. Joe Nichols

6:20 p.m. Big & Rich

7:50 p.m. Alan Jackson

9:40 p.m. Lady Antebellum

Next From Nashville Stage

1:45 p.m. Runaway June

Runaway June performs at 1:45 p.m. Sunday on the “Next from Nashville” stage.

2:35 p.m. Royal Bliss

3:30 p.m. William Michael Morgan

4:30 p.m. Tara Thompson

5:40 p.m. Russell Dickerson

6:35 p.m. Aaron Lewis