Rock the South: behind the scenes

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Two fans enjoy Rock the South Saturday in Cullman. (Martha Needham for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Rock the South (RTS) cranked up for its eighth year, and its first year in a new location outside the contiguous city limits of Cullman (but annexed into the city) over the weekend.  It was a new experience with a whole new set of possibilities and a whole new set of problems.

Day one

Day one of the 2019 edition of RTS saw loads of music and lots of opportunities for fun, as fans have come to expect from the massive festival, along with new stories to accompany the new venue, including a record crowd.

Massive turnout

The numbers are not in, but law enforcement officers onsite commented in the early evening that the 150-acre site appeared to be almost as crowded as the previous 15-acre site at Heritage Park had been.  Some estimated that the crowd exceeded 50,000.

Huge traffic headache

The huge turnout overwhelmed local roads leading to the venue, causing traffic to back up in multiple directions.  One visitor commented that his trip from his home near Holly Pond had taken more than four and a half hours, three of it on less than 3 miles of roads between Cherokee Avenue and the event site.  Another, coming from downtown Cullman, reported a travel time of more than three hours.

Several people on roads around the venue went online to post photos of men getting out of their vehicles to urinate in bushes on the sides of the roads.

Fans, some of whom gave up trying to get to the venue, took to social media during and after the evening acts, making statements like:

“It took us 2 hours to get in. We were on 278 because we had VIP. So the parking was that way. Missed Jamie Allen. But it went pretty smoothly.”

“Well we sat in line for 3 hours and then at 9:30 and miles before getting to the road we decided to leave. We probably wouldn’t even have made it before it was over.”

“Three hours to get in. Literally took that long to go three miles. Sitting in same spot so far for 30 minutes to get out. No one is moving. There was absolutely no one directing traffic. This is really bad. Missed a lot of the show because of this traffic.”

“Was in traffic for 3 hours an literally left a place that was not even 10 mins away. Got a parking pass and couldn’t even find where I was supposed to park so had to pay extra to just go somewhere else.”

Others came to the defense of the event planners and law enforcement, writing comments like:

“Omg at the whiners . . . it’s for TWO days out of a year. Get over it already. We go through things in life everyday that we dont like and have to deal with, if this is one for you DEAL with it. Complaining will get you no where. This is the first year at the event, they will improve every year to make things better. This does the city good! It gives a lot of businesses more business. Let Cullman thrive and let people have fun for, again, 2 days out of the whole year.”

“I am glad people are spending money in our town! They are tipping the waitress/waiter that will get to take that money home to their family. They are shopping in our small and locally owned businesses and even the big chain stores. Traffic was a mess but when you plan for things like that it isn’t so bad! . . . I’m sure they will come up with a better plan for the traffic but you can’t grow and improve if you don’t learn from issues like this.”

“RTS can’t come in & build new roads. This would have to be approved & done by the county. There will always be growing pains the first years. If any of you have ever been to Gulf Shores or Orange Beach during the summer months, this is an everyday occurrence with traffic there! When you go to events like this you have to expect traffic.”

Weather and site conditions: dusty!

The weather was great for late May: temperatures were plenty warm but not terribly hot, without a drop of rain.  The real climate story was the dust.  Within two hours of RTS opening, furniture and equipment across the site had a heavy coating of reddish-brown dust.  Increasing crowds late in the day stirred the dust until certain parts of the venue appeared to be covered in fog or haze.

Medical matters

Medical staff onsite- which included Cullman Fire Rescue (CFR), Cullman EMS, Good Hope and Bethsadia Fire Departments and many others- reported that the number of medical incidents was typical of a day at RTS.  CFR Chief Brian Bradberry reported more than 100 medical contacts (minor issues such as visitors asking for band-aids), 48 patients treated at the first aid tent on the venue grounds and 12 patients transported from the scene.

Taking it in stride

Most visitors who got inside the venue didn’t seem to be overly troubled by the heat and dusty conditions.  They came for music and a party, and got plenty of both, from the stage out to the vendors’ booths.

Here’s a sampling of a few fans’ comments to The Tribune:

“All the old country music reminds me of my childhood.  My dad was in the Army for 32 years, and listening to country music reminded me of him whenever he was deployed.”

“The DJ’s mixes and all this haze makes it feel like a rave with the world’s largest smoke machine.  It’s literally like the biggest party in the south!”

“We have been coming to RTS for years, and each time it just gets more and more exciting! And it really helps out the folks around here, too, not just all these big stars.  Stimulates the economy, gives everyone something to look forward to; even the folks who live down this street can make a little money renting their lawns out for parking.  I’m really excited to see how much this can grow with the new venue.”

Law enforcement and security: large presence, but underage drinking a problem

As Tribune staffers were entering the venue Friday afternoon, they passed a young man who was apparently trying to warn a friend on the other side of his cell phone, shouting into it, “No, no, dude!  They’ve got too much security!”

The presence of numerous officers from multiple police departments and sheriffs’ offices across the region, plus state troopers and even onsite Department of Homeland Security (DHS) advisors, received compliments from most people, who felt that the large and visible presence helped keep things a little calmer.

From the outset, though, law enforcement and security personnel had to deal with underage drinking.  Officers reported to The Tribune that three juveniles had been caught on the road outside the venue with alcoholic beverages early Friday afternoon, causing them a double whammy: not only were they underage, but they were caught in a “dry” area where possession of alcohol is illegal even for adults.  Through the course of the first afternoon and evening, that trend would continue, both inside and outside the venue.  Officers made 20 arrests, telling The Tribune that the majority were for possession or consumption by minors.

Officials informed The Tribune that individual officers had been authorized to remove wrist bands and escort problematic individuals from the venue, so an exact count of ejections could not be determined.

Pedestrian struck on County Road 469, expected to recover

Shortly after midnight, a pedestrian on County Road 469 approximately a quarter mile south of the venue was struck by a vehicle, which then left the scene. Good Hope Fire Chief David Scott said the victim suffered head injuries and had to be airlifted from the scene to UAB Hospital.  Witnesses noted that a number of pedestrians were walking along the poorly lit stretch of road at the time.  

Shella Cross, who lives near the scene of the accident and responded to calls for help after hearing the impact from her front yard, told The Tribune, “There were a lot of drunks walking down that street.  I was in my little golf cart with my son out on the front of our property- our house sits somewhat back from the road- and, I mean, there were drunks knocking into the golf cart and saying, ‘I’m trying to find my truck to go home.’  And I’m thinking, ‘They can’t even walk, much less drive.’”

ALEA is still investigating, and has not released a description of the fleeing vehicle.

Nathan Baugh and Shane Quick told The Tribune Sunday afternoon that RTS would offer a reward for information leading to the driver who left the scene.  Anyone with information should contact the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office or ALEA’s crime hotline, 1-800-392-8011.

Day two

RTS staff and local agencies entered day two having rethought certain issues from day one, including the traffic flow problems and dusty conditions.  

Traffic: not perfect, but better

On Saturday, cars still lined up down the approaches, but seemed to move better than Friday’s flow, which had been described by visitors using terms like “gridlock” and “parking lot.”  Sheriff Matt Gentry reported that a few “on-the-fly” changes to the traffic/parking plan Saturday morning appeared to be having a positive effect.

One fan took to social media to comment, “Today’s experience was much better than yesterday’s. The driving in and out time was nothing today. Right in and out. Asked for our parking passes today and were parked accordingly. Much better today Rock the South! Great shows.”

Some parking areas were slower to empty than others, drawing continued complaints from some.

Dust: yes, no, and YES!

Cullman Mayor Woody Jacobs donned a safety vest to help direct tanker trucks to spray down heavily traveled thoroughfares in the morning to cut down on dust, and trucks continued to work in certain areas through the afternoon.  As the crowd swelled in the evening, though, the dust came back, covering parts of the venue once again in a reddish-brown haze.

One Saturday attendant commented, “We left early because it didn’t matter what we ate or drank all we could taste was dust.”

Another fan was not happy with the dust, but was willing to endure, writing, “As for the dust, yes, it was dusty. If you want to celebrate your country roots by singing along with Colt Ford to ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ why not do it in the actual dirt and have some fun with it?”

Medical matters

Bradberry added 49 medical treatments on Saturday to Friday’s number for an event total of 97 patients treated at the first aid tent.  Saturday would add 18 more medical transports as well, bringing the event total to 30.  While he had no specific numbers per day, the chief said minor medical contacts numbered “close to 300” for the weekend.  Most medical calls over both days were for treatment of heat-related conditions.

Bradberry said the treatment of an occasional unconscious person is not uncommon for RTS events, including this one, but the social media posting of a photo of one victim (identified by family members online as Landon Howard) in the hospital after being found unresponsive Saturday drew substantial online attention.  On Sunday afternoon, the young man’s mother posted an update indicating that he was conscious and had been upgraded.

Quick told The Tribune, “That’s encouraging.  You know, I’ve got a 13-year-old son; I can’t imagine what must have been going through their minds.  But we’re excited that it looks like he’s going to be good.”

A fan who required medical transport offered praise for emergency responders in a comment on The Tribune’s Facebook page: “I have to say, out of all the negativity for RTS, they were great with me. I was one of the ones the ambulance picked up around 5 or so. I had 2 seizures while in the first aid tent. They were on it and from what I was told had me at the hospital within 10-15 minutes.”

Law enforcement and security:

Saturday, authorities added 30 more arrests to Friday’s count, for an event total of 50.  The number of ejections for drunkenness or misconduct was unknown.  Officials told The Tribune that most arrests over the two days involved minors possessing or consuming alcohol.

On Saturday evening, witnesses reported seeing a few fights break out within the venue, and seeing groups of law enforcement officers moving quickly toward various points on the grounds.  Despite that, appraisals of the event made to The Tribune by officials from multiple agencies indicated that they were generally satisfied with how things went.

One fan, who attended both days of RTS, wrote, “There was usually a law enforcement officer within a few yards at all times and people I spoke to were extremely appreciative of all of them. They were quick to respond and handle issues quickly and before anything could get out of hand. On Saturday night, I watched as they moved quickly towards a situation and they took control before the crowd even knew anything was happening. They definitely did an outstanding job and made people feel safe.”

Sharing the wealth

On Saturday, RTS presented a study by the University of Alabama indicating that this year’s event could have an economic impact on the Cullman area- including hotels, dining establishments, and retail stores, in addition to the direct impact of the concert itself- of up to $10 million.

Saturday evening, RTS followed its regular practice of presenting donations to area charities and organizations.  This year’s recipients included:

  • Childhaven, a group home serving abused and neglected teens
  • Brooks’ Place, a child advocacy organization that provides multiple services to victims of child abuse
  • Curt’s Closet, a charity that provides clothing and other goods for children and teens in need
  • The Bridge, an organization working to help teens overcome addiction
  • The Link of Cullman, an organization that brings together multiple resources to help people work their way out of poverty
  • Cullman Regional Foundation, which supports numerous programs of Cullman Regional Medical Center

One fan wrote, “I applauded and was happy to see so many great local charities and organizations presented several thousand dollars from Rock the South. What a blessing for those causes. I saw band boosters, football boosters and other civic groups given the opportunity to work in order to raise money. This money will help the kids at those schools and fund their programs. All of that and they got to rock out with Kid Rock? I love it.”

Copyright 2019 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com