Op-Ed: Rock the South through the eyes of a first-timer

(Martha Needham/The Cullman Tribune)

As a Cullman local who lived in the county and worked at a local watering hole, Rock the South had always been synonymous for me with heavy traffic, rowdy bar guests and a vibrato of whatever headliner they snagged pounding through your temples as you tried to sleep after closing the bar.

“Can’t they just move it to Nashville?!” I would huff, tying on my apron after showing up half an hour late due to traffic to serve the very crowd that made me late. Tall, $3 beers, the cheapest apps we had to offer and a 10% tip was always the standard order.

After this weekend, I’m converted. Our state, our region and our community need this. Let me tell you the story of how this hippie joined the cowboys for a weekend.

Working in the journalism biz, oftentimes you get to choose your own stories. Sometimes they choose you. This one chose me in the form of media, all-access and parking passes landing on my desk on a Monday morning.

Through gritted teeth I thanked our newsroom supervisor and mentally prepared to document a three-day binge of Busch beer, cowboy boots, denim cut-off shorts and too-small tops. Ya know, the stuff you see on every other social media page every time Rock the South rolls around.

What greeted me when I rolled up into Lot E on day one, Thursday, were hundreds of production professionals of all ages and sizes, from everywhere around the country, assembled in one place for three days to put on what would be one of the greatest music festivals north Alabama has ever seen. These people were legit, bearing insane tattoos and bold hair, the kind that can only be worn through a life lived on the road. They donned purple “Team” passes and dotted the grounds, securing fixtures, conducting sound checks, picking up trash, taking a quick drag of a smoke and then back at it. This festival wasn’t going to assemble itself.

Day one was a blur of rapid-fire video interviews, with attendees from all 50 states and several countries sharing what they hoped to experience at the festival. Several were excited to see the headliner of the evening, gritty new country favorite Zach Bryan. Some had just driven from the airport; some had trekked over 1,000 miles in a fifth wheel. All were just excited to be here.

Here, in our town, in their too-small tops, soaking up our sun, seeing our sites, eating at our restaurants.

Day two was a bit more tense, after the excitement of arrival day had worn off, with a rain delay threatening the show entirely. Attendees at the gates were pushed against metal gates, chanting

“Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!” while attendees in car and RV camping made their own fun with mudslides. After a swift weather safety meeting, security obliged and opened the gates.

Concertgoers hit the mud running to secure their spots at the rail to see Riley Green. Once those gates opened, it was like nothing before that mattered. The hunger for a

serotonin-sparking experience had been satiated, and the frustration of waiting in high heat and humidity and rain was gone. Concertgoers gleefully shared their favorite outfit accessory, how far they had traveled. There’s something really impactful about seeing thousands of people from different walks of life coming together to share the same common interest: feeling that same pounding vibrato I once hated, the simple joy of witnessing an artist perform and the feeling of community people had started forming.

Day three was the finale worth waiting for after the hectic experience of day two. The weather was cool and balmy, with attendees decked out in their star-spangled best. We cheered and toasted to the final day of Rock the South with dozens of people from all across the country with that same festival-priced Busch beer I had mocked years before. Before the last couple of acts, Rock the South Founder and Cullman native Shane Quick and wife Laura Quick presented checks totaling nearly $70,000 to local charities and nonprofits. After working in a nonprofit myself, I got to see firsthand – literally – how impactful Rock the South is for our community.

Tears fell.

I looked up on stage and saw the workers of these charities and nonprofits beaming. I looked around and saw people who aren’t even from here celebrating the impact that Rock the South has on our town. And I looked down and saw myself in my denim cut-off shorts, my too-small top, holding my Busch beer.

There’s something to be said about the spirit of this festival. Despite the rowdiness, the crowds, the traffic, the arrests (25 arrests out of nearly 40,000 attendees ain’t too shabby), the heat and the overpriced beer that people complain about year after year, this festival started to bring our community together after a devastating tornado, and they never stopped caring about the community they love. They keep giving back. And they, the concertgoers, keep coming back. People keep coming back to hear that country twang. People keep coming back to that humble farm out in the county. People keep coming back to invest in our community. People keep coming back to party like you can only do in the Deep South.

People keep coming back to our town.