A diverse sampling of music, from country and Americana to bluegrass and rock, brought a festive air to downtown Oklahoma City on Friday, the first day of the inaugural OKCFest.
The former Ford dealership parking lot was far more crowded with concert-goers than it ever was with cars and trucks as thousands of country music fans flocked to the festival’s main stage to catch a top-notch lineup of current superstar Dierks Bentley, outlaw legend Merle Haggard, Texas outfits Josh Abbott Band and Casey Donahew Band and Nashville newcomer Jaida Dreyer.
Across Reno Avenue, hundreds more spent the warm and windy June evening under a white tent at the Myriad Botanical Gardens, where well-loved Oklahoma musicians Byron Berline Band, John Moreland and Camille Harp kicked off the free festivities at the Plaza by Cox stage.
“It’s good to be here in Oklahoma City, right here in downtown. That’s cool,” said Berline, a Guthrie-based fiddle legend, who with his band kept listeners’ toes tapping to a lively mix of bluegrass, Western swing and classic rock.
“If you like us, we’re the Byron Berline Band. If you don’t, we’re Merle Haggard.”
Even at 77, Haggard was a major draw for many festival-goers, and not just the ones holding tickets.
“Just Casey Donahew, if we’d just got him and Josh Abbott, it would’ve been a wonder. Then for Dierks and Merle – Dierks came in to play with Merle, he came because Merle was (going to be) there – so that was huge,” said OKCFest founder Fred Hall.
“We couldn’t be happier that this vision came together. (We got) a lot of help from friends and Nashville friends, and the (indie music) has brought in trying to helping Oklahoma City launch a music industry.”
Harp kicked off the festival right on time at 4:30 p.m. Friday, her smoky voice a striking backdrop to the sunny Myriad Gardens around her. About 50 people started their weekend early with her set, and by the time Moreland brought his strong voice and even stronger songwriting to the free stage an hour later, the crowd had grown to hundreds.
Hall said his business partner flew in from Chicago just to see Moreland, whose 2013 album “In the Throes” earned him widespread acclaim among Americana fans.
“It’s packed over here, and it’s packed over there,” Hall said, indicating the main stage, where Jaida Dreyer’s sweet drawl opened the proceedings right on time at 5 p.m.