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.
“This is amazing that this has all come together in four months and the first time we’ve ever tried to do it – and we want to add a rock element next time. And we’ve got all the Latina and gospel on Sunday morning, so I think Oklahoma City will all unite, from every area of Oklahoma City, behind music. Let’s bring Oklahoma City together more and more, and this could be a great way to do it.”
For Harp, a Norman-based red dirt singer-songwriter, OKCFest got off to a promising start with the good weather, and she was pleased with the opportunity to bring her music to potential new fans.
“I know that there a lot of faces out there that have never come to see me before ... so this is introducing my music to people that have never seen me before, even though I’ve been around for years,” she said. “I sold some CDs to some people who had never heard me before, so that’s great. More exposure, especially in your backyard. It’s good to be known locally. If you have a strong fan base locally, they talk and they share outside of the city and outside of the state as well.”
Moreland, who recently relocated to Norman from his native Tulsa, said he appreciated the chance for extra exposure, as well as the chance to visit the Myriad Gardens for the first time, where he enjoyed the laidback vibe.
“I was surprised at how many people showed up at 5:30, but it’s cool,” Moreland said as the Byron Berline Band took over on the free stage. “I thought it was gonna be more stressful, but it was cool to just kind of relax, like roll up and play.”
At a patio table outside the Park House restaurant, which was closed for a private event, city resident Jason Crouch, his daughter Jacey, 13, and son Kellen, 2, waited for a famous Nic’s burger and a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches from the Ice House, which was doing bustling business.
“I know some of the songs,” said Jacey, who sang along to the Byron Berline Band’s rendition of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”
Her dad said they came out to hear the free music and enjoy the pleasant summer evening.
“I think it’s great that they have this for the ones who can’t go to something like that (main stage part). They maybe can’t afford it...or don’t want to be a part of it, too much crowd. This is more of a family-type deal,” Jason Crouch said. “It’s good for Oklahoma City. I think Oklahoma City is changing with the culture. We’re setting the bar.”
Main stage excitement
On the main stage, Dreyer paid tribute to Oklahoma’s own Woody Guthrie with a little “This Land Is Your Land,” Donahew and his cohorts got boots stomping, and Abbott dedicated his “I Just Wanna Love You” to his Texas and Oklahoma family in the throng.
The line to get into the main stage area still stretched halfway around the block and doubled back on itself when Abbott finished his set. But those who endured got to hear a living legend perform – naturally, one of the highlights was Haggard doing his classic “Mama Tried,” and the roar of the crowd was appropriately impressive – along with Bentley, whose star has only continued to rise with the release of his new album “Riser.”
“There are a lot of people here. A lot of people. It’s exciting to know that Oklahoma City can bring this many people together for an event,” said Christy Grable of Edmond, who arrived during Dreyer’s set and said she was happily anticipating the headliners. “It just gets bigger every year and puts us more on the map.”
OKCFest continues Saturday with Lady Antebellum, Scotty McCreery, Randy Rogers Band, Kix Brooks and Lucas Hoge on the main stage and free music throughout the Myriad Gardens. Plus, Latin, jazz and gospel performers will play for free Sunday.
“Oklahoma City has jumped in, and we can’t wait to create better things in Oklahoma, from more festivals to production companies to venues. Hopefully, we’re at the start of many more of all of the above,” Hall said.