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WE Fest both new, familiar

BOBBY DORCY JR. AND PETE LARSON, both of Maple Grove, Minn., construct a gazeebo-like structure in Lake Sallie Campground at Soo Pass Ranch in Detroit Lakes Tuesday afternoon. The pair build a different structure for WE Fest every year. Dorcy said he plans on sleeping in the building, at least until Saturday night, when they will tear it down and use the wood for a bonfire.1 / 2
campers line the shoulder of highway 59, south of Detroit Lakes, as they wait to get into the Northwoods Campground at the Soo Pass Ranch -- site of WE Fest -- on Tuesday morning. About 50,000 country music fans will fill the Soo Pass grounds by the time the three-day festival kicks off Thursday afternoon.2 / 2

After almost three decades in existence, it might seem as though Detroit Lakes' yearly August tradition, WE Fest, is as comfortable and familiar as your favorite old pair of blue jeans.

But as the 29th annual country music festival prepares for its official opening with tonight's free kickoff party, regulars may notice quite a few changes -- starting at the top.

A new management team has stepped up to fill the shoes of WE Fest's founding president, Jeff Krueger and vice president Chyrll Sparks, who both retired and sold their interest in the festival to longtime partner Randy Levy last fall.

Sadly, there are a couple more missing faces among the WE Fest family this year as well: Former festival partner and legal counsel Terry McCloskey lost his battle with cancer last summer, as did WE Fest's director of sponsorships and vending, Jim Worm.

Levy, along with chief operating officer Bob Bliss and sales and promotions director David Larson, form the core of the new management team at WE Fest, which opens tomorrow (Thursday) and continues through Saturday.

As Bliss put it in the introduction to the 2011 festival program, "We are focused on improvements that make our venue very fan friendly, comfortable and the best experience possible for the best country music fans in the world."

According to Larson, some of those improvements include a redesigned and expanded Barn Stage; upgraded, high definition jumbotrons; and the addition of 4,200 stadium-style seats in the VIP area.

"We've got brand new jumbotron screens, higher resolution, so everything will be much cleaner and clearer," Larson said. "We've also added one jumbotron screen behind the upper grandstand for the audience on the west side (of the concert bowl)."

The new stadium seats in the VIP area were purchased from Comiskey Park in Chicago, former home of the White Sox.

As for the revamped and expanded Barn Stage, there will be an expanded lineup performing there as well, to supplement the music on the Main Stage.

"We've got the whole (Barn) stage redesigned, and we're putting more programming up there," said Larson -- starting tonight.

"Tonight's pre-party on the brand new Barn Stage is free and open to the public," Larson said. "There's no admission (ticket) necessary. We're going to have live bands starting at 7 p.m., with October Road."

Another local favorite, Troubadour, takes the stage at 9 p.m., while national recording artist Jerrod Niemann will close out the kickoff party with an 11 p.m. set.

Each evening of the festival, Thursday through Saturday, the headline act on the main stage will be followed by a different regional band on the barn stage, starting at 12:15 a.m. Lost Highway performs Friday morning (after the Thursday night main stage show goes dark), Hitchville on Saturday morning and Rocket Club will close out the action on Sunday morning.

The top finishers in the annual WE Fest Karaoke Contest will also be performing on the barn stage each evening, from 5:45 to 6:15 p.m. on Thursday, 5:15-5:45 p.m. Friday, and 5:45-6:15 p.m. Saturday.

In addition, Nashville producer, singer and songwriter Chas Sandford will be headlining a show on the Barn Stage each evening from 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. Each night Sandford will be bringing along a special guest to perform and discuss the way they create their music.

Joining Sandford for Thursday and Friday nights' shows will be Storme Warren, host of the GAC television network's news and entertainment show, "Headline Country."

Warren will also be hanging out in the campgrounds and concert bowl throughout the weekend, filming segments for his TV show -- and on Friday, Warren will be broadcasting his XM radio show, "Music Row Happy Hour," live from the concert grounds.

So many new things to see and appreciate at WE Fest -- and that's not even counting the music on the Main Stage, which kicks off Thursday at 2:45 p.m.

From music legends like Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels and Lynyrd Skynyrd, to current chart toppers Brad Paisley, Sugarland and Rascal Flatts and a host of up and coming artists making their WE Fest debuts, this year's lineup is more jam-packed with award-winners than ever before, according to Larson.

"We have seven Country Music Award (CMA) winners from this year alone," he said.

The Academy of Country Music's 2011 crop of award winners who will be gracing the WE Fest stage this year include Top Male Vocalist Paisley, Top Female Vocalist Miranda Lambert (making her WE Fest debut!) and Top Vocal Duo Sugarland.

Besides Lambert, other country artists making their first appearances at WE Fest this week include Darius Rucker, Easton Corbin, Jerrod Niemann and Sunny Sweeney.

"We just haven't had that many new people here before," Larson added.

Though Larson anticipated that the festival would be officially sold out by the time this article went to press, he did say that there may be some last-minute tickets available. Visit the website at or text the word "WeFest" (no spaces) to 90210.

Though there will be on-site parking available for festival-goers who are not camping at the Soo Pass Ranch, Larson said the best bet is to park at the Becker County Fairgrounds in Detroit Lakes and take the shuttle out to the WE Fest grounds.

"There's no parking fee at the fairgrounds (unlike at the WE Fest site), and you can purchase a one-day shuttle pass for $6 or a three-day wristband for $14," he said.

Getting in and out of the fairgrounds is also likely to be less hectic than trying to park out at the festival site, he said.

"It is the simplest, fastest way to get out there," he said.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454