Images courtesy of David Jackson.
One airplane touched down on a runway. One bus pulled into a high school parking lot. One exhausted girl rolled through thick mud into the festival grounds. As soon as she returned to Oshkosh, Wisconsin after a jam-packed, two week school trip to Germany, Jenna Weber headed straight over to Country USA to hear Rascal Flatts perform.
Most Oshkosh residents seem to feel one way or another about Country USA (CUSA). Local social media is awash with opinions during the five-day country music and camping festival, as the city’s population (and its rain levels) swell. Fox Valley Technical College sophomore Megan Heinz sees a strong split on Twitter in particular.
“Oshkosh can be country, but at the same time it’s like you’ve got your up-city folks who don’t want anything to do with country,” she said. “Our city is so divided amongst people who like country music and people who don’t. You just gotta suck it up for a week: that everyone wants to love country; even people who hate country the rest of the year love it this week.”
Heinz herself didn’t start listening to country music until her first experience with CUSA six years ago. She tagged along with a friend and soon found herself hooked on the rhythms of the 60-acre concert grounds.
“There’s always something in the songs that’s so relatable,” she said. “It’s just like everything in their songs… whether it’s heartbreak or just rough times, you can just always relate it back to you. That’s why I think I love the music so much.”
For Jenna Weber’s mother, Nancy Weber, CUSA means something similar, but something more. She, too, hears each country song as a story that every person can relate to, but the week brings her family bonding alongside its music.
“I like our family time we get out of it,” she said. “It’s a way for us to go play and relax without chores and the to-do list and the ‘we should, we should, we should,’ because during this week we just kind of make room for our CUSA time and have fun with it.”
Outside of the fourth week of June, Nancy Weber is a Quality Improvement Coordinator RN at Network Health Plan, but once the Eli Young Band started strumming at 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday night, she lets her hair down. Even the usual mud that the rainy week often brings can’t dampen her spirits.
While some Oshkosh natives refer to the festival as “Mud USA,” Weber says that her family “always [has] fun, and it’s never caused us problems, but it brings a whole new dynamic to your approach to the day, like the whole ‘rain boot effect.’ You have to make fun with it, or you shouldn’t be out there.”
Although Weber was referring to the mud caking the 300-acre Ford Festival Park, many of CUSA’s roughly 30,000 daily attendees make their fun in other ways. Alcohol flows throughout the grounds, sold in large tents strung with warm lights, in oversized souvenir cups, and in vendor stands sprinkled throughout.
PepsiCo Food Service Channel Manager Tim Michels oversees the transport of his company’s products to the festival park. He noted that it’s “Not a good thing, not necessarily a bad thing, but we see people at 8 o’clock in the morning because we’re out there too. We see people that you’re like, ‘Mm, they haven’t been to bed yet, they’ve been partying on the campground all night.’”
CUSA plays two roles for Michels: a workplace in the mornings and a place for leisure and reuniting with old friends for the evening shows. He and PepsiCo have worked with the music fest for its entire 22 years, and Michels has watched its evolution from his unique dual vantage point.
“As the tents evolved, the products evolved, the amount of people; it just grew,” he said. “I want to say it was probably year three or four where it just went crazy… I remember loading trucks at 1 o’clock in the morning because we went through so much product.”
Since then, he says, CUSA seems to have hit its “plateau” of attendees — 149,000 in total last year. He doesn’t think it will grow much in size, but for festival goers like Heinz, the quality of the week matters more than its quantity of guests.
“I look forward to making memories,” Heinz said. “And then we have pictures to document all of it. I know I’ll remember this forever ‘cause it’s my favorite week of the whole summer.”