Texas country star and Waco native Wade Bowen planned to make last year’s 20th MusicFest memorable, but he didn’t expect it would be in the way it turned out.
The MusicFest moved to a new location, Touchdown Alley near Baylor University’s McLane Stadium, and rock veterans REO Speedwagon headed a talent list rich in Texas country talent.
What wasn’t planned was emergency surgery on bleeding vocal chords less than a week before the festival, prompting organizers and fellow musicians to fill in for the festival’s namesake.
It worked out. Bowen’s surgery was successful, more than 6,000 fans turned out for the festival’s move to Touchdown Alley and even Bowen’s son Bruce got in the act when he stepped up in his dad’s place to lead off the extended festival-closing Wade Bowen & Friends Jam.
Festival No. 21 returns to Touchdown Alley this Sunday, in what Bowen says is a strong sign that last year’s step-up was real progress.
“I think that we met expectations of going from a B-level to an A+ festival,” he said in a recent phone interview. “This is not a show, but a full-blown A-level festival.”
Some serendipitous scheduling brings Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Cheap Trick to the MusicFest after planners noted the veteran band was touring Texas this month with Lone Star rock icons ZZ Top. With Cheap Trick in place and a long list of past MusicFest participants returning for the annual event, organizers worked to fill the afternoon and night with music.
Sunday’s festival features three tiers of participation: full-band performances, acoustic performances and jam appearances. It’s a structure that has existed informally in past MusicFests, but is overtly recognized this year.
“We’re trying to clarify it more, not that we’ve gotten complaints in the past,” said Bowen. “We’re trying to squeeze them all in . . . This is how we can squeeze them in.”
Cheap Trick, which has sold more than 20 million albums since splashing on the national scene in the 1970s, heads the list of full-band performances, joined by Whiskey Myers, Shane Smith and the Saints, Tracy Byrd and Josh Weathers. Musicians scheduled for acoustic sets are Drew Kennedy, Josh Grider, Courtney Patton, Jamie Lin Wilson, Shea Abshier, Chris Colston, Ben Danaher, Juliet McConkey and Joshua Ray Walker.
Signed up for the sprawling, hours-long jam that closes the festival — one that Bowen says is “pretty damn popular” — are Texas country musicians Randy Rogers, William Clark Green, Stoney LaRue, Kevin Fowler, Cody Canada, Jerrod Niemann, Jamey Johnson, Brent Cobb, Sundance Head and Paul Thorn.
On the non-musical side of things, Touchdown Alley features space for food vendors and children’s activities for families. Proceeds from the MusicFest benefit the Bowen Family Foundation, which has raised more than $3.5 million for Waco-area charities that support children and families.
After the Monday golf tournament that follows the MusicFest, Bowen and his band return to touring. The summer holds dates in the United Kingdom, Germany and France, made up from shows cancelled last summer due to Bowen’s voice recovery, with a West Coast tour planned to start in September. There’s a release of last year’s “Solid Ground” in vinyl, after concerts in its support were cancelled, and a documentary in the works explaining how Bowen and his band coped with his emergency medical problem.
Bowen also plans to return to the recording studio with longtime friend and fellow musician Randy Rogers for a new “Hold My Beer” installment. With the MusicFest continuing its forward momentum, the Texas singer-songwriter is looking ahead with anticipation. “I feel better than I’ve felt in years,” he said.