Fans remember 3 decades of music at Detroit Lakes festival
DETROIT LAKES, Minn.
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - Thirty years ago, when Mary Madson first saw the advertisement in a Hawley newspaper that one of country music's hottest up-and-coming bands, Alabama, was coming to her hometown, she was more than a bit skeptical.
"Yeah, right, they're really coming to Detroit Lakes," was her reaction.
"But if they're coming here, I'm going," was her second thought - and she purchased a ticket for the inaugural WE Fest country music festival.
"I've been going every year since," she says.
That first year, camping at the Soo Pass Ranch was free with a three-day festival pass, so she and a couple of her cousins, along with one of their husbands, piled into a camper and drove out to the festival campground on Lake Sallie.
Then they went to the concert site, which was set up on a hill, "and we sat on that hill - all day long," Madson said with a laugh.
When Alabama finally took the stage, she and her group pushed their way up in front of the stage.
"I remember being pushed up against the wood divider (separating the seating area from the stage)," she said. "We were so close, I couldn't believe it."
In addition to Alabama, that first event also included Freddy Fender, Tom T. Hall, the Bellamy Brothers and Sons of the Pioneers.
Also in attendance for that first event were Detroit Lakes natives Jim and Mary Ann Brogren - not that they had intended to go.
"We were sitting at a pizza and burger place that day, and a girlfriend of ours brought up WE Fest," Mary Ann said.
On the spur of the moment, they decided to just head out there and purchase tickets at the site.
They haven't missed one since.
"We liked it, and we decided that as long as we lived right here, there was no reason we shouldn't go," said Jim.
That first year, they recalled, bales of straw were strewn around the concert bowl for people to sit on, and "beer was being sold in cartons, like milk."
"It was basically a field concert," said fellow DL native Julie Herman, who, like the Brogrens, has been in attendance at all 29 previous festivals - as has her twin brother, Jerry, although they don't generally go together.
In the early years of the festival, Jim Brogren said, they would get in line outside the concert bowl the night before the festival opened, at about 1 or 2 a.m., and they'd wait until the gates opened, then rush in with their chairs to claim their spot on the lawn, as close to the stage as possible.
"We'd play games in line to pass the time," Madson recalled, adding that most people were respectful and didn't try to cut ahead of anyone else in line.
"It was 'Minnesota nice,' " she added.
Then once the gates opened, they would "run in and tie all our chairs together" so no one could steal their spot.
"They used to open the gates, and people were tearing in there to get their chairs up in front," he added (there was even music playing to get people 'pumped up' for the dash inside.)
"You can't do that any more (line up outside the gates the night before)," Mary Ann said.
But then again, it also used to be that the WE Fest staff wouldn't let anyone into the campgrounds until the night before the festival started - "and now you can go out there and camp a week early," said Jim, which does cut down on the lines some.
He recalled some years when cars were stretched from the festival site all the way back into Detroit Lakes on one side, and the golf course in Shoreham on the other.
Despite the fact that they live right in Detroit Lakes, the Brogrens have had a campsite at WE Fest every year - even if they don't actually camp out there anymore.
"The last couple of years, we haven't actually stayed out there (overnight)," Jim said.
"We just have a campsite where we go to eat and hang out," Mary Ann added.
Over the years, they've brought their kids and grandkids out to the festival as well - though they're the only ones who have never missed a single WE Fest.
"It's kind of surprising that we've always been here at that time, and able to go," Jim said, meaning that no family emergencies or other conflicts have come up.
And this year won't be an exception.
"We've got everything ready to go," said Jim. Herman said that while she has occasionally thought of not going, she could never quite bring herself to miss one.
"It's kind of like a homecoming," she said, noting that, especially in the beginning, she would often look forward to seeing the same people at the festival each year.
"You're always meeting somebody, making friends who come back year after year," Jim Brogren said. "We've met a lot of people out there."
"We've met so many people, we don't remember where they're all from," Mary Ann added.
When her daughter Sherri was 15 years old, Madson brought her along for the first time - and now it's become a mother-daughter tradition.
"This will be her 21st year," Mary said. "And we've already got our tickets bought for next year too.
"The music is a big part of it, but now it's just become something Sherri and I do. It's a bonding thing. We hang out with our friends and just make more memories together."
Though they have enjoyed all of the performers - some of whom they have seen three or four times - there are a few memories that stick out.
Madson remembers the first year Tim McGraw came to WE Fest, and it started raining before his set. Word got out that he was going to cancel, so her group went back to their campsite.
A short time later, they heard a knock on the door of their camper - their neighbors were coming to tell them that McGraw would be performing after all.
"We were still wet, but we went back out there," she said - and McGraw played a full set.
The one year that Ray Charles came, however, they were not so fortunate.
He was the last performer scheduled for that evening, Madson recalled, and he had members of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony all set to accompany him.
It was cold and rainy that night, but the concert bowl was full. Charles came out on stage, performed one song - and he was done.
"We had been waiting all day long in the rain and cold," Madson said, adding that after he left the stage, the symphony members looked just as stunned as the crowd.
"The announcer came out and apologized, and that was it," she said.
A happier memory is the year when her daughter was able to touch Keith Urban as he approached the stage through the audience to begin his set.
Herman said that some of the highlights for her have been the appearances by Wynonna and Kenny Chesney.
"I'm a huge Wynonna fan, and Kenny Chesney is one of my favorites too," she added. "He's a performer - he puts on an amazing show."
She said she has also enjoyed seeing some of the performers go from being opening acts, playing in the middle of the afternoon, to becoming featured headliners.
Jim Brogren said his favorite performer was Willie Nelson, and remembered one year when he was the last scheduled act to play - and "he just kept playing and playing. His encore was long. I think he was out there for at least an hour after his regular set."
This year, Mary Ann Brogren is hoping for the chance to meet Alabama - and get the tour book signed that she purchased back in 1983.
"We're going to try to get it signed at least," Jim added. "We'll keep going as long as we're able."
Vicki Gerdes writes for Detroit Lakes Newspapers