The days leading up to Gulf Coast Jam were spent watching the weather. At the time, Hurricane Dorian was heading toward Florida and it was questionable whether or not it would impact the fest. A minor concern of course, compared to what others were going through. More on that and what the festival is doing to help hurricane victims in a minute.
We rolled into Panama City Beach Friday afternoon and drove over to pick up credentials at the site. Everything went smoothly with pick up and from what I could tell, the gates moved quickly all weekend. I never saw any crazy long lines except for the people who lined up before opening so they could get prime spots inside.
After picking up the passes, my wife and I headed to the room to check in. We stayed in an Airbnb in Seacrest Beach, which is about 15 minutes from the fest site. It’s on a section of 30A, a beautiful stretch of Florida coastal highway lined with nature trails, bike paths, and beach communities. (Seacrest is just a few miles down the road from Seaside where the Truman Show was filmed a couple of decades ago.) We chose the area because while we both enjoy spending time on 30A, my lovely wife doesn’t like festivals quite as much as I do so she could spend her days by the pool and shopping while I went to the festival.
After getting settled in, I headed back to the festival grounds to start Day 1. This was year seven of the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam, but my first time going. Actually my first time going to an all country music festival. I made it to Sand Jam, back in the Spring, which is put on by the same group just a few miles away and I had a great time. It’s the rock ‘n roll brother of the country music Gulf Coast Jam. Sand Jam was covered here a while back.
Walking around the site that first day I noticed something. It was hot. Really hot. And it was humid. Really humid. But it’s Florida in August so it’s supposed to be hot and humid. Just be sure to stay hydrated and bring sunscreen because there’s not a lot of shade to be found. So I sprayed on the SPF 30, grabbed my water bottle, and got ready for a day of music.
Unlike most festivals, the Gulf Coast Jam has only one stage so you don’t have to make choices about who to see because everyone plays at the same place. People bring camping chairs and blankets and they set up for the day without having to bounce between stages.
Day 1 highlights for me were Lauren Alaina and Midland. Lauren Alaina was the runner up on American Idol Season 10 and she was just chosen to be on this season’s Dancing with the Stars. There was a video crew at the fest shooting footage for DWTS to show during her segment. She was funny, down to earth, and man she can sing. You’re about to start seeing a lot more of her. The other band I really liked was Midland. They have a throwback country sound and I really enjoyed their set. Best description I read was George Strait meets the Eagles.
It was a long, excellent day but I headed out a little early on day one to spend some time with my wife and recover a bit. We found a beautiful restaurant/bar called NEAT in Alys beach within walking distance of our room. Had a little food and a couple of cocktails before getting some rest to prepare for Day 2.
Day 2 started with a little photo editing and breakfast at a great restaurant called the Cowgirl Kitchen in Rosemary Beach. Seemed appropriate for a country music fest pre-game meal. Then we went back to the condo for some pool time. I did mention it was hot right?
I loaded up and headed back to the festival mid afternoon and caught Runaway June just after walking through the gate. Good stuff. They’ve been compared to the Dixie Chicks by some and they sounded great.
The rest of the day was spent shooting bands and taking in the rest of the grounds. Lots of food options all around, a few event trailers, and a couple of air conditioned bars too. And one thing I thought was really cool was that because of the one stage setup, no matter where you were inside the festival site, you could still hear the bands on stage. You weren’t missing the music even if you were enjoying other parts of the festival.
The music of day two was good overall, especially with Thompson Square and the Cadillac Three playing. But the ending was, well, interesting. The band before the headliner Jason Aldean was LOCASH. They played what started to seem like a very long set and I wasn’t sure why at the time. But it turns out Aldean caught some kind of virus that day and had to cancel his set. LOCASH was playing a long set because they were filling time and honestly they did a great job keeping the party going.
I found out about Aldean just a few minutes before they made the announcement and was able to gather my gear and hurry back to my car before over 20,000 people started leaving at the same time after finding out the person they came to see wasn’t able to play. I made it out before the rush and got back to the room, took a shower and collapsed on the bed. There were some social media grumbles about the cancellation the next day but the festival folks handled it well.
Day 3 kicked off with a little more pool time and then out for what was supposed to be a Sunday brunch. But when we pulled into a little cluster of restaurants and shops called The Hub on 30A the smell of barbecue hit me in the face. Soooo… I had barbecue, baked beans and potato salad for “brunch” while my wife had a more traditional breakfast food brunch from the adjoining restaurant. I headed back to the fest full and ready for the day.
The only rain we saw all weekend happened early Sunday afternoon but it was very light and didn’t last long at all. It just turned the humidity up another notch. 🙂 The rest of the day was great. The last day of a festival is always the most relaxing for me. I have my bearings and know the things I like and try to find new things to explore. Jim Beam was a huge sponsor and they had tastings, merch, and a bar on site. I’m a whisky guy so that was a good thing. Food was good all weekend but my favorite was coconut shrimp on a stick. It would be hard not to find something you like with all the choices they had.
My musical highlight of Day 3 was Ashley McBryde. I was at the fest as a photographer but there were a few artists we weren’t allowed to photograph and she was one. Management decides that sometimes. I was disappointed because she was one artist I was looking forward to hearing and photographing but it turned out for the best. Since I wasn’t thinking about the photos, I was able to just sit back and take it in. I love her voice and her songs and found myself tearing up during Girl Goin’ Nowhere. Loved it. She also stayed after her set to talk to fans, take selfies, and sign whatever they wanted signed. I drove back home that night with the windows down listening to her albums.
I had a great weekend and I still have a ton of photos to go through. The Gulf Coast Jam is a really well-run festival and I’m looking forward to next year already.
So about the hurricane. Dorian made a big right turn and avoided Florida but caused many deaths and severe destruction in the Bahamas. As I write this the recovery and clean-up is just starting. And it will take years. If anyone knows anything about that struggle it’s the people of the Panama City area. They are still recovering from 2018’s Hurricane Michael. Many people in the region feel they’ve been forgotten. They still need help. So while a music festival may not seem like the most important need for the area, the Gulf Coast Jam pledged $10 from every ticket sold to hurricane relief and initial estimates had attendance at over 20,000 people per day. And if you add in the thousands of dollars spent in the area over the weekend by the attendees, the festival made a big impact on an area that desperately needs it.