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BamaJam: Redneck Woodstock

Hank Williams Jr. at BamaJam 2010.

Hank Williams Jr. at BamaJam 2010.

ENTERPRISE, Ala. -- What do you get when you take some of the best country and rock musicians working today, put them together with more than 100,000 enthusiastic fans in a South Alabama peanut field and mix in a whole lot of alcohol?

You get the Verizon Wireless BamaJam Music & Arts Festival, one of the best-conceived, best-produced and best-run music festivals of the concert season.

Kind of a redneck Woodstock ... but in a good way.

The brainchild of Ronnie Gilley, a tireless, firebrand of a promoter who was everywhere at the three-day festival, the third BamaJam was the biggest ever, drawing more than 75,000 fans on Thursday (according to police estimates), in excess of 90,000 on Friday and more than 100,000 on Saturday.

They came to see country superstars like headliner Kenny Chesney and a number of Nashville's biggest names: Hank Williams Jr., the Zac Brown Band, Gretchen Wilson, Jamey Johnson, Robert Earl Keen, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Travis Tritt, Rodney Atkins.

And they came to rock with Train, Beth Hart, Buddy Guy, Citizen Cope, Edgar Winter and festival closer Gregg Allman.

While they were watching, the masses were drinking ... lots and lots of beer.

"I got me a bunch of cold beer, there are all kinds of good-looking women walking around, and Kenny Chesney's singin'," one well-oiled reveler yelled to no one in particular. "Ain't nothin' better."

If the three-day festival was about partying for many who turned out for BamaJam 2010, it was about music for everyone. Backup singers were not necessary, as the throngs sang along to the songs they knew all too well. Many of the artists seemed stunned by the crowds.

"This is my first time at Bama-Jam," said Chesney, who drew the weekend's largest crowd, estimated at more than 80,000. "I've been missing out. This is unbelievable."

That perhaps best sums up this writer's experience, which began with a hotel room switcheroo and ended with a car-by-car police search for drunk drivers that stretched Saturday's fun well into Sunday morning. Here, a running diary of the festival.

THURSDAY

1 p.m. (EDT) -- Leave Albany for BamaJam.

1:15 p.m. -- Oops, left some stuff behind. Back to the drawing board.

3:30 p.m. (switch to CDT) -- Arrive at Enterprise Inn & Suites, where prices have been jacked up beyond Hilton level. (Welcome to town, y'all.)

3:50 p.m. -- Unload a Jeepful of supplies, have to move it all to another room because AC isn't working.

4:05 p.m. -- Get moved into new room ... Fridge doesn't work. Make an executive decision and swap out refrigerators.

5:14 p.m. -- Leave for festival grounds.

5:45 p.m. -- Arrive at festival grounds. Wow! The crowds are already here. Watch the last of Brantley Gilbert's performance.

7 p.m. -- Robert Earl Keen. He's even better live. A group of drunken cowboys start chanting REK's name 20 minutes before his show starts. A lot of Texas two-steppin' in the crowd. Closes with "The Road Goes on Forever."

8:20 p.m. -- Catch the end of Chris Young's set. He finishes with his "Black Dress Song," and everyone sings along.

8:45 p.m. -- Gilley whips the crowd into a frenzy with his first pro-Democracy, anti-big government, God, country, and country music rave. "We've doubled last year's Thursday crowd already; we're over 70,000," Gilley says.

9:00 -- Miranda Lambert takes the stage. She adds a little rock to her hits: The Faces' "Stay With Me," Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and Creedence's "Travelin' Band." She brags about "shakin' what your mama gave you," and proceeds to do so. There's a whole lot of shakin' going' on.

10:30 p.m. -- Dierks Bentley opens with his big hit "Free and Easy," and all the teenage girls scream.

10:55 p.m. -- Leave early for the "B" stage for the Zac Brown Band's set. A crowd of maybe three or four thousand watching Citizen Cope swells to more than 40,000 in a short amount of time. It's one of the rowdiest and scariest crowds I've ever seen. Brown and his boys have become master showmen since they cooked up "Chicken Fried."

1:30 a.m. -- Back at the hotel.

FRIDAY

6 p.m. -- Late festival arrival ... rough day with some of the local cuisine.

6:30 p.m. -- Clear the media tent for radio meet-and-greet with Jamey Johnson.

6:40 p.m. -- Change of plans ... It's OK to watch Jamey shake fans' hands and sign their stuff.

7:30 p.m. -- Johnson puts on a no-nonsense, technically amazing show. His set includes the absolute, 100 percent, most perfect country music line ever written: "It may be lonely at the top, but it's a b---- at the bottom." The low-key Johnson, a hometown boy, is not much for stage banter. He does offer, though: "They's a helluva lot more of y'all than they was last year." Great set.

9 p.m. -- Travis Tritt's still rocking the leather pants like few can. At some point, though, you get the feeling that his voice has morphed into George Jones' ... not that there's anything wrong with that. Great take on his hit "Any More" and even a better than passable "Take It Easy."

10:14 p.m. -- Jackson Browne's "Rosie" plays out before my eyes: The drummer in (an unnamed band) picks up a drunk chick and walks off with her backstage.

10:30 p.m. -- Hank Williams Jr. just gets better with age. You figure when he and his rowdy friends get together, stuff will get broken. He does a great take on Skynyrd's "Working for MCA" and one of his anthems, "If Heaven Ain't a Lot Like Dixie."

11:50 p.m. -- They're running a little late, but Train doesn't disappoint a huge crowd. At one point singer Pat Monahan says, "When we're at big shows like this, we always ask ourselves 'What would Led Zeppelin do?' With that, the San Francisco rockers launch into a great "Ramble On" that morphs into Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Train matches Zac Brown's crowd, but the vibe is much calmer.

1:15 a.m. -- Back home at the Suites.

SATURDAY

2:20 p.m. -- Jumped into the hotel pool to pull a scared kid out of water well over his head. He dog-paddled frantically for a bit, went under, came back up and said "Help" before sinking again. Got him to the surface and handed him up to a big guy standing close by. The kid's dad never moved.

7 p.m. -- Check out a few of the booths before watching Gretchen Wilson. You hear her do "Here for the Party" and "I've Got Your Country Right Here," and you know this "redneck woman" would kick other female country singers' behinds in a bar fight.

8 p.m. -- There are only two words suitable to describe the wonder of the next performer: Buddy. Guy. You think being in his 70s stops him from making his guitar magic? When he got to the part in "Hoochie Koochie Man" about the "seventh son," he tells the crowd how badly they'd ... well, let's just say messed it up. "I wouldn't say sometyhing like this if it wasn't for this hip-hop generation," he says playfully before admonishing his adoring audience.

9:02 p.m. -- First visit to the port-o-potties ... Not bad as port-o-potties go.

9:08 p.m. -- Surprised to hear some "Day Tripper" guitar in Rodney Atkins' "What I Love About the South." The rain that's held off all weekend after a few threats finally starts in earnest. Break out the ponchos.

9:45 p.m. -- Edgar Winter reminds an enthusisatic crowd of his band White Trash and jokes, "We're obviously not that now." Yes, Winter is still frighteningly pale, but his rhythm section is black.

10:30 p.m. -- There's a Beatles-like ... well, more like a Jonas Brothers-like, with a major dash of alcohol, atmosphere that erupts in redneck euphoria when Chesney takes the stage. As if on cue, the rain ends. He's become an excellent performer but perhaps he's let his current success go to his head: No photographers allowed in the pit.

11:50 p.m. -- Two rednecks on the periphery of the huge crowd start jawing at each other. There's a lot of fingerpointing, a limited vocabulary that is mainly of the four-letter variety and even a little nose-to-nose jawing. But it's mostly just spewing beer breath on each other, and everyone pretty quickly grows bored.

12:05 a.m. -- After Chesney closes with "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" -- his entry in the "Achy Breaky Heart," "Jesus Take the Wheel" worst song ever contest -- his band, ironically, plays a rocking version of "Frankenstein." A tribute to Winter?

12:15 a.m. -- Get to the "B" stage just in time to catch Beth Hart's "Back to L.A.," an incredible song, incredibly sung. She follows it up with a rocking, note-for-note cover of Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."

12:10-12:40 a.m. -- It's amazing watching most of the more than 80,000 who caught Chesney either march through the area around the "B" stage on their way to the parking lot or settle in to watch Allman, who doesn't start playing until almost 1 a.m. The crowd grows from maybe 1,000 to around 15,000 in a matter of minutes.

1 a.m. -- Allman, looking great, and his friends do "I'm No Angel," and all is right with the world.

1:33 a.m. -- Allman says, simply, "Here's a song I wrote in 1968" and plays "Dreams." OK, now the festival is complete.

2:18 a.m. -- Traffic, which has been amazingly smooth throughout the three days, suddenly grinds to a halt. After a while it becomes clear why: The Alabama Highway Patrol is conducting a car-by-car check looking for drivers who have been drinking. Their operation is impressive in its precision: They have a group of six or seven lining the road on the driver's side. They ask for licenses and inquire, "You been drinking tonight?" On hand is a paddywagon partially loaded with a sad looking group that obviously answered "Yes." Tow trucks are loading their vehicles.

3 a.m. -- Back to the Suites. There's the touch of sadness that the three days have flown by but the exhiliration of an incredible musical experience.

Tickets for BamaJam 2011 are already on sale.