Once a year the small town of Cullman, Alabama takes on the look and feel of Nashville or Las Vegas. Located in North Alabama, Cullman is a small town you can find halfway between Huntsville and Birmingham. Cullman is a simple little town where you want to settle down and raise your children. Cullman is also known for caring for their neighbors. For as long as I can remember any time there was a tragedy in another county, state or even country, someone in Cullman would come forward and start raising money, collecting food or gathering items for those in need. However, on April 27th, 2011 that changed for the residents of Cullman, Alabama. That day THEY became the story on the news reports. They were the people who were in need. Tornados tore through the community leaving behind devastation and destruction that left them without power, water, cell phones, gas, food, homes and even businesses for many of them. The first moments after the sirens ended the Cullman residents went to work, they started going door to door, checking on their neighbors. They started digging through the rubble, cutting down trees, getting medical help and most of all praying for each other. As the days went on they started to recover. As the first-year anniversary of that fateful day came around Shane Quick and a group of people got together and planned a concert to celebrate the recovery that had taken place and from there ‘Rock the South’ was born.
The first Rock the South was held on April 27th, 2012, almost 11,000 people attended the festival to see acts like ‘American Idol‘ star Kellie Pickler and country music star Dierks Bentley. The money raised was donated to a tornado relief fund. The event was such a huge success that they decided to do it again the following year and the rest, as they say, is music festival history. They have had many great stars grace the Rock the South stages such as Sarah Evans, Alan Jackson, Luke Bryan, Florida-Georgia Line and Sam Hunt. As the town recovered from the tornado devastation, Rock the South is still going strong and still helps the Cullman community by donating $500,000 to local non-profits. To date Rock the South is ranked number 6 on the Billboard charts as the “Best Country Music Festival” in the United States but I like to think of it as one of the performers referred to as a “country music Woodstock”. I spoke with the man behind the event Shane Quick if he knew that Rock the South would grow into what it has become. He replied: “I am a dreamer so yes I saw this field full of people. This is the field I run in the mornings because I try and stay in shape. I would just dream about it. It is usually the ones that are crazy enough to dream about it that tend to make it happen.”
What does it take to put together a #6 “Billboard Best Country Music Festival”? It takes the support from local merchants, local residents will donate their time to help out and fans near and far willing to sit in the pouring down rain and the extremely hot sun for two days straight. I decided to first ask a couple of merchants why they decided to become a part of Rock the South. I spoke with Linda Gist from Grogan Jewelers by Lon who is the Official Jewelers of Rock the South. This is the second year for Linda and her team to be a part of the festival. When I asked Linda why they sponsored Rock the South, she replied: “because of what good it does for the community. We wanted to be part of that and this a great way to do that.” I also spoke with Patrick Drake from Patrick Drake Associates a local Allstate agent who has a new office in town and is a new sponsor to Rock the South. I asked Patrick why they decided to become a sponsor and he replied, “we are new to the area, we wanted to let people know we are here and we care about Cullman County and if they need anything we are here.”
I then moved to the heart of the event the dedicated fans. I talked with Shelley Kelley from Cullman, Alabama who has been attending the music festival since the very first event. I asked why she keeps coming back and she said that fact that the money raised does so much good for the local charities. I talked with Shela and Phillip Clemons also from Cullman, Alabama who attend every year. They were so excited to see country music star, Thomas Rhett.
I know that bringing in locals is an easy task, but Rock the South brings in 30,000 from all over the country. That brings much-needed revenue to the small town of Cullman. This fills up area hotels, it has them eating at area restaurants and more importantly they see what other attractions Cullman as to offer and they often come back for other events. I talked with Rob Ketcham with the Cullman Chamber of Commerce who is the Communications Manager about how important Rock the South is for Cullman. He explained that it makes a HUGE impact every year not only by the money that is donated to local non-profit agencies but by the number of people it brings to the area and the revenue it generates while they are here. He replied: “these visitors see what Cullman, as to offer while they are in town and a lot of them, will come back again at different times. There is no better way to promote Cullman.”
Another group of people I talked with is the event staff. This is everyone from the badge security at the gate, catering staff, stage crew, EMT’s, police officers and more importantly clean up crew that picks up after 30,000 people. So much goes into putting this event together, keeping it together and breaking it down. There is so many awesome staff I would love to name but I interviewed Michael Coates who worked security. I liked his attitude. He loved helping people and making people smile. I know some people in his position (Long Frustrating Story) just like to watch the world burn but not Michael every time we passed him he would smile and say something positive. I also loved our friend Barry who hung out near our media tent who also always smiled and ‘Cha Cha Slide‘ and ‘Cupid Shuffle‘ with me. When it is pouring rain or the heat index is over 100 in the deep south it is hard to keep your chin up and a smile on your face but I saw many staff members do just that. I also want to thank the hardworking police officers who took our safety seriously. After the events in Las Vegas in October, those things weigh heavy on your heart and mind but the Cullman City and County Police Departments did an amazing job so thank you.
This year’s Rock the South spotlighted some big names in Country Music. From some old school, country acts such as Hank Williams Jr. and the Marshall Tucker Band to the new faces of country music like Thomas Rhett and Eric Church. The stage also gave a spotlight to up and coming stars like ‘American Idol‘ winner Lauren Alaina, Upchurch, Dalton and the Sheriffs and young yodeling genius Mason Ramsey.
So as the fans head home, the music stars return to their glamorous lives and the clean-up begins the Rock the South team begin planning the next year’s event. I have heard some of the residents complain about the noise, the traffic, and the male fans in Daisy Dukes cut-offs, cowboy boots and no shirts but the charities that so desperately need the donations that come from these “annoyances” will gladly put up with them. I know this because my “real passion and my day job” I run a non-profit and I know that something like this makes a difference in how your charity can continue to help the community. At the end of the event that is what needs to be the crowning glory. Non-profits cannot help without help so anytime someone is willing to donate especially that much it is a blessing. So for the sake of those non-profits lucky enough to receive the benefits from this event I beg you to put up with the extra traffic, the noise and even the guys in the daisy duke cutoffs and cowboy boots (I mean luckily it is just two days a year right?)
I was honored to do this story for Fan Fest because I actually live in Cullman. I lived through April 27th, 2011. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember hiding in the hallway with my children. I covered their bodies with mine as we prayed for the angels to protect us. We lived for two weeks without power and water. We depended on the generosity of strangers for food and water to drink. However, the true tragedy of that day for our family was my cousin losing his sons Jonathan age 12 and Justin age 10. Houses can be replaced, and power can be restored but those little lives are gone forever. On that tragic day, 253 lives were lost in Alabama. That day we learned just how vengeful Mother Nature could be.
So, to say that Rock the South is simply a music festival would be incorrect. It is truly a celebration that Cullman survived and overcame what was a horrific tragedy. A celebration that the residents not only found the strength to keep going but they have rebuilt and kept building even after a loss so great other places would have just given up. Rock the South helped Cullman rebuild and now continues to help rebuild by donating back. Rock the South represents just how strong our small southern town can be because it shows an entire community coming together as ONE. As I think of April 27th, 2011 dear readers, tears are falling from my eyes. I will never forget that day. I never want to forget that day. I wanted to share this story with Fan Fest readers across the nation and across the world. As proof that at any given moment your little hometown can become the “breaking news story” that tragedy can happen anywhere but with the help of the right people, and with faith you can come back stronger than ever. To quote one of the headlining acts of this year “A small country town can survive”