The Country Summer Music Festival, returning this weekend for its fifth year at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, has always been a big outdoor party for country music fans, with three straight days of live music from both upcoming and longstanding acts.
Country star Toby Keith, who will close the festival with a performance Sunday night, couldn’t be happier with the setting.
“Once I became a headliner, I gravitated toward the outdoor stages and festivals,” Keith said. “And once I got out there, it was rowdy and loud and fun. When I got back into arenas, it was really sterile.”
Keith, now 57, with a long list of hits and awards, credits the music festivals with keeping him fresh.
“Looking back, it changed the way I wrote songs,” he said. If the song didn’t pack a punch and rock the crowd, he wasn’t happy with it.
His powerful singles include “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American),” which Keith wrote in 20 minutes as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“I never was very political, but I’m out voting every year. I never did the right vs. left thing,” he said by phone from his home in the suburbs of Oklahoma City, where he grew up. “I just spoke my mind.
Even though he performed at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Keith doesn’t consider himself partisan at all. He also played at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in 2009 for then-president Barack Obama.
“Hell yeah, and I played for the king of Saudi Arabia, too,” Keith said.
Keith’s lively and inventive music videos caught the interest of filmmakers during the first decade of the 21st century. He made his acting debut in the film “Broken Bridges” in 2006, and co-starred with comedian in the 2008 movie “Beer for My Horses,” inspired by his song of the same name.
“I did a couple of movies, and I had offers from TV to do sitcoms. That all came out of people watching my videos,” Keith said. “But TV wants you to commit for five years, five days a week for 22 episodes a season.”
Keith was less than starstruck by that prospect.
“I do too well on the road to spend that much time doing something that might not even be successful. In terms of money vs. time, it doesn’t make sense. I’m out there on the road working concerts two or days a week for six months a year,” he said.
But Keith hasn’t forsaken the music video format. Last he teamed up once again with country music icon Willie Nelson for the video version of Keith’s hit “Wacky Tobaccy.”
When he’s not on the road, Keith spends his offtime on his first passion: writing songs.
“Songwriting is a whole different paycheck, and I set my own hours,” he said.
On Saturday, the festival’s headline act will be Little Big Town, the award-winning country quartet featuring Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet. The group’s hits include “Pontoon,” “Girl Crush” and “Better Man.”
The headliner for Friday’s opening lineup at Country Summer is Florida Georgia Line, currently heard on Bebe Rexha’s big hit, “Meant to Be.” The duo, featuring Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, played a role in the birth of the annual Country Summer event in Santa Rosa.