A Celebration of Community and Camaraderie
Words by Jenny Lynn Davis | Images by Justin Hunter and Jenny Lynn Davis
Rock the South.
Three words that, when said together, previously evoked a specific image in my mind. That image was of girls in cutoff denim shorts and guys in American flag tank tops, getting their cowboy boots muddy while drinking beer and listening to country music.
Note that I said this image was one previously coming to my mind when I thought about the annual country music festival in Cullman, Alabama. This year I strapped on my symbolic cowboy boots (I actually wore some old beat-up Nike trainers) and joined the ranks of those attending the show. I got a new and much more accurate perspective of what “the biggest party in the South” is truly about.
To give you some insight, my yearly Spotify Wrapped always consists of cassette-era classic rock and present-day alternative pop, so while I had heard names on this year’s Rock the South roster like Chris Stapleton and Cody Johnson, I couldn’t begin to tell you what songs they sing. But never one to say no to a new adventure, I joined my coworker Justin in loading up my car with photography equipment, and we headed from our office in downtown Jasper to Cullman’s York Farms.
The Wednesday before we headed out on Saturday, I watched Rock the South’s official Instagram story showcase posts from excited attendees making their way to the festival that began on Thursday. As I expected, some were traveling from other parts of Alabama and neighboring southern states like Tennessee and Georgia. But what surprised me was the influx of posts from across the country and even out of the country. Posts from New York, California, Delaware, and Canada, of all places, filled my phone screen. Before I even set foot on the grounds, I was shown that this festival creates a sense of unity by breaking down geographical boundaries and bridging gaps through a shared passion for music.
In my pre-event research, I also learned that the origins of Rock the South hold a special significance in the hearts of the festivalgoers. It was born in the aftermath of devastating tornadoes that ripped through the state of Alabama on April 27, 2011. The event was initially intended to be a one-year celebration of recovery but has since evolved into a powerful symbol of resilience and community strength. Through the years, the festival has contributed significantly to the region, donating nearly a million dollars to various community partners, reaffirming its commitment to giving back and uplifting the community. That spirit of giving back persists today, as this year’s festival saw the presentation of over $69,000 to philanthropies across Cullman, North Alabama, and beyond.
With those two bits of information now hanging out in the back of my mind, my excitement to attend and get an honest look at Rock the South grew tenfold. While Rock the South 2023 will be remembered for a nasty brawl that broke out and went viral on the internet, that is not indicative of the true soul of the festival. Much of what I witnessed at the festival was rooted in community and camaraderie.
The lineup featured prominent country artists, but the festival’s magic extended beyond the performances. In the fleeting moments between sets, the DJ played classic anthems like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” turning the crowd into a unified choir singing every word with unbridled enthusiasm; this is where I saw a true sense of community.
The sweltering Alabama summer heat inevitably led to several fainting spells, but what touched me deeply was the quick and caring reactions of strangers who came together to assist those in need. Amidst the lively atmosphere, the festival became a space where we didn’t care that we had just paid $4 for a bottle of water; it was being handed off to someone who needed it more.
Rock the South also provided multiple opportunities to express gratitude and appreciation to everyday heroes – police officers, firefighters, paramedics, soldiers, nurses, and others who selflessly serve the community. These heartfelt moments of acknowledgment scattered amongst performances and charity presentations served as a reminder that the event was more than just a music festival; it was a platform to honor and celebrate those who make a difference in people’s lives.
As the day drew to a close, I watched as cowboy hats and permanent markers were passed around the crowd to be signed like yearbooks at the end of the school year. I saw old friends embrace as a heartfelt ballad was sung and saw new friends smile and trade phone numbers so as not to lose the connections they had made in the crowd. All of this further cemented the sense of belonging and community that Rock the South fosters.
So, with all of that… here’s what I learned.
The mental image I mentioned, the one of denim cutoffs, American flag tanks, muddy boots, and beer – is a reality; those things happen and are a sight to see. But the new image of Rock the South ingrained in my mind is a testament to the power of music in bringing people together and fostering a tight-knit community. Yes, the music was great. Red Clay Strays will undoubtedly appear in my Spotify Wrapped this year. But, wow, it is so much more than the music. Show up for Stapleton but stick around for the soul. The soul that creates bonds, loves its neighbor, and goes beyond the realm of melodies and lyrics and into true Southern camaraderie. WL