Travel

America's Best Country Music Festival Happens in the Last Place You'd Expect

Boot-scootin' in the House that Jordan Built? You bet.

Photo by Katie Kauss
Photo by Katie Kauss
Photo by Katie Kauss

Summer in Chicago has long been synonymous with massive music festivals. Thanks to a thriving local performance scene, plenty of centrally located green spaces, and years of city investment, world renown festivals like Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, the House Music Conference, and Riot Fest have been drawing crowds for more than 15 years. Factor in relative newcomers like ARC, Spring Awakening, Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash, and the Breaks-not to mention the endless block parties, neighborhood fests, and arts fairs-and you’re looking at a season jam-packed with nonstop live entertainment spanning all the familiar Chicago-centric genres: indie rock, punk, pop, rock ‘n roll, house, EDM, hip hop, soul, blues, R&B, and jazz. This is the soundtrack that courses through the city’s veins, from the South Shore to Rogers Park and every district in between, uniting otherwise disparate communities with a single beat drop.

But a country-western festival? In the birthplace of Sam Cooke, Earth, Wind and Fire, Smashing Pumpkins, Kanye, Common, Rise Against, and Chance the Rapper?

Photo by Jeff Marini
Photo by Jeff Marini
Photo by Jeff Marini

“We started in 2013, just five barbecue teams and Brett Eldridge headlining in a very small parking lot in River North. We had 12,000 people throughout the course of three days,” says Callie Revel, partner at Chicago’s Windy City Smokeout and project manager at backing restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants. “Now, we’ve grown to a four-day event, and instead of 12,000 people throughout the course of a weekend, we’re doing upwards of 15,000 people each day.”

That four-day event is Windy City Smokeout, a raucous country music and barbecue festival that triumphantly sets up shop on the United Center’s sprawling grounds each summer. And this year’s shindig promises to be bigger and badder than ever-especially in comparison to the admittedly lackluster lineups attached to giants like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza. We’re talking the likes of modern day superstars like Morgan Wade and Sam Hunt, decorated lifers like Tim McGraw and Miranda Lambert, and none other than Willie Nelson himself.

Photo by Robo Aeria
Photo by Robo Aeria
Photo by Robo Aeria

Despite its quiet success, though, the Smokeout wasn’t always such a sure bet. Its original debut coincided with the launch of LEYE barbecue hub Bub City, but even for a city as ‘cue-crazy as Chicago, linking smoked meats with country twang was a bit of a gamble. Thankfully, the team was in good hands.

“We weren’t really sure what to think, but Ed Warm, our partner, books all of our talent-he’s had Joe’s on Weed for, gosh, 25 years now, and he’s known for bringing country music to Chicago,” Revel explains. “He had a lot of confidence in our model and that put us at ease. Obviously, Lollapalooza owns Chicago-we’re just happy to have people come out and enjoy our event. But the growth year over year? That speaks for itself. Even I started drinking the Kool-Aid.”

As it turned out, hot links and brisket served as the perfect ambassador for country music. Folks from the Chicagoland area gravitated to the fest in droves, enticed by the promise of sizzling pork shoulder, hulking beef ribs, or tender pulled chicken whipped up by some of the country’s most renown pitmasters. And while there, they couldn’t help but tap their toes to the sweet sounds of country’s finest.

Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout
Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout
Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout

“We try to make it equal between barbecue, craft beer, and the headliners, so there’s three main buckets that really draw people in,” says Revel. “There’s always been a lot of synergy between country music and barbecue. Obviously, if you go down to Texas, it’s very evident, but I don’t know that that existed in Chicago prior to our event.”

Barbecue isn’t the only aspect driving interest in country music, though. The genre has escalated in popularity over the past few years, breaking free from its narrowly conservative, John Wayne-esque reputation thanks to crossover pioneers like Lil Nas X, Kacy Musgraves, Mickey Guyton, and ex-Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker. According to a 2021 GQ article entitled “Why on earth has country music suddenly exploded?,” country saw a 16% rise in streaming in 2020-a year in which overall streaming was up just 3%. The subgenres are endless: Pick-up trucks, Stetsons, and other charms of rural life still rule the airwaves, but now they’re accompanied by feminist power balads, out-and-proud hip hop-inspired tracks, and something called “boyfriend country” (soft-spoken boys singing about feelings, apparently).

Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout
Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout
Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout

Due in part to widespread lockdowns, country music made its way off of car radios and Walmart CD shelves and onto Tik Tok and Instagram, turning a new generation on to its finger-picked melodies. And, GQ conjectures, it captured their hearts, too: “Country is often homespun, rooted in stories about family and faith. Perhaps that offered comfort to weary listeners feeling adrift in the world. Once people clicked off of ‘WAP’, they wanted a tamer kind of ‘WAP’: wholesome and pleasant.”

Smokeout partner Revel is happy to see the genre thriving, whatever the reason. “We were the first event to come back after COVID, and the numbers were off the charts,” she says. “I don’t know if people had more time on their hands or were checking out new stations on Sirius or something, but there’s definitely been increased interest.”

Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout
Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout
Photo courtesy of Windy City Smokeout

And in yet another surprising turn, this year’s hot ticket headliner is about as far from a Gen Z social media star as it gets.

“Ed Warm’s wanted to bring Willie Nelson to Chicago for years, and I’m not going to lie-I didn’t know how that was going to go over,” laughs Revel. “But the response to him in particular has been overwhelming, and Thursday’s set to be our busiest day on record. I guess it’s a bucket list item.”

No matter their Spotify preferences, it seems that Chicago fans have one thing in common: They’ll always keep you on your toes.

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Meredith Heil is a former freelancer, former-former Staff Writer, former Senior Cities Editor, and current Editorial Director of Travel at Thrillist.

Travel

Hollywood's Favorite Mountain Town Isn't Where You'd Think It Is

It's all hot springs and Hemmingway lore here.

Michael Godek/Moment/Getty Images
Michael Godek/Moment/Getty Images
Michael Godek/Moment/Getty Images

“Idaho is like the new Colorado, and Sun Valley is like the new Aspen,” a woman leaned over and said as we began our descent into Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, Idaho. “Everyone’s coming here now.”

Similar to Aspen-which has seen an unprecedented influx of transplants from around the country since the pandemic began-Sun Valley has served as Idaho’s venerable ski town ever since it was established as the country’s first designated ski resort in 1936. But those same snow-covered mountains people swish down all winter look awfully pretty come summertime, surrounded by the nearby Sawtooth Mountain range and set within the sweeping Wood River Valley.

Peter Jacobson/500Px Plus/Getty Images
Peter Jacobson/500Px Plus/Getty Images
Peter Jacobson/500Px Plus/Getty Images

Celebrities, artists, and fiercely passionate locals have long been a part of the fabric of this town ever since Ernest Hemingway was invited to live and write in the Sun Valley Lodge in 1939.

“Many celebrities were invited to come for free.” actress and Sun Valley resident Ali Larter told me at The Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) in April. “Hemingway was one of the first famous people to come and help build up what this mountain town was, and it’s become a part of what makes this valley the creative hub that it continues to be even today.”

Sun Valley’s caché remains alive and well, with its contingent of laid-back locals, cool bars, restaurants, and always-sunny Sun Valley vibes. While the secret about this idyllic mountain town may be out, Aspen, I can assure you, it is not. From spending some time soaking in the local hot springs to visiting a few of Hemingway’s favourite haunts, here are all the ways to enjoy Hollywood’s favourite mountain town, no matter the season.

Karl Weatherly/Photodisc/Getty Images
Karl Weatherly/Photodisc/Getty Images
Karl Weatherly/Photodisc/Getty Images

Walk in Hemingway’s footprints or drink amid the flowers

With 50 peaks, 300 lakes and rivers, and 250-miles of trails, wherever you are in Sun Valley, adventure isn’t far behind.

A good place to get your bearings is the White Cloud Trail. One of the most popular hiking loops at a leisurely 2.5 miles, it’s a short walk or bike ride from the Sun Valley resort area. As you make your way along the trail, plan to stop by the Hemingway Memorial, which is a fantastic place to soak in some views.

About four miles down the Wood River Trail is the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, which makes for a lovely bike-ride destination. The garden is a beautiful place to spend a few hours, especially in the summer when numerous events take place, like tours, wine tastings, and cocktail evenings.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Spend the morning soaking in local hot springs or angling for rainbows

Just 10 miles west of downtown Ketchum on Warm Springs Road, Frenchman’s Bend is the best place to soak in local hot springs. This shallow spring has long been a local Sun Valley hot spot, though it’s very much not clothing optional, so skinny dippers beware.

But getting hot and pruny isn’t the only way to enjoy the water here. Stretching 137-miles long and running directly through Sun Valley, Big Wood River is a great spot to go white water rafting in nearby Stanley or try your hand at fly fishing.

If you’re angling to get out and catch those elusive rainbows, try a guided fishing trip or even a women’s intro to fly fishing clinic with Sun Valley Outfitters. Big Wood is known for wild trout, though Silver Creek Preserve is another excellent spot (and a Hemingway favourite).

Warfield Distillery & Brewery
Warfield Distillery & Brewery
Warfield Distillery & Brewery

Eat homey dishes in cozy settings

Sun Valley’s food scene rivals that of any big city, starting with coffee and a ham and cheese croissant at Konditorei. Otherwise head straight for The Kneadery for a country frittata and ultimate Belgian waffles topped with whipped cream in downtown Ketchum.

Walk it all off before heading to Warfield Distillery & Brewery, which serves up some of the best elevated pub food. The beautiful rooftop is perfect for drinking in the views over downtown Ketchum and Baldy mountain. Don’t miss the signature Warfield Burger and Bacon Blue Ridge Salad and save some room for the carrot cake if you can.

Set on a side street in downtown Ketchum, The Covey‘s hearth style, seasonally inspired menu more than delivers when it comes to homemade pastas and some of the best locally caught trout you’ve ever had. It’s also got a killer wine list and a gorgeous new outdoor garden to enjoy it all in. If push comes to shove, don’t be afraid to post up at the bar, where you can chat with some of Sun Valley’s coolest team of locals and longtime friends who own and operate this awesome spot.

Rickshaw
Rickshaw
Rickshaw

Rickshaw is the cozy [read: tiny] neighbourhood joint to satisfy all your Asian- fusion cravings. The Korean Fried Chicken (KFC), Chiang Mai Curry Noodles, and Green Papaya Salad are cooked to chef-kiss perfection. Just note that this place packs up quick and reservations can be tough to come by, so if you can’t get a spot, grab your food to go and post up for a picnic in any of the nearby parks.

One absolute can’t miss when you’re in Ketchum is the chance to guzzle down schooners at Grumpy’s, a true Sun Valley legend. You can sit out front and enjoy the chilli fries and beers, but you’ll be missing out on the indoor ambience of this time-capsule-of-a-ski-town dive.

Come nighttime, head to Pioneer Saloon for margaritas, pints at The Cellar Pub, a tipple and some of Tom’s Mom’s Meatloaf at the Sawtooth Club, before an obligatory lap at Casino.

The Gold Mine Thrift Store
The Gold Mine Thrift Store
The Gold Mine Thrift Store

Strike gold at the local thrift

There’s no shortage of high-end boutiques in and around the Sun Valley Resort and downtown Ketchum, but for a real taste of local goodness, Gold Mine Thrift Store is considered the ultimate choice for all your thrifting needs. There’re always gems to be found here and it’s an added bonus that all of the proceeds go towards The Community Library next door.

For all your gear and outdoor needs, head to the Elephant’s Perch; or for some great local reads, look no further than Chapter One Bookstore on a side street off the Main drag. Finally, The Farmer’s Daughter is the perfect place to pick up some cool, local home décor and Idaho knick knacks.

Sun Valley Resort
Sun Valley Resort
Sun Valley Resort

Sleep like a star at Sun Valley’s best hotels

The Sun Valley Lodge is the go-to spot for a five-star stay in Sun Valley. Dating back to 1936, it’s also the former residence of Ernest Hemingway, whose room here is said to still house his typewriter.

The hotel’s pool area and bowling alley are always buzzing with activity, but if you’re in the mood for some bonafide “me time,” head straight to The Spa at Sun Valley, where a spin inside one of their “Experience Showers” in the locker room is enough to make you a believer in the power of one really good shower.

Right across the courtyard from The Lodge, the Sun Valley Inn is a bit more rustic than its glamorous counterpart-but recently remodelled and offering access to all of the same amenities as the Lodge at a fraction of the cost, the Inn is a more economical way to stay in the resort area.

Just off Main Street in Ketchum, Limelight Hotel is the perfect, pet-friendly place to stay if you want to be in the heart of the action. Word to the wise, snag a room with balcony views over Baldy, and don’t miss a chance to wind down with a dip in the pool and hot tubs.

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Michelle Gross is a travel, food and lifestyle writer who loves a small-town vibe. An alum of the University of Colorado Boulder, she spends a lot of time enjoying the great outdoors. This summer you’ll most likely find her on a paddleboard or on her porch in Beaufort, South Carolina.

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