Music icon Willie Nelson was sandwiched between the two, delivering an impressive set of old-school country.
Organizers moved the main stage this year to an area that was narrower and less sprawling than the former location.
With fans funneled into the smaller space, things felt more like a big concert than a festival.
In another major change, many of the vendors who used to surround three sides of the main-stage area were moved to a separate area, set back from the main paths of travel for festival goers.
With 30-minute breaks between most acts, it barely gave fans time to walk over to the vendors, browse a bit and then get back to hear more music.
Three vendors said they were unhappy with the setup and had seen their sales drop compared to past years, and fans didn’t seem too thrilled, either.
“This is a great place to have a festival, but this is a crappy layout,” said Connie Perry of Queen Creek.
Gerri White of Florence said, “I don’t think it’s very well-organized.”
Nelson was the standout of the closing trio, still sounding great at 77.
With his wrinkled face alternately looking out from beneath a cowboy hat and a bandanna, Nelson came out sounding energetic, playing brisk versions of “Whiskey River,” “Still Is Still Moving To Me” and “Beer For My Horses.”
Nelson nailed a version of “Me and Paul,” which tells the story of crazed travels with his longtime drummer, Paul English.
“Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” was mellow but emotional, and “Always on My Mind” was poignant.
Nelson’s sister, Bobbie, dropped fun honky-tonk piano into several tunes, including Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The latter included hot harmonica work by another longtime Nelson sideman, Mickey Raphael.
Nelson hit most of the high spots of his career, and he managed to avoid being bored by such well-traveled classics as “Mamas Don’t Let You Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.”
Kid Rock and his Twisted Brown Trucker Band brought bushels of energy and attitude to the stage.
Opening with the driving rocker, “Rock N Roll Jesus” and the rap-rock of “Son of Detroit,” Kid Rock made it clear he wouldn’t be changing much in his normal concert set just because he was playing at Country Thunder.
He dedicated “Lowlife (Living the Highlife)” to “all the hillbillies here” and had everyone waving their arms and hats to the country-rap of “Cowboy.”
The Southern-rock-flavored “Only God Knows Why” and “All Summer Long,” as well as “Picture,” featuring a nice duet with one of Kid Rock’s backup singers, also connected with fans whose taste leaned more toward country.”
But such songs as the in-your-face “You Never Met a (Expletive) Like Me” and a cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” left some fans scratching their heads.
In between one song, an audience member wearing a cowboy hat was overheard telling his buddy, “Kid Rock can put on a plaid shirt, but that doesn’t mean he’s a country artist.”
More than a few fans also looked puzzled during the set by Big Kenny (aka Kenny Alphin), who is on hiatus from his million-selling duo with John Rich.
Big Kenny’s slogan (it’s on his guitar neck) is “I love everybody,” which is a great sentiment. In this singer-guitarist’s case, though, it gets delivered with a heavy hippie vibe that had some fans shaking their heads and heading for the vendors’ area during his set.
His extended version of the Big & Rich pirate tale “The Bob Song,” with Big Kenny urging the crowd to yell, “Arrrrrrr!” was out there, as was his preaching from the runway extending into the crowd during “Happy People.
He reeled things in for a nice version of the new, slow country-rocker “To Find a Heart,” as well as Big & Rich’s emotional “Holy Water.”
Big Kenny ended on a high note with the free-flowing rapping and singing of the signature Big & Rich song, “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy.)”