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Originally published Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 2:01 PM

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Watershed Festival at the Gorge: a new country-music tradition?

The Watershed country- music festival runs Friday through Sunday at the Gorge, in George, Grant County. The first country-music festival ever at the Gorge, it features Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Dwight Yoakam, Tracy Lawrence, Brantley Gilbert, Sara Evans, Uncle Cracker, Kix Brooks, Thompson Square and many others.

Seattle Times music critic

Festival preview

Watershed

Country-music festival featuring Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Dwight Yoakam, Sarah Evans, Kix Brooks, Thompson Square and others. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday through Sunday, Aug. 3-5, at the Gorge Amphitheatre, George, Grant County; single-day tickets sold out, three-day passes $150 (800-745-3000 or www.watershedfest.com).
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Brian O'Connell heads up country-music touring for the concert production company Live Nation, so it's his business to know where to place an act. Some time last year, O'Connell was sitting on his couch in Nashville trying to figure out whether to send a group through Spokane or Seattle when a very obvious thought struck him.

Smack dab in the middle, between Spokane and Seattle, was a little place called the Gorge, on the Columbia River in Grant County.

"Here I have access to one of the most breathtaking views in the world," said O'Connell by telephone last week. "And I have a great country-music marketplace. So I'm asking myself, 'Why haven't we ever done a country festival at the Gorge?' "

Why, indeed?

O'Connell called Jeff Trisler, president of Live Nation Seattle. The Watershed festival was born.

The three-day event runs Friday through Sunday. It's a pretty big deal.

Miranda Lambert and her husband, Blake Shelton, country music's new first couple — they sang "America the Beautiful" at the 2012 Super Bowl — will be there. Lambert's gold album, "Four the Record," has been on the pop charts nine months; Shelton, a vocal coach on the TV show "The Voice," debuted at No. 1 with "Red River Blue," which also went gold.

Dierks Bentley, whose rocking single "5-1-5-0" (hat tip to Van Halen) has become a summer anthem, is on the bill, too. And so are country chart-toppers Dwight Yoakam, Tracy Lawrence, Brantley Gilbert, Sara Evans, Uncle Cracker, Kix Brooks, Thompson Square and many others

Unlike the rest of the music industry, the Nashville establishment still functions like a well-oiled machine, grooming quality new stars like Thompson Square. A husband-and-wife team composed of Kiefer and Shawna Thompson, T2 is this year's Academy of Country Music's vocal duo of the year.

The Thompsons, who play Watershed on Sunday, spent 13 years scuffling in Music City dives before they finally got heard by the right person at the right time. But when that finally happened, Stoney Creek Records handed them 100 songs to choose from for their album — that's on top of their own songs — and offered them Jason Aldean's band as the production team.

Two songs stood out, said Kiefer by phone last week from a tour stop in Mount Vernon, Ohio. One was "Are you Gonna Kiss Me or Not" (also the name of their 2011 debut album), a cute, upbeat song that became a No. 1 single, was nominated for two Grammy Awards and also says a lot about how country music has changed. The woman in the story is the empowered one, opening the door to that first kiss. And the beat is pure modern country — that is to say, '80s rock.

The other song the Thompsons liked was "Glass," by Ross Copperman and Jon Nite, a gorgeous ballad about the fragility of human relationships that could just as easily have been sung by Barbra Streisand — and may well be. "Glass" has climbed to No. 18 on country charts.

The Thompsons' album, which has gone gold, has generated two more hit singles, "Let's Fight" and "I Got You."

Though Kiefer Thompson was first inspired by the driving, eight-to-the-bar beat of Bruce Springsteen, like other modern country acts, he and Shawna have a deep respect for tradition. Playing for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry, at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, was like a rite of passage.

"Our parents were there," said Shawna. "It was a huge moment."

O'Connell is hoping to make Watershed into a West Coast country-music tradition. A second stage celebrates regional acts, such as Brent Amaker & the Rodeo and Rae Solomon. There's also camping (as at most Gorge shows), free hot-air balloon rides, a water park, an old Western saloon, late-night sets and jam sessions.

The only tickets left for Watershed are three-day passes; the single-day tickets were handled through individual artists' fan clubs. O'Connell says the festival has hit the 20,000 per day mark, and though he doesn't expect a sellout (27,000 per day), he's pleased with the response, and is thinking long-term.

"I see Watershed as something where in 30 years, God willing, we see kids of people that went this year coming to Watershed all together."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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