FLORENCE — Poor Bryan White didn't stand a chance against Kinje.
The 1990s-era country singer was strumming his guitar and summoning his long-ago hits for a couple hundred earlybirds to the opening day of Country Thunder Thursday.
But he was no match for the blue Great Dane the size of a small child and his shirtless, 6-foot-something straight-out-of-GQ handsome human Ian Youngblood.
In the middle of the sprawling festival grounds, the pair was attracting a small crowd oohing and ahhing over the dog.
"Whenever I leave him I feel so bad," Phoenix resident Youngblood said as Kristi Ulmer, a University of Arizona alumnus from Scottsdale, patted the licensed service dog. "And he's so good with people."
Up near the stage, a half-dozen women clung to the catwalk where White, 44, sat in a chair behind a mic stand. And as he sang "Not Supposed to Love You Anymore" in a voice not nearly as confident as when he recorded in when he was barely in his 20s, Kinje and Youngblood tried to make their way across the field. Every few steps people would stop them to pose for pictures.
Day one of the four-day festival usually starts this way, with fans feeling their way around the grounds before they focus on the music. They check out the Electric Rodeo tent, which was blasting cold air for the half-dozen couples competing in a dance contest late in the afternoon Thursday; or peruse the food court and its array of smoked and grilled meats, burgers, Asian noodles and turkey legs. Many also make their way to the retail stands for festival T-shirts, cowboy hats and costume jewelry.
As workers were prepping the main stage for early evening opener Adam Sanders, Phoenix brothers Justin and Trevor Johnston were revealing the secret to their Wallet Buckles. The double-plated metal buckles, which come decorated with American flags, glittering bling and professional sports logos, have a slit in the middle where your credit and ID cards fit snuggly.
Justin Johnston slipped his license into one and shook the buckle. See, he said, doesn't go anywhere.
The brothers had pitched their idea to "Shark Tank" last year, but the sharks didn't bite. The national television exposure, though, turned out to be marketing gold that Johnston said could translate into $60,000 to $70,000 worth of sales — at $50 to $95 a pop — throughout the weekend.
As Johnston was making his pitch to customers, Country Thunder was settling into its core mission: Music.
The fans milling in the back of the leafy alfalfa field made their way to the stage as rookie Sanders introduced himself. You may not know his name, he told the audience, swelling from several hundred to several thousand. But you know the songs he's written: Luke Bryan's "Out Like That," "Country in Ya" for Chase Rice, Dierks Bentley's "Sounds of Summer" and a couple of songs he wrote with Thursday's headliner Cole Swindell — "Ain't Worth the Whiskey" and "A Dozen Roses and a Six Pack."
They didn't sound quite as familiar coming from Sanders, whose voice is rich with a nasally twang. But when he closed with "Real Men Love Jesus" — made popular by Michael Ray — the audience loudly sang along, which put a big smile on Sanders' face.
Lauren Alaina — one of three female acts on the weekend's lineup — also has only a couple calling cards — "18," "Road Less Traveled," "Doin' Fine" — in her relatively young career. But you wouldn't have guessed that from the confidence the 23-year-old "American Idol" runner-up showcased.
She filled in the gaps between her own songs by belting the heck out covers including Def Lepard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and Guns 'N Roses' "Paradise City." The band played so loud you could feel the bass thump and pound your chest if you were anywhere near the stage.
She also scored points for yanking fifty-something Steve from the audience and roping him into dancing with her on the catwalk as she asked him if he was "My Next Boyfriend."
When headliner Swindell took the stage, the audience was in full party mode. They crowded the catwalk as he nearly sprinted end to end under a quarter moon and slight chill. They became his enormous chorus on "Middle of A Memory" and filled the void of his missing duet partner Dierks Bentley on "Flatliner." The fist pumped during "Chillin' It" and cheered his new song "Reason to Drink" with glasses/bottles raised in the air.
Last year Swindell was an opening act. This year, as he embarks on his first headlining tour with Alaina in tow, he's graduated to headliner. And judging by the crowd's enthusiastic response, it was well-deserved promotion.
Country Thunder continues through Sunday.