Fort Lauderdale Goes Country For Tortuga's Return
Fort Lauderdale Beach is no stranger to fringe bikini tops, bare tanned chests, Corona cans or neon sunglasses. But guitars, twangs, cowboy boots, cutoffs and plaid? Not so much.
For one weekend each year, Fort Lauderdale goes country, joining forces with the industry’s biggest acts for Tortuga Music Festival. With it comes a sea of 75,000 fans—from California to Canada to Boston—who come to revel in the guitar-playing, soul-searching, storytelling sounds of country music. With each artist, the energy builds throughout the day giving the final performance a strength that can’t be matched in any other venue. Fans lift their hands into the air, hips sway and a chorus of voices from the crowd sings along.
(Festivalgoers don coordinating shirts for Kenny Chesney’s 2015 performance.)
Like the Ultra or Coachella of its genre, Tortuga has solidified its spot as one of the nation’s premier country music festivals. The festival, now in its fourth year, will rock the ocean on April 15, 16 and 17, expanding for the first time from two to three days with headliners Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.
“We’re super proud of the product,” says festival founder AJ Niland. “We’re filling a void in country music. We’re the only ones doing this on this scale on the beach.”
This year’s festival will build on last year’s momentum, spreading out fans and acts over an entire weekend. Nearly 70 percent of the fans come from outside of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. “These folks are making an investment to come down,” he says.
The idea for Tortuga started as a charity-televised, beach-based event for ocean causes. That concept quickly morphed into a for-profit music festival that supports marine and ocean research, and conservation organizations such as Sea Turtle Oversight Protection and the Florida Fishing Academy. To date, proceeds from tickets sales have contributed more than $250,000 toward those causes.
But while the goodwill is good and all, it’s no secret that the fans come for the star-studded performances and the can’t-beat atmosphere. Kenny Chesney returned last year to an electrified crowd who remembered his all-star performance from the festival’s first year in 2013. Eric Church, who also played in the inaugural year, returned in 2014 to headline with Luke Bryan.
“They both pretty much walk off the stage the year that they play and say, ‘When can I come back?’” Niland says of Chesney and Church. “We do our best not to have too many repeats so that folks can feel the diversity, but it’s really difficult to tell someone that they can’t play every year.”
(Blake Shelton, above, headlines this year’s festival with Dierks Bentley and Tim McGraw.)
For up-and-coming artists, like Trevor Rosen of the band Old Dominion, it’s a life-changing experience, especially going into the crowd and watching other artists like Jake Owen and Chesney perform.
“Watching the scale of that show—we said, ‘OK, this is for real,’” Rosen says of Chesney’s 2015 performance. “Watching somebody like that—it teaches you how to perform to so many people, you want the song choice, the transition from song to song, the way he uses the whole stage, that he projects to the audience.”
Rosen says Old Dominion, which will play Friday during this year’s festival, would be thrilled to return year after year. “Man, when you can play out and see that sea of people, and then see the waves rolling in—you’re on vacation,” he says.
With an extra day to thin out the crowds, Niland says Tortuga is dropping the number of tickets from 40,000 a day to about 35,000 a day. Last year, one of the biggest complaints was the jam-packed beaches for the major acts like Chesney—people were jostling for towel space in the sand.
“It’s one of those things. It comes with the beach,” Niland says of the finite amount of space. Since day one, they’ve made adjustments to fix entrance delays, restroom problems and congestion in the main concourses. Bars also have been strategically relocated throughout the festival so that lines don’t escalate. Luckily, though, Niland says being on the beach disarms people, making it a low-friction event—especially when everyone’s in bathing suits and the beer is free flowing.
Artist Joe Nichols said it best when asked what he was most looking forward to at this year’s Tortuga: “The clothing, or the lack of it. Lots of girls in bikinis.”
(Jake Owen performs at last year’s festival.)
Don't miss out on these other Fort Lauderdale music events:
Friday Night Soundwaves
This 36-week live music series started in March and continues through November, bringing acts such as Ed Calle, Suenalo and Shane Duncan to Fort Lauderdale Beach every Friday night. (Free, fridaynightsoundwaves.com)
More than 80 rock bands will pack Markham Park in Sunrise on April 2 and 3 for this year’s RockFest. Watch Bret Michaels, Paul Rodgers, The Romantics and more take to the stage. (One-day tickets from $99, rockfestconcerts.com)
Symphony of the Americas Summerfest
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Summerfest, the series will feature the “best of the best” from the past 25 years with musicians and soloists representing more than 10 different countries. Summerfest will run from the second week of July to mid-August. (symphonyoftheamericas.org)