A Peek Behind the Fireworks Curtain of Freedom Over Texas

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Freedom Over Texas, the City of Houston's annual July 4 celebration, is nearly 30 years old. Drawing approximately 50,000 citizens of the Bayou City every year to Eleanor Tinsley Park, the six-hour festival is the crown jewel under the wide umbrella of the Mayor's Office of Special Events, the City Hall department that oversees and licenses almost four times the amount of said happenings as there are days on the calendar.

The scale of Freedom Over Texas, and the amount of money it takes to produce such an undertaking, is easy to gauge by looking at its underwriters: Bud Light, Walmart, Dr Pepper, Southwest Airlines, Citgo, Christus Health and this year's mouthful of a title sponsor, US Family Health Plan. (It's a health-care provider that specializes in military families.) But musically speaking, FOT is actually a little hipper than you might expect out of a large city's family-oriented Fourth of July festival where tickets are ten bucks or less.

Bear with us here. It's true that between his time in Hootie & the Blowfish and as one of country music's top male solo artists, main-stage headliner Darius Rucker is about as All-American mainstream entertainment as they come, particularly as someone who also does a mean cover of Hank Williams Jr.'s “Family Tradition.” But if the main purpose of FOT is indeed to provide a civic platform for Houstonians to celebrate America's birthday, explains Susan Christian, director of the MOSE and FOT's lead producer, that would be difficult to do without entertainment that reflects both the city's demographics and musical tastes.

“We’re in a very diverse city, of course, and the blends of music that are represented iconically throughout Houston, we want to hit as many of those as we can during a six-hour event with four stages,” she says. “[We] can’t hit everything, and not everything would be appropriate for the theme of our event on July 4. But still we reach out our phalanges, and it changes every year, and I’m very proud that we have the diversity that we’re able to maintain on those four stages.”

To that end, ahead of Rucker Christian has booked the Eli Young Band, the Denton-spawned Texas country crossovers who recently released the summer anthem-in-waiting “Saltwater Gospel.” An act like that helps underscore Freedom Over Texas's reach, she explains – besides Houston, where the main-stage acts will be televised on ABC-13, Christian says the telecast is usually syndicated anywhere between a half-dozen and dozen other markets statewide. As for the Suffers, who will take the FOT stage less than two weeks after playing Michigan's Electric Forest festival, they may be Houston's hottest band and veterans of the outdoor-festival circuit by now, but FOT offers the opportunity for the band's largest audience to date, particularly on television. Christian has also had her eye on them for a while.

“I’ve been trying to book the Suffers for two years, but they were at Austin [City Limits], or they were playing Free Press,” she says. “They’re so popular that literally after the show I called them up and said, ‘Do you want to play July 4 next year?’ I don’t know that they really want to go out and book a big family show like July 4 is; they’d probably prefer to play something a little bit more millennial-driven. Not that we’re not millennial-driven, but it’s not our main focus.

“And so they said yes, and they know that we bring with us a lot of publicity, a lot of television, a lot of print, a lot of radio, and then it’s hometown,” Christian continues. “The reason I wanted the Suffers is yeah, they’re fantastic, but they’re from Houston.”

FOT's main-stage acts (country newcomer Brooke Eden, Rucker's current tour opener, is the fourth) may be what the TV audience will see, but they represent a fraction of the entertainment on offer at the park. The stage lineup in the Walmart All-American Kids Zone features aerial dancers Christian calls the “Cirque du Soleil of tomorrow” and students from Aldine ISD fine-arts magnet Carver High School performing a musical based on current Broadway sensation Hamilton. The Liberty stage will conclude with a Houston-flavored Prince tribute starring Paisley Park alum Rick Marcel, former Patti LaBelle backup singer Mary Griffin and longtime local jazz linchpin Ernest Walker's band. Earlier will come former American Idol contestant and area native Zach Person and J. Paul Jr. & the Zydeco Nubreeds because, notes Christian, “I have to have one zydeco band – it says 'summer,' it says 'festival.'”

The final stage, the amusingly named Dr Pepper One of a Kind Stage, may be the best example of all of the kind of depth Freedom Over Texas has: It might not draw the most attention, but for fans adventurous enough to find it, it might be the most fun. Closing out the evening on that stage will be Cowboy Mouth, the New Orleans rockers who treat every show more like an old-time Southern gospel tent revival. Noting that the band opened FOT's main stage eight years ago – and would have been ideal for the TV broadcast if not for some colorful language on the part of drummer Fred LeBlanc – Christian says the closing spot could have gone either way between Cowboy Mouth and Rusted Root, but “when you just sit down and think about their music, I just think Cowboy Mouth is gonna be that hard driver at the end before the fireworks come on.” Nevertheless, an honest-to-God jam band like Rusted Root will be a new luck for FOT; Christian says she booked the percussion-heavy group because “I think they’re amazing...you know, I like to try some new things occasionally.” And first up will be no stranger to these parts, the John Evans Band, the Austin roots-rockers with deep roots in Houston.

“He’s so fun,” Christian says of the JEB's namesake. “He just leaves his guts out there on the stage. He is a great performer, and I thought it was fun to kick off that stage with a high-energized Houstonian. I mean, I know he grew up in Pasadena, but he calls himself a Houstonian.”

Christian, a veteran of City Hall for some three decades, is now on her sixth mayoral administration. She and the latest mayor, Sylvester Turner, hit it off immediately, she says; in fact, she calls him a “visionary.” Offering one recent example, Christian says Mayor Turner called upon her office to organize a candlelight vigil at City Hall, where he later gave a moving address, to remember the victims of last month's Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. The MOSE had it done in two days. It takes a little longer than that to pull Freedom Over Texas together, but the principle is the same.

“The cool thing about our mayor is he gets the fundamentals of civic events, and that is that civic events build communities,” Christian says. “With it, we are a positive force that cannot be stopped.”

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