The party starts well before the first note is played. Come next Thursday morning — a full day before Watershed Festival officially begins — cars and RVs start lining up to grab prime campsite real estate at the scenic Gorge Amphitheatre. Soon legions of koozie-clutchers will roam the fields lined with flag-flying tents and RVs in search of new friends and good times, convening over a love of country music.

After a lost 2020 season, country fans will once again make the Interstate 90 pilgrimage to the landmark venue, where Watershed (July 30-Aug. 1) will mark Washington’s first major music and camping festival since the pandemic unplugged the concert industry. Country kings Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley and Thomas Rhett headline a strong lineup largely held over from 2020’s planned slate.

By the time the first Nashville up-and-comer hits the Gorge stage, it will have been a month since Gov. Jay Inslee lifted COVID-19-era restrictions and requirements for most concert venues. Live music has been “back” for weeks (if not months). But Watershed — which typically draws north of 20,000 people per day will be the largest reopening concert by a country mile (or 12). The three-day festival also signals a return of the convivial campground scene and camaraderie that longtime “Shedders” have come to love as much as the music.

“We’ve all earned this moment,” said Watershed veteran Kelly Kiki. “I know that people are going to be having a great time because they’ve earned it.”

The Spokane high school teacher and his wife hit their first Watershed six years ago and have been hooked since. That year, the couple who own the Brambleberry Cottage & Tea Shoppe were in the Thursday morning RV line when a random act of festival kindness spawned a series of close friendships.

Kiki was in the middle of making his morning coffee when the gates opened to the on-site campgrounds and the line started to move. Itchy would-be campers behind him started pulling around him, leapfrogging him in line, until a trailer-towing father-and-son duo they’d never met held up the line so the Kikis could get it together without losing their spot. “I was like, ‘Dude, you’re the man!’” Kiki said.

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The crew wound up getting three campsites right next to each other and a tradition was born. “We decorated all our camps together, we spent the weekend cooking food together, watching music together,” the 51-year-old recalled. “And then we said next year we’re gonna go together as a group.”

What started as a core group that hasn’t missed a year since has grown into a mini village of about a dozen camp sites they nicknamed Shedderville.

The 12-site camping crew dubbed Shedderville goes all out with its campsite décor. In 2019, the group built its own tiki bar and a light-up volcano that billowed smoke. (Courtesy of Kelly Kiki)

Alyshia Grenfell of Shoreline has a similar story. After treating her brother to 2017 tickets as a graduation present, her “little Watershed family” has expanded from three to 20-plus people, picking up campground neighbors and acquaintances along the way. “As any good neighbors do, we made friends with them,” said Grenfell, 26, who stays in the nearby Wildhorse Campground. “They partied with us, we shared our food and drinks and we all made sure to look out after one another. From that day forward we all knew we formed a bond with one another. They are our little Watershed family and we look forward to seeing them every year.”

That “festival family” culture that develops in tandem with large, camping festivals isn’t exclusive to Watershed or country music. But it runs particularly strong with the state’s premier country bash and a down-to-party fan base that appreciates a quality tailgate.

According to Julene Imbert, who’s attended every Watershed since its 2012 inception, the three-day fest’s campground energy “is like no other.”

“People are yelling, excited, saying hi to each other,” the 40-year-old Ephrata woman said. “It’s a lot of randomness but also fun. You can go on a walk and see a slip-and-slide party, inflatable pool, then around the corner there is a campsite with a stripper pole or a flip-cup game going. Expect the unexpected.”

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As camp accouterments go, few go as hard as Kiki and the Shedderville gang, who have won Watershed’s themed campsite competition several times, becoming a campground attraction in the festival’s “Big Rig” lot for large vehicles. For 2019’s luau theme, the crew built a bona fide tiki bar (power tools required) surrounded by a bamboo fence and large, custom-carved tiki statues.

Fellow campers — and even country singer Michael Ray — dropped by for a drink, body-painted pineapple tattoo, round of limbo or just a quick pic. Still, the cherry on top was a homemade, 10-foot volcano that billowed smoke and lit up at night.

Country singer Michael Ray, center, caught wind of Shedderville’s over-the-top campground setup and stopped by for a drink in 2019. From left: Roy Flowers, Kelly Kiki, Dawn Kiki, Ray, Lindsey Flowers, Ben Flowers. (Courtesy of Kelly Kiki)

“It gets to a point that we entertain almost 70% of the time, so we don’t see as much of the show,” Kiki said. “This year we said that we were gonna really back off it and go and just enjoy country music, and not [be] the most over the top. Then the new theme came out, and it was ‘Christmas in July,’ so all of a sudden we’re like, ‘We’re gonna bring a 20-foot Christmas tree!’”

Whatever the camp theme, third-year Shedder Andrew Jenning Wergeland-Rammage usually stands out like a 20-foot Christmas tree in the desert. The friend of Shedderville has become a roving, one-man attraction of sorts and a selfie magnet, thanks to his virtuously bushy red beard and affinity for skimpy male swim trunks. (Gotta beat that Eastern Washington heat.)

“Watershed, people have fun outfits they want to wear, but for my Speedo attire, there’s people who have trucks who make pools out of ’em, and if it’s hot and you wanna jump in, you’re in a Speedo so you’re good to go,” said the practical party dude. “It’s always a conversation starter.”

Speedo-loving country fan Andrew Jenning Wergeland-Rammage has become a selfie magnet at Watershed Festival. (Courtesy of Andrew Jenning Wergeland-Rammage)

The 30-year-old Ballardite often styles his itty-bitty swimwear with a functional beer can belt, capable of holstering an entire six-pack (thankfully water bottles fit, too). His ensemble, or lack thereof, has apparently startled a few early risers when they catch an eyeful of man thigh over their morning coffee. “At 7 a.m., I’ll walk around in my Speedo on Friday morning and people will spit out their cup of coffee when they see me walk by,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Good mornin’!’”

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New to this year’s arsenal of party accessories is a cache of patriotic drinking vessels shaped like bald eagles, which Wergeland-Rammage plans to use to deflect college guys who try to goad him into shotguning beers. (“I don’t shotgun, buddy.”)

“It’s basically the equivalent of a beer bong, but instead you pour it in the center of the eagle and the tail is where you drink the beer,” Wergeland-Rammage explained. “I’m gonna bring a bunch of those to Watershed and [when they] say, ‘Shotgun!’ I’m like, ‘Here’s an eagle — chug the eagle!’ So, that’s my plan.”

Eagle chugging aside, connecting with people “you wouldn’t meet ever in a regular setting” is a big part of Watershed’s appeal for Wergeland-Rammage.

Mingling among thousands of strangers hasn’t exactly been atop society’s dance card this past year while government officials restricted large gatherings in efforts to curb the spread of a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans. Now facing the prospects of attending concerts again, music fans are in various states of readiness as tours and festivals resume.

Asked about any COVID-19 safety measures being implemented at the Gorge, Live Nation’s Pacific Northwest President Jeff Trisler said they will be “100% in compliance with state guidelines.” However, as of July 1, there are no state requirements for outdoor venues or indoor events with less than 10,000 people.

Kiki was initially on the fence about returning to Watershed this year, but after his wife got on board, he made a pact with another extroverted Sheddervillian to “scale it back” this year and “roll with our core group.” Weighing the risk-reward, Grenfell, the Shoreline Shedder, plans to “take precautions” when attending this year, including wearing her mask and diligently washing her hands and using sanitizer.

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After working at big-box hardware stores throughout the pandemic, Wergeland-Rammage has no reservations about heading back to Watershed, but said he’s seen a lot of people selling their tickets this year. Perhaps a sign of the pandemic times, tickets were still available 10 days before the festival that has consistently sold out in recent years.

Like Wergeland-Rammage, Imbert of Ephrata is eager to return without hesitation. Experiencing live music is where the 911 dispatcher says she’s “in my element.” She hasn’t seen a show since country singer Jordan Davis played Spokane in February 2020.

“I miss that vibe,” she said. “There is nothing like when the lights go down and you hear that music. You get that feeling, the tingles, the excitement. … Hearing that first, ‘How y’all doin’?’ — then you know you’re where you need to be. At home, at your church. With your family.”

Watershed Festival

July 30-Aug. 1, Gorge Amphitheatre, 754 Silica Road N.W., George; $215-$1,150, remaining camping packages $160-$599; watershedfest.com