The Biloxi Crawfish Festival is going back to its roots this year. It's already paying off.

Jamey Johnson, left, and Cody Jinks will play the Crawfish Festival at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum this year.
Jamey Johnson, left, and Cody Jinks will play the Crawfish Festival at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum this year. Courtesy Cody Jinks and Jamey Johnson

Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center Executive Director Matt McDonnell said the Biloxi Crawfiish Music Festival is rooted in country music.

"When we started 26 years ago, it was called the Cajun Country Crawfish Festival," he said. "Country has always been a mainstay at the event."

And McDonnell said the festival has featured a "who's who" of country stars including Mark Chesnutt, Montgomery Gentry, Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan.

"We've been very fortunate over the years to get a lot of great artists as they were climbing the ladder," he said.

This year's festival, held April 18-22 on the grounds of the Coast Coliseum, is going back to its country roots. The Crawfish Fest is back to just one weekend, and it features only country music artists. In recent years, artists from other genres have played concerts that overlook the flashing lights of carnival rides and Biloxi beaches.

This year's performer list is rooted in outlaw country, a sub-genre made popular by iconic artists such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. It is being kept alive by the likes of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and two of this year's Crawfish Fest performers — the long-bearded Jamey Johnson and Cody Jinks.

"Jamey Johnson and Cody Jinks are playing on Saturday, April 21, and the reserved seating for the show is sold out and it sold out quickly," McDonnell said. "We haven’t had a show sell out that early in a while, but people can still get tickets to sit on the lawn and hear and see the show — we don't want anyone to think that they can't get in."

Other performers include Old Dominion (April 20) and John Pardi (April 22). The festival includes a midway, food and beverage vendors and, of course, crawfish. A full schedule of events can be found here. Tickets to the shows start at $12 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com.

And while McDonnell said the festival is in no threat of going away, it is nice to have a sold-out show in reserved seating.

"There are a lot of music halls on the Coast and it's tough booking the right acts," he said. "I think we have a winner this year and the ticket sales prove that."

One weekend Festival

One of the biggest changes about the 2018 Crawfish Festival is that it only lasts through one weekend, unlike past years.

The 2018 Crawfish Fest starts on a Wednesday and ends on Sunday.

Although attendance fluctuates at the festival from year to year, he said the decision to change to one weekend was not based on smaller crowds.

"It wasn't an attendance issue because our attendance fluctuates based on level of talent, weather, economy — there are a lot of factors — but dropping from two weekends to one weekend was really about our sponsors," McDonnell said. "It's hard to commit to two solid weekends for any business."

He said the festival was originally only one weekend long. But like many things on the Coast, that changed after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

"We went to two weekends in the spring of 2006 because there was literally nothing to do here in South Mississippi. There was not entertainment," McDonnell said. "There hadn't been a lot of time nor options for entertainment after the storm, so that's why we went to two weekends and we had huge crowds that year because everyone had a lot of energy they needed to release."

By dropping back down to one week, McDonnell said, organizers were able to spend more of the festival budget on better performers.

"We just felt it was the right time to do it, so by spending our two-week budget on entertainment for a week, we were able to get some bigger performers," McDonnell said.