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Published: Saturday, 7/25/2009

Festival fans get a whale of a show

FORT LORAMIE, Ohio - After four days of dragging artists' sets on and off stage and keeping thousands of sometimes drunken guests in line, the Country Concert staff was deserving of every hamburger and hot dog it was devouring at the annual postconcert party at Hickory Hill Lakes campground earlier this month.

This year, however, they had to throw some extra food on the grill.

"Phil Vassar came rolling up in a golf cart and just hung out with us for a couple of hours," Jim Prenger, the festival's promoter, said. "He didn't want to drive back to Nashville and get there in the middle of the night, and he just enjoys being with regular people. It was just a great surprise."

Like the previous 28 years, the local campground has been the site of one of the biggest country-music festivals in the Midwest. Twenty-one acts took the stage this year, including superstars Sugarland, Montgomery Gentry, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, and Vassar.

Even with that lineup, the event was victimized by the economy. Attendance for the four days was 58,834, down about 18 percent from last year's total. Some worried when organizers didn't mention anything about an event next year, but Prenger put those fears to rest.

"It's already on our Web site [countryconcert.com]. It begins July 8," he said. "We were down just like everyone else this year, but we saw that coming. We had poor sales, and we keep track pretty closely, so we knew what range we were going to be in. We were able to make it work."

As usual, lots of Shelby County sheriff's deputies roamed the crowd, along with undercover agents from the Ohio Investigative Unit, which is responsible for enforcing liquor laws. The OIU arrested 129 people, mostly for underage drinking, a total that was down from 160 in 2008.

Although some people came for the beer, most of the fans came for the music, and the lineup didn't disappoint.

After each year's festival, organizers mail out surveys to find out who fans would like to see the following year. The top choice for 2009 was Paisley, and the event was able to deliver him as the Saturday night headliner.

"It was an incredible show," Prenger said. "His video screen was 49 feet wide and 13 feet high. We had to put another door opening in the stage to get the screen in."

They also had to bring in extra stage hands to haul the 70,000 pounds of equipment for Paisley's set, but he put on a memorable show. At one point, Dierks Bentley and Luke Bryan joined him to sing "Alcohol."

Another highlight for fans was the performance of Sugarland, who brought Little Big Town on stage to sing "Lights in a Northern Town."

It's been a rough year for most people, but for four days, country music fans were able to forget their problems. For Prenger and his crew, that's what it's all about.

Brian Dugger's column on country music appears in The Blade the last Saturday of every month.

Contact him at bdugger@theblade.com.



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