FORT LORAMIE, Ohio -- In the late 1980s, country music was all but declared dead by some in the industry. A few years later, Garth Brooks picked it up and carried it to previously unseen heights, selling out concerts at 20,000-seat arenas in hours.
With the semi-retirement of Brooks and the slowing down of icons like Clint Black, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers, country is again experiencing waning popularity. This year, record sales are lagging by more than 20 percent from previous years.
But for one weekend at least, country music was king in this small village, located 110 miles southwest of Toledo. Over four days, from July 5-8, country's past and present -- 23 artists in all -- converged on Hickory Hill Lakes campground for Country Concert 2001.
Brad Paisley, wearing hiking boots, baggy jeans, and a T-shirt, leaves his bus in the morning to check out a fishing hole on the 500-acre property.
He runs into an unsuspecting family by the lake. Recognizing him, they begin to get a little animated.
"Just try to keep it down a little," he asks. He sits with them and has a Coke before returning to his bus.
Later in the day, his road manager, Bob Baker, is pacing nervously inside the bus, waiting for Paisley, who is once again late for an appearance. Baker gulps down a drink from his McDonald's coffee cup, something he is seen with throughout the day.
"I'm really sorry," Baker says. "That's what I do. He's late, and I go apologize for him."
Paisley appears from the back of the bus, which has leather couches, a marble sink, and a gold faucet. He has changed into his tight jeans and black cowboy boots.
The dark-haired West Virginia native has become a female favorite because of his good looks and romantic ballads. His new album, "Part II," was inspired when he went to see Father of the Bride Part II. He attended the original movie with a girlfriend. The romantic in him hoped that she would appear at the sequel. She never did.
Outside, close to a hundred women are standing behind a rope, hoping to fill the void in the bachelor's life.
He scoffs at the notion that he's country music's biggest sex symbol. "I don't pay any attention to that stuff. To some degree [the fans are] pretty civilized," he says.
A romantic relationship isn't in the cards for him right now. He's trying to make his mark in Nashville. "I'm gone so many days a year, that I'm unable to cultivate those friendships. It really puts a strain on your personal life."
As Paisley plays, Kenny Chesney's bus pulls in, about an hour before he is scheduled to perform. He has traveled more than 1,200 miles from Denver to make the appearance.
Five minutes before his show, he gets off the bus, wearing a black cowboy hat and a cutoff black shirt. He stops along the way to the stage to sign autographs.
As AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," blares from the loudspeakers, the band waits behind a curtain.
"We made it, guys," one of them shouts.
"It's just like football, you gotta get pumped," another shouts.
The band gets in a circle, hopping up and down and thumping each other on the shoulders.
They sprint through the curtain. The crowd explodes.
Backstage, Paisley puts out his cigar and returns to his bus. He is headed back to Nashville.
Neal McCoy steps from his bus in the Holiday Inn parking lot. It's around 11 in the morning. He is wearing a T-shirt that says: "You Do Not Know Me. Federal Witness Protection Program."
The shirt is wishful thinking, because a group of five fans does recognize him, and they converge on him. With a smile and handshake for each, he signs his autograph and allows them to take pictures.
He is one of the busiest entertainers. He is on the road for more than 200 days a year. When he first began touring, it was 300 days.
"I enjoy the road. I enjoy entertaining people. They're not going to buy a plane ticket and come to my house, so I guess I'm going to have to stay out here," he says.
Later at the concert grounds, he signs more autographs for members of his fan club.
Kristina, a little girl in pink, shyly ambles up to him and hands him a picture that she had taken with him previously.
"Boy, you and me, we make a nice couple," McCoy says. The girl's face lights up.
McCoy and his band have come to Fort Loramie from Washington, where they were supposed to play on the Fourth of July. The weather didn't cooperate, but they did get a tour of the White House.
"Neal was trying to call Nolan Ryan to get him to call the President to look out this window and wave at us," Lynn Massey, McCoy's drummer, says.
The entertainer is close friends with Ryan, who established a relationship with the President when Mr. Bush owned the Texas Rangers. Alas, Ryan is not home, and the group does not get its wave before making its way to Ohio.
That night, McCoy climbs 40 feet to the top of the stage's roof in Fort Loramie, tosses his cowboy hat, dons a baseball cap, and breaks into a rap.
"It could have been the end of our ... careers if he slipped. That idiot," keyboard player Steve Segler says as he leaves the stage.
On his way into town, Vince Gill and his crew stop to eat at the Bob Evans restaurant just outside town. He politely signs autographs for fans that make their way to his table.
"I always see him bending over backwards for people," keyboard player John Hobbs says. "I met him when he was 19, when he was broke. I know hiim now, and he's the same guy he's always been."
Gill is the father of a 4-month-old girl, Corrina. His wife, Christian recording artist Amy Grant, has stayed in Nashville with her.
"Most of the time, we travel together. We kind of like each other," he says. He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, sandals, and shorts. He's a little disappointed that he didn't get to play golf today.
He laughs when he hears that one Toledo woman in the crowd has pledged "to take him from Amy tonight."
"She's going to have to be a mighty big woman," he says.
Gill and his band are leaving right after the show: "I have to be home for church," he says before returning to his bus to watch golf.
A couple of buses away, Martina McBride's daughter, Delaney, waves excitedly to Hobbs as she gets back on her mom's bus with her father, John. Hobbs is a Nashville musician who has worked on albums for several artists, including McBride.
Later that night, McBride steals the show with her performance. Although the beer is flowing, the crowd eats up her show that is centered on family values. At one point, she sings "Valentine" while pictures of her family are flashed on a Jumbotron to the side.
"They're cute kids, aren't they?" she says. "Especially the one with the mustache."
She gets a standing ovation.
About an hour and a half before Travis Tritt takes the stage to close the festival, his band members, David Northrup, Jared Decker, and Scott Simpson, slip from the bus to eat some pork chops under the courtesy tent set up backstage.
The crowd that has gathered to catch a glimpse of Tritt doesn't seem to notice as the men make their way across the parking lot to the tent. The band members are obviously overshadowed by the entertainer from Hiram, Ga.
"But we're very proud to have him as our boss," Simpson says.
The band has been averaging about 15 dates a month.
"Sometimes we flip-flop so many dates, it's hard to remember where we've been," Northrup says.
The men are all complimentary of Tritt, who has undergone a dramatic change from a hard-partying rebel to a committed family man.
"He's a pretty generous guy. The most impressive thing is that what you see is what you get," Northrup says. "Some artists will put on a front for the media, he's not like that. He's got an open-door policy, and he's accessible to all of us."
A few minutes later, Tritt steps from a trailer and signs autographs for a few fans.
Then, he ducks into his bus and changes into his trademark leather pants and long black shirt, even though it is 90 degrees outside.
The band plays for almost 90 minutes, but is forced to cut short its encore performance because of an approaching thunderstorm.
Minutes later, they are gone, back to Nashville, where they will stay for a few days before a date in Rhinelander, Wis.