FORT LORAMIE, Ohio - Since 1981, people in this sleepy little town 120 miles south of Toledo have been waking up in the middle of July and finding somebody sleeping on their front lawn, in their backyard, or even in their boat.
Beer banners perched atop Esther's Place mysteriously disappear and reappear a couple miles down the road at the campgrounds off State Rt. 66.
This morning, the first wave of campers and carloads of college coeds rolled into town. By the end of the week, this village of 1,300 people will swell to nearly 75,000 people.
Country Concert is back in town, and organizers are predicting that this year's crowds will be the largest in the event's 23-year history.
From the time Tammy Cochran opens the show on Thursday night until Neal McCoy ends it on Sunday, there will be more than 30 hours of entertainment over a four-day period.
“We think we have two of the hottest stars in the business this year in Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith,” promoter Jim Prenger says. “We have someone for everyone - we have up-and-comers, the stars, and some of the classics like Kenny Rogers.”
Two weeks before his scheduled Saturday night Country Concert appearance, Rogers was preparing to do something he swore he would never do when he got into the business more than 40 years ago.
“I always swore I'd never ride a bus,” he says with a chuckle before jumping aboard his tour bus for Chicago. “But now with the satellite TV, you just kick back and watch TV. Plus, you don't have to worry about them losing your luggage.”
At 64 years of age, Rogers isn't slowing down. He has more than 150 dates planned for the year, including a 23-city West Coast Christmas tour in a couple of months.
He is putting the finishing touches on his 61st album, which should be out in September after he records a duet with Dolly Parton. He has sold more than 100 million albums, and has hit No. 1 with 22 singles.
“I honestly don't know what I would do if I retired - decorate houses maybe, but that would get boring after a while.”
Three years removed from his last No. 1 hit, “Buy Me a Rose,” Rogers is learning to step back and enjoy the career he has had.
“The other night I was having dinner with a friend of mine who is a psychologist. I told him that sometimes it bothers me that success isn't as important to me as it used to be. He told me that as a man gets older, he'll usually stop striving for success and start striving for significance. Success isn't that important. You don't have a life when you are at No. 1. People are tugging and pulling at you. Right after is the coolest part, when you can step back and see what you've accomplished.”
Halfway across the country, Dan Truman, the keyboardist for Diamond Rio, is sitting by a lake in Iowa, hours before that night's show at a casino. Diamond Rio will be on stage Thursday night at Country Concert. Despite being around since 1991, they've never been more popular.
“We're waiting for any day for people to quit liking us,” he says.
Not likely. Truman, electric guitarist Jimmy Olander, bass player Dana Williams, mandolinist Gene Johnson, drummer Brian Prout, and lead singer Marty Roe have done something they've never done before in their 12-year career - they've hit No. 1 with back-to-back singles off an album. “Beautiful Mess” and “I Believe” both reached the top.
“To have two No. 1s, that's especially sweet, that people are still digging us and still liking us,” Truman says.
Diamond Rio is a rarity in Nashville - a mega-group that is able to stay intact through the years and keep putting out hits. The group is closing in on more than 10 million albums sold in their career.
“We have one really cool thing going for us as a band - strong relationships, and we're so dang diverse,” Truman says. “Dana and Gene grew up on bluegrass music. [Dana] didn't listen to any other music until he was 14. I think it would have been sacrilegious. It was a big day when he was 14, and he got to listen to Elvis.
“I grew up on classical music, but we have a lot of respect for each other's musical backgrounds and talents. We've never had a knockdown, drag-out fight. We've been really fortunate.”
Like Rogers, he agrees that age brings more confidence in their music.
“As a new artist, you're scared to death when you go in the studio. Now, it's a totally different vibe. We can feel that strength, power, the feeling that we're going to kick butt when we record. We're just better, more seasoned.”
Which is exactly how Prenger feels about his festival. “After 23 years, we're about out of trying new stuff. We pretty much have it figured out.”
He says he thinks that people who haven't seen a show in a while will be impressed.
“Things have changed so much. Fifteen years ago, you'd have your four guitars, a drummer, and a bus. Now there are so many lighting effects. Toby Keith will arrive with five semis, six touring buses, and his video guys. The shows are spectacular. They know how to give you your money's worth.”
Scheduled to appear at Country Concert 2003 are Tammy Cochran, Cadillac Sam and the Syndicate, Diamond Rio, Travis Tritt, Steve Holy, Blackhawk, SheDaisy, Chris LeDoux, Kenny Rogers, Toby Keith, Joe Nichols, Kellie Coffey, Colt Prather, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney, Trick Pony, The Parrottheads, Tracy Byrd, and Neal McCoy. Tickets can be ordered online at www.countryconcert.com, by phone at 937-295-3000, or by fax at 937-295-3783. Four-day passes are $148; three-day ones are $141. Individual day tickets can also be purchased for $56 on Thursday, $71 on Friday, $79 on Saturday, and $64 on Sunday. Additional information can be found on www.countryconcert.com.