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Published: Sunday, 7/3/2005

All-star lineup at Country Concert '05

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The art of entertaining a country music crowd was a far different thing 25 years ago than it is today. Back then, Barbara Mandrell, George Jones, and Don Williams ruled the airwaves, and guitars, amplifiers, and microphones were about the only tools they needed to put on a live show.

Today, it takes hit records to be a superstar, but it also takes an extravagant stage show. Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, Big & Rich, Phil Vassar, Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Tim McGraw are masters at that aspect of the business. The more theatrics on stage, the better. Fireworks, colorful lights, confetti cannons, bigger stages, and a colorful stage presence have all become integral parts of a successful career.

George Strait is probably the lone example of a true country music star who doesn't rely on a pumped-up stage show to increase his popularity.

"Country music is not what it was 25 years ago. It's not just three guys up on stage playing guitars," says Jim Prenger, the promoter for this year's Country Concert in Fort Loramie, Ohio, between Lima and Dayton.

"Tim McGraw is coming here with 80 people, six buses, and five semis, Prenger adds. "The special effects they can bring to a show today is phenomenal."

And Country Concert '05 is not the same event it was 25 years ago. It originally started as a thank-you to the campers who came to the 500-acre Hickory Hill Lakes campground each summer. Louise Mandrell was the top act for that inaugural concert because festival officials couldn't pay older sister Barbara's $80,000 price tag.

This year, there will be 21 acts, including Brad Paisley, Sara Evans, Tim McGraw, Terri Clark, Brooks & Dunn, Phil Vassar, and Montgomery Gentry. For this year's four-day festival, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday, the promoters have spent more money than any other year in the event's history.

"This is a milestone year for us," Prenger says. "We thought of a lot of ways to celebrate 25 years, and we finally decided that people come for the shows, the music. We decided to put the celebration dollars into the shows, and this will be our biggest show yet."

More than 80,000 people are expected to attend over the four days of the event.

Here is a look at some of the artists in this year's lineup:

Thursday

Sara Evans: Evans is arguably the most popular female country singer today. She is just now returning to the business full time after the birth of her two children, son Avery, 5, and daughter Olivia, 2. She vaulted to stardom in 2000 with the release of her record, "Born to Fly," which produced the No. 1 singles "Born to Fly" and "I Could Not Ask for More." Recently, she has had hit singles with "Suds in the Bucket," "Backseat of a Greyhound Bus," and her current single, "A Real Fine Place to Start."

"We've tried to get her the last three or four years," Prenger says, "but because of being pregnant or her tour schedule, it just hasn't worked out."

Brad Paisley: With the exception of Keith Urban, there really is no better guitar player in the business. Paisley is the king of tongue-in-cheek lyrics, hitting it big with "Celebrity," "I'm Gonna Miss Her," and "Little Moments." However, his most successful single to date has been his somber duet with Alison Krauss, "Whiskey Lullaby." If there is a rising star in the industry, it's Paisley, who headlined his first arena tour this year with the help of Reba McEntire and Terri Clark. "We wanted to get some people who we think are on the verge of being a real big superstar. I think Brad Paisley is on the verge of doing some great things," Prenger says.

Friday

Tim McGraw: Without a doubt, Country Concert scored big by landing McGraw, who is coming off an incredible 2004, which included the release of his record, "Live Like You Were Dying." That record sold more than 700,000 copies the first week in stores, and the single was named the song of the year and won a Grammy.

It's the first time McGraw will be returning to Country Concert since 1998. He also performed in Fort Loramie in 1995 and 1996.

"I think artists remember that you gave them a chance to play when they weren't that big, especially country artists," Prenger says. "They're very thoughtful about that. If you get him, you're lucky, and we're lucky this year."

Saturday

Brooks & Dunn: Some people within the industry have only half-jokingly commented that the Country Music Association's Vocal Duo of the Year award should be named after Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks. Their winning streak was interrupted in 2000, when Montgomery Gentry won the honor. They since have started a new string of victories.

They will be McGraw's only rival when it comes to the number of buses and semis at Country Concert. For years, they have been known as two of the most entertaining people on stage. Their show comes complete with a giant video board, confetti cannons, and their trademark blowup cowgirl doll.

During their career, the duo has sold 27 million records and reached the top of the charts with 21 singles, including "Neon Moon," "Boot Scootin' Boogie," "My Maria," "Only in America," and "Red Dirt Road."

Sunday

Phil Vassar: Vassar is unique in the world of country music because his act centers around his piano. For years, he has been one of the top songwriters in Nashville, penning hit singles for Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Jo Dee Messina, and Collin Raye. But his own chance at fame arrived in 2000, when he released his self-titled debut album. His own collection of hits followed, including "Just Another Day in Paradise," "Carlene," "Six-Pack Summer," "American Child," and "In a Real Love."

Montgomery Gentry: "One fan last year told me that from the first song, they grab you and hold you there," Prenger says of Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry. "You're definitely not thinking about going to grab a hamburger when they are on stage."

The two have been hit-makers since releasing their first album in 1999. Last year, they had their first No. 1 song with "If You Ever Stop Loving Me," but they have been near the top with "My Town," "Gone," "Hell Yeah," "Speed," and "She Couldn't Change Me."

A country music fan hasn't lived until witnessing Eddie Montgomery twirling his microphone stand and Troy Gentry ducking to get out of the way. It's something worth seeing, and fortunately for country music fans in the region, Country Concert will afford them that chance.

For Country Concert 2005 schedule and ticket information, go to www.countryconcert.com. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 937-295-3000.

Contact Brian Dugger at: bdugger@theblade.com or 419-724-6183.



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