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Published: Sunday, 7/2/2006

Stars come out at Country Concert 06

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Keith Anderson Keith Anderson
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Carrie Underwood is in Idaho, somewhere near Boise, I think, she says, not sounding too sure of herself.

Keith Anderson is in Manhattan, Kan., out here in the middle of nowhere, he says with a laugh.

They are two of country music s hottest new stars. Underwood has sold close to 4 million copies of her debut album, Some Hearts. Anderson has sold about 500,000 copies of his debut album, Three Chord Country and American Rock & Roll. Later this week, they will take the stage at Country Concert in Fort Loramie, Ohio, two of 22 acts scheduled for the festival. Underwood will perform Thursday night, just ahead of Montgomery Gentry. Anderson will be on stage Friday, opening for Phil Vassar, Dierks Bentley, and Alan Jackson.

Since its inception in 1981, Country Concert has been a place for fans to see established stars, but also a place to see up-and-coming artists. Garth Brooks put on a show in 1990, just before he reached mega-stardom.

He stayed in the VIP area backstage and took a picture with every single person that wanted one, Jim Prenger, Country Concert s promoter, says. I remember his manager saying he was going to be as big as Elvis. I know there are people now digging up those pictures in their attics.

LeAnn Rimes was booked in 1997, the same year she won a Grammy for Best New Artist and became a country superstar. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill made stops in 1996 and 1998.

We like to think they met here, Prenger chuckles. There were definitely sparks going on between them backstage before they were officially dating.

Toby Keith was here back in 1994. Kenny Chesney has been in Fort Loramie four times, the first in 1998. And the list goes on and on.

We try to pick people that we expect to be stars. Each year we ll talk to the labels and booking agents and try to find out who has the potential to be superstars, Prenger says.

Dierks Bentley Dierks Bentley
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Since she won last season s American Idol, Underwood has been riding high atop the country charts. When Some Hearts was released, she sold 314,549 copies the first week. Her single, Jesus, Take the Wheel, won the Academy of Country Music s Single of the Year in May.

When you re recording, you re hoping for the best, she says. But you have in the back of your mind that maybe people won t buy the record or they re not going to come out and see you. But it s been wonderful gratification that they like what I m doing.

One of the more refreshing moments in recent country music history came May 23, when she not only won Single of the Year at the ACMs, but also New Female Vocalist. She was positively giddy and near tears as she accepted the awards.

That was such an amazing night for me. You know, people in the industry voted, and it was great to see that people are liking what I m doing.

Her life s been a whirlwind of activity during the past year. She s sung at arenas and stadiums, and she s been on the road opening for Kenny Chesney, but she s looking forward to playing in Fort Loramie.

I just really like the outdoor festivals. You know that the people are just there to have a good time. And you actually get to see them in front of you. In an arena, you can t really see past the front row, she says. I m going to play songs from the album and maybe some covers. I like to get people up on their feet, but there will also be points where they can just sit back and listen.

For Anderson, there was no overnight success it s been a lot of hard work. He s one of the more interesting guys in country music, and probably one of the smartest. He graduated first in his class at Oklahoma State University with a 3.9 GPA in engineering. He was later accepted to the physical therapy program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. His brother, Brian, built a computer control system for NASA s Mission Control in Houston. There were lots of things Keith could have done, but music was No. 1 on his list, so he showed up in Nashville in 1998 with $2,000 and no idea what to do next.

He made some connections and started writing with songwriters in town and pitching songs to publishing houses around town. The first song that was recorded was a Garth Brooks, George Jones duet Beer Run.

It was amazing. The first song I ever recorded had Garth Brooks and George Jones singing it. I almost retired. I d peaked, he jokingly says. Suddenly every publisher in town wanted to sign me to a deal. All those songs they didn t like before, they suddenly liked.

His songwriting has been a stepping stone for his success. By the time he signed his deal with Arista, he had already been hanging out with the best writers in town.

Usually you get a record deal, the label will set you up with some writers, he says. Well, these guys had been my buddies for a long time. Jeffrey Steele approached me to write on the album. John Rich approached me.

The result has been one of the deepest debut albums in a while. Each track was written by Anderson with the help from some of his friends. Pickin Wildflowers shot him into the spotlight, but he continues to build on that early success. His current single, Every Time I Hear Your Name, has a legitimate chance of being his first No. 1 single by the time he arrives in Fort Loramie. It was No. 6 on last week s Radio and Records chart.

Oh yeah, that was [autobiographical]. I was dating this girl in Dallas who wanted to go out West and be a big star. I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to make it work long distance, she didn t, and she got her way, he says, joking that I guess if you have to get your heart broke, you might as well make money doing it.

Anderson gets to enjoy the fruits of his writing and the adrenaline pump of being on stage.

If you are writing and nail an idea, it s so gratifying. It s like taking an SAT test. You re in that room fighting through a melody and lyrics. And it s an amazing feeling when you write something that you know is going to touch people emotionally, he says. But there s nothing like being on stage and perform those songs you ve written and have people singing it back at you.

With more than 25 years of history behind Country Concert, the event has been the platform for a lot of memorable performances. This year is likely to add to those memories because organizers have built a new stage, complete with a new sound system and two large screens, that will allow for more freedom for the artists and better special effects.

The artists have been suggesting for a number of years that Country Concert needed a bigger stage, Prenger says, explaining that artists often have been limited in what they could use on stage. In Toby Keith s show, his drummer usually sits 20 feet above the stage; our ceiling was 18 feet.

The new ceiling on this stage will be 45 feet. The peak will be 62 feet, as opposed to 45 feet on the stage built in 1983. There will also be about 40 feet in additional length.

You re going to see more spectacular shows, Prenger promises.

Those who have made a trip to Country Concert know that Anderson s description of his show pretty much sums up the atmosphere of the festival.

It s a party on stage. We get the crowd involved. There s a lot of singing and dancing going on in the crowd, he says. It s just a party, beer drinking, and being there with your girl.

Country Concert 06 is a four-day festival that begins Thursday in Fort Loramie, Ohio. Single-day tickets or four-day packages can be purchased online at www.countryconcert.com or by phone at 937-295-3000. For additional information and a complete lineup of artists, go to the Web site.

Contact Brian Dugger at: bdugger@theblade.com or 419-724-4110.



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