FORT LORAMIE, Ohio - Just like clockwork, Kevin O'Shea and his buddy, Kreg Dodge, came sprinting down the hill in Hickory Hill Lakes campground Thursday - the first official fans of Country Concert '06.
With a whoop, O'Shea of Toledo slammed down his lounge chair, staking his claim to the general admission seating in the spot behind a metal fence about a hundred feet from the center of the stage.
"Every year, baby. Every year," he shouted, the same thing he shouted last year as he and his buddies thundered to their spots.
It's called "The Run," and it's a tradition at the four-day Country Concert. Get in line early, and when the gates open, you get the chance for the best piece of territory.
For O'Shea, Dodge, and five other guys who came along with them, the price to be paid for good seats was showing up at the gate at 1 in the morning Thursday to be the first in line. For four years their strategy has worked, resulting in getting the same location each year.
"I love Country Concert. This is like my home away from home. It's like seeing my family down here every year," O'Shea said.
This year, they've added a little bit of ingenuity. Where they stand for the shows, they are in the front row behind a steel fence that they lean on. This year, they've brought rubber tubing to slap on the top of the fence for cushioning.
"We are so good at this," O'Shea gloats.
For 26 years, Country Concert has been a fixture in this small rural Shelby County town 115 miles south of Toledo and west of I-75. With it come the small tent cities erected by college-aged students and young adults in the Vera Street camping area along State Rt. 66 across from the main concert area. More than anything, though, the festival is about traditions: friends getting reacquainted every year, the bikinis, the beads, the sunburns, and the music.
Six hours before showtime Thursday, Eddie Montgomery of Montgomery Gentry was seated on a picnic table outside of his bus, eyeing the new stage that has been built this year. The previous stage's ceiling was 15 feet. This one is about 25 feet.
"It's going to be cool tonight. We have a brand new stage set, show. We're ready to rock," Montgomery said.
Behind him, his partner and close buddy, Troy Gentry, was lounging shirtless in an area that has a grill, beer, and a wading pool. On the fence nearby were two signs - one saying "Do Not Cross This Fence. Remember the Curse" with the words "Troy Gentry" with slashes through it. The other sign says, "This Means You Troy," with a figure on horseback with a slash through him.
Gentry caused a stir last year when he hopped on a horse after the show and after a couple of drinks, and the horse ended up falling on him, causing severe injuries to his knee.
Montgomery chuckled at the signs. He was sporting his own scar on his left wrist, a reminder of a spill he took off a stage last year that resulted in a broken wrist.
"We change things when we come to town," Montgomery said, grinning mischievously. "We've had quite a few venues change the rules. I'm not going to say we break the rules, but sometimes we bend them. ... We live every minute of life. That's the way we love it. We're going to have fun. That's what it's all about."
As he talked, Carrie Underwood popped out of a limo.
"Hey, what's up girl?" he shouted after her. She responded with an excited wave. It's been an incredible year for her. She's closing in on 4 million units sold of her debut album, "Some Hearts."
For the country music lover, this is the highlight of the year. The acts are diverse and usually some of the biggest names in the business. The first two days included Montgomery Gentry, Underwood, Keith Anderson, Phil Vassar, Dierks Bentley, and Alan Jackson. Today's lineup begins with Jeff Bates at noon, followed by Trick Pony, Tracy Lawrence, Joe Nichols, Larry the Cable Guy, and Martina McBride. Tomorrow, Jamie O'Neal is to take the stage at noon, followed by Blake Shelton, Rodney Atkins, Neal McCoy, and Lonestar. Individual tickets are available at the gate.
The man behind the scenes at Country Concert is Jim Prenger. He, his wife, Connie, and Mike and Mary Jo Barhorst, the owners of the campground, have been responsible for putting on the show for 26 years. Jim and Connie were part of the entertainment when the festival was first held as a reward for campers.
Now, Jim darts from place to place, a CB clipped to his shirt, putting out fires.
"I kind of consider this being in a fun tornado," he said with a smile.
As Prenger again jumped in his white SUV to answer a page, Tim Devor, his fiancee, Regina, and their 6-year-old daughter, Nicole, played a game of catch.
It's a strange sight as the family stakes out 20-square-yards of grass at the back of the concert area as a mass of bikini-clad young women and shirtless young men lug coolers of beer and flash beads and other things at one another a couple of hundred yards away.
"This is my fourteenth year. It's just a fun weekend. Everyone is having a good time. It's a great place to meet new friends," he says.
But would he venture closer to the stage, into the land of beads and crushed beer cans?
"I wouldn't pay for one of those seats up front," he says, laughingly adding, "I have to be a responsible parent."
Contact Brian Dugger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-4110.