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When Kenny Chesney last walked across the stage at Country Concert in Fort Loramie, Ohio, it was 2003. He had just released "Big Star," was selling out arena dates, and was still looking for that Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Award he had always coveted.
When he takes the stage Friday night, he will be a three-time CMA Entertainer of the Year and a country superstar who sells out football stadiums. When it comes to entertaining, he knows how to entertain.
"He's bringing a 45-foot hanging screen. We actually had to add more steel to accommodate it," promoter Jim Prenger said. "He's coming with 12 buses, 10 semis. It's going to be one heck of a show."
Country Concert always puts together one of the best lineups of any of the nation's summer music festivals, but this year could be the best list of entertainers in festival history, and it all starts with Chesney.
"We've been trying to get him back for a couple years," Prenger said. "He said he'd like to try a couple festivals this year. I think he understands he has to keep his audience broad. You look at Jimmy Buffet. He probably hasn't had a hit in 20 years, but he has huge crowds at festivals. I think Kenny wants to be able to do the same thing."
Besides Chesney, organizers hit the jackpot with Taylor Swift. She'll be playing Sunday afternoon, a date that usually lags in ticket sales because the crowds have worn themselves out from three days and nights of partying. However, Swift's appearance on the lineup has energized ticket sales. Her popularity has skyrocketed during the past year, fueled by her incredibly savvy use of the Internet. Recently, she passed the 50 million mark as far as streams of her music on her MySpace page. Her self-titled debut album has spent more than 20 weeks atop Billboard's Country Albums chart, with sales of more than 3 million copies.
Prenger himself started out as a country music act with his wife, Connie, and he's a big fan of the music. He's excited about Saturday's scheduled performers.
"It's such a broad lineup. You've got Billy Ray Cyrus, the Beach Boys, Kellie Pickler, Rodney Atkins, Josh Turner, and we're closing with Trace Adkins. Trace is bringing a 39-foot screen. I wouldn't want to miss any of those shows," Prenger said.
Longtime Country Concert-goers will enjoy Thursday night, when fan favorite Neal McCoy returns. Some of the event's more memorable moments have included shows by McCoy, who makes a habit of climbing the highest thing he can find.
"He's pretty much our house band," Prenger joked. "He's going to have to fire himself out of a cannon to outdo himself this year."
Last year, DirectTV filmed the festival, and it ended up being the highest-rated event ever broadcast on Channel 101, so the company is coming back this year with twice the lighting and equipment.
Fans who have been to Country Concert before know that there is a lot of partying going on, but they also know that safety is a top concern for organizers. Police have a visible presence, and this year, there have been a couple of safety improvements, the biggest being a tunnel that now goes under State Rt. 66 to allow campers to cross into the campground area without impeding traffic. In addition, there will now be overnight parking for $10, with proceeds going to local charities.
For a list of entertainers, plus ticket information, go to www.country concert.com.