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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2008

Phil Vassar, Kenny Chesney, and Taylor Swift are headliners at Country Concert '08

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Scheduled to appear at
Country Concert  08 are, from lower left: Trace Adkins, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, Kellie Pickler, and the group
Lady Antebellum. Scheduled to appear at Country Concert 08 are, from lower left: Trace Adkins, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, Kellie Pickler, and the group Lady Antebellum.
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Phil Vassar is traipsing around a home improvement store in Nashville, hunting for some new garden hoses, but more importantl, he s looking for his brother-in-law.

Where s my brother? He s the one that knows all about the yard stuff, so when I need something I bring him with me. Now, if we were buying a piano, I d be your man, he says, chuckling.

Music City s version of the piano man is a bundle of energy. You almost laugh, envisioning him as a wind-up toy as he bounds around the store, saying hello to a fan, shepherding his two young daughters, and talking on the phone. He brings the same energy to the stage jumping on top of, then off, his piano, exhorting the crowd to stand up and sing with him. He can t seem to slow down.

His mom, sister, and cousins are in town, meeting him after he returned from a four-day road trip.

My whole family is down here. It s been a blast, man.

Vassar seldom goes five minutes without mentioning his family, but his thoughts are rarely far from that next adrenaline rush that comes with a big performance, and he doesn t hide his enthusiasm for his gig scheduled for July 13 in Fort Loramie, Ohio.

I m pumped. It s going to be a fun, energetic crowd. It s going to be good. It s going to be good, man. I LOVE those types of concerts, he says.

He ll be the closing act for Country Concert 08, which kicks off Thursday night with a performance by Heidi Newfield, the former lead singer of Trick Pony.

Over a four-day period, as many as 80,000 people are expected to make their way to Hickory Hill Lakes campground.

This will be Vassar s third appearance in Fort Loramie. His high-energy show is a natural fit for Country Concert, an event that s gained a national reputation for good music and good times.

It was never the intention of Mike and Mary Jo Barhorst, the owners of the 500-acre campground, to turn the festival into such a major attraction.

It was just meant to be a little fun for the faithful campers who showed up each summer.

As Mike Barhorst said in 2005, Sooner or later campers get tired of watching ducks go by. They want entertainment.

In 1978, the Barhorsts rewarded a group of 100 campers by throwing a summer party that coincided with the couple s 20th wedding anniversary.

Campers sat on the hill and listened to local groups like Jim and Connie Prenger, who are now the promoters for the event. They liked what they heard, and the next year, more people showed up. The year after that, even more were there.

In 1981, Louise Mandrell, who was on television s most popular show Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, was hired. In the years that followed, the Judds, Boxcar

Willie, Little Jimmie Dickens, and Ronnie McDowell helped the event grow.

In the early years, the festival struggled to get on solid financial footing, but it turned the corner in 1990 when Garth Brooks, at the time a rising superstar, made his first and only appearance in Fort Loramie.

His performance put a stamp on what the festival eventually would become known for an event where high-energy acts strut their stuff for thousands of summer concertgoers looking to have a good time.

This year the event could set an attendance record because Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, and Trace Adkins three of the hottest acts in the entertainment world right now headline the festival.

As for Vassar, he s cut from the mold that the Barhorsts and Prengers are looking for entertainers who can get the sun-baked, fun-loving crowd moving and grooving.

He s all about making sure the fans have a good time.

For the Lynchburg, Va., native, the show comes when his career is on an upswing. His recent single, Love Is a Beautiful Thing, rose to No. 2 on the charts, his biggest hit since Last Day of My Life climbed to the top in 2006.

I ll tell you what, that song was sitting around for 15 years. I always thought it was a hit. We had 30 minutes left in a recording session, and I said, Hey, why don t we cut

Love Is a Beautiful Thing for giggles? Of course, then it becomes a big old hit.

He s doing a 180-turn for his next single, I Would. Rather than singing about love and the promise of a life together, I Would talks about the breakup of a relationship, something Vassar candidly admits is about the end of his marriage to Julie Wood. The couple divorced in 2007 after five years of marriage. You go through stuff in life.

You have to write about it. I m not going to write about stuff I don t know anything about. In a good way, you write about stuff and get it out of your system, he said. I wrote the song from my perspective and stuff going on with me, but it s also about regrets. Everyone has them.

But don t expect Vassar to wallow in self-pity. It s just not his style.

I m doing great. My kids [Presley, 4, and Haley, 9] are growing up. It s a wild and crazy time, but it s awesome. And I m just so busy. The shows are going great, and we re really hitting on all cylinders.

He s also pumped up about Baby Rocks, a track on his just-released album, Prayer of a Common Man. The cut has him doing some serious rocking. He s going to be trying it out for the fans in Fort Loramie.

I do that song and the people go nuts. They re going to love it, he said.

And, again, that s what Vassar is all about. Has it been mentioned that he s a little excited about Sunday?

Man, at a big old festival like this, you just come out swinging. You turn it up loud and have fun. It s going to be a blast. These kind of shows, you live for them.

Country Concert 08 runs from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 13, in Fort Loramie, Ohio. A variety of single and four-day ticket packages are available. For details, call 937-295-3000 or go to www.countryconcert.com.

Contact Brian Dugger at:bdugger@theblade.com.



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