By SUSAN THURSTON
Twenty-two shows in 11 days. It's no simple task unless, of course, you're Joe Newsome and his crew of concert planners.
Newsome is the guy in charge of finding the nation's top country music stars to perform at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
It's a job full of obstacles and expectations. Over the past two decades, the festival has earned the reputation of bringing the hottest, freshest talent to the rural Plant City stage.
As head of the festival's entertainment committee for 10 years, Newsome credits the committee's ir success to persistence and good luck.
"It's bigger than anyone realizes,'' he said. "We sit down at festival time and put together a big puzzle for the next year and hope the pieces come together. It's a year-round deal.''
Getting the big acts often takes patience. That was the case with Alan Jackson, who makes his Strawberry Festival debut Sunday after several attempts.
Jackson and country duo Sugarland lead the musical lineup for this year's festival, which runs through March 9. The timing couldn't be better. Jackson, who was the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year in 2003, releases his latest album, Good Time, on Tuesday. Sugarland, made up of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, was named CMA's duo of the year in 2007.
The festival caters daytime concerts toward seniors and families, and nighttime shows toward the younger crowd. Most shows are country.
This year's festival budgeted about $1.5-million for talent and another $400,000 for production-related costs, which organizers hope to recoup through ticket sales. Concert tickets cost $10 to $40, depending on the show, plus gate admission. Some bleacher seats are free.
Newsome, 66, remembers when spending $40,000 for Reba McEntire seemed a fortune. Today, paying up to $300,000 for one act isn't unusual.
Not every act is on the table, including kid sensation Miley Cyrus. Instead, they landed her dad, Billy Ray, a festival favorite.
Timing plays a huge factor in the bookings. A singer who's hot one year might not be the next, and it's up to festival officials to forecast which acts will draw the biggest crowds.
Newsome, with longtime festival general manager Patsy Brooks, used to travel to Nashville in search of talent, but now he keeps up through trade magazines and contacts. "The Strawberry Festival is known in Nashville,'' he said. "They know that we have a good facility and treat them right.''
The warm weather doesn't hurt, either, and is one of the reasons why many performers return.
Newsome's commitment to the festival and Plant City runs deeps. He ran a local drugstore and sat on the Hillsborough County School Board for many years. A new high school in FishHawk Ranch bears his name.
Newsome has been going to the festival his entire life.
"My daddy used to give me $5 and tell me I better not gamble and I better not go to the girlie shows,'' he said. "Well, we don't have gambling and we don't have girlie shows anymore.''
Years ago, he wanted three stars: Kenny Rogers, Wayne Newton and Dolly Parton. They've landed two.
Parton's still pending.
"When you get to Dolly stature, you can pick and choose,'' he said. "But we'll definitely try.''
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com.