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Booking popular country stars at Strawberry Festival involves more than just good timing

PLANT CITY

The first time a country star showed up at the converted high school football stadium, it was maybe sheer luck. The second and third times, maybe it was good timing.

But then country music icons continued to roll into Plant City to play at the celebration of the winter strawberry harvest. And that points to more than chance.

Year after year, the Florida Strawberry Festival draws top-tier country talents, like this year's March 13 sold-out headliner Lady Antebellum, still shining from last month's five-Grammy win.

The formula for success, according to festival general manager Paul Davis, is simply this: "You don't forget who brung you to the dance."

In its 76th year, the Strawberry Festival has long billed itself as family-friendly fun with a distinctly hometown feel.

The deciding factor in booking Lady Antebellum, Davis said, wasn't just the hit song Need You Now or the acclaim rained on the country trio.

The offer went out almost a year ago, Davis said, because Strawberry Festival crowds will "walk away feeling like they were in the room with a friend."

If that seems quaint, that's exactly what the festival is. "Nostalgic," as Davis described it, with "fresh" touches every year.

"The Strawberry Festival is still a slice of Americana," he said.

A touchstone of Plant City since 1930, except for a hiatus during World War II, the Strawberry Festival honors a way of life in east Hillsborough.

The 11 days of festivities include midway rides, concessions and livestock shows. And, of course, music.

Just count some of the country headliners that have chronicled the festival: Kenny Rogers, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, LeAnn Rimes, Taylor Swift.

The man behind the festival's booking prowess embodies the homegrown Plant City passion and fierce loyalty to community.

Former Hillsborough School Board member Joe Newsome, 69, has worked with the festival for 30 years. When he started on the entertainment committee, people would swing by his drugstore to drop off a tape.

I think this will be a hot star, they'd tell him.

With his wife, an avid Country Music Television watcher, Newsome traveled to Nashville and Las Vegas for country award shows to scout for the festival.

The festival also joined the Country Music Association, subscribed to Country Weekly Magazine — "that's kind of our Bible," he said — and chatted with talent agents and radio contacts.

The festival spends about $1.5 million on 22 headline acts at the Wish Farms Soundstage, Newsome said, and about $200,000 in production costs.

And sometimes the entertainment committee gets it wrong.

Take Miranda Lambert, who performed in 2008 — two years before the release of her chart- and award-dominating single, The House That Built Me.

Her show at the festival did okay, Newsome said, "but she's hot as a firecracker right now. I wish we had her booked this year."

Sometimes the festival hurts itself by booking acts two years in a row — although it often brings back classic acts like Kenny Rogers and the Judds.

With this year's concerts already in full swing, the entertainment committee will meet during the festival to chat about next year's options.

On the short list, Newsome said, could be artists such as Jamey Johnson, who canceled his appearance this year, the Zac Brown Band or Jason Aldean.

Newsome said he'll keep tabs on rising country artist Easton Corbin, who opens for Lady Antebellum next week. "He's gonna be a superstar if he does it right."

Another possible up-and-comer: Suite Caroline, also known as Caroline Kudelko, 13, who takes the main stage Saturday afternoon.

The Clearwater songwriter grew up going to the Strawberry Festival to feed her hunger for country music and strawberry shortcake. She knows the legends who stood there before her.

The awesomeness of it has not been lost on her.

To be asked to play the festival "meant the world to me," Suite Caroline said. "It's a great stage, and I'm honored."

And when she's as old as Kenny Rogers, who is 72, she says, she hopes she'll be invited again — "performing on that stage and having a good ol' time."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Festival schedule

The 8,500 seats in folding chairs and bleachers have sold out for the Florida Strawberry Festival's Mach 13 headliner Lady Antebellum, so show up early to snag one of about 3,000 free-with-admission spots in the grandstands.

When: The Strawberry Festival runs through March 13 with two or three main stage concerts each day.

Cost: Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12.

Where: 303 N Lemon St., Plant City. For information: flstrawberryfestival.com.

Friday: .38 Special (7:30 p.m. $20-25), John Conlee (3:30 p.m. $10-15).

Saturday: Gaither Vocal Band (7:30 p.m. $20-25), Jeremy Camp (3:30 p.m. $20-25), Suite Caroline (1 p.m. free).

Sunday: The Judds (7:30 p.m. $45), Trace Adkins (3:30 p.m. $25-30).

Monday: Clint Black (7:30 p.m. $20-25), Charlie Pride (3:30 p.m. $15-20).

Tuesday: Chris Young (7:30 p.m., $20-25), Chubby Checker (3:30 p.m., $15-20).

Wednesday: Rick Springfield (7:30 p.m. $20-25), Tanya Tucker (3:30 p.m. $15-20).

Thursday: Doobie Brothers (7:30 p.m. $25-30), George Jones (3:30 p.m. $15-20), Guy Lombardo Band (10:30 a.m. free).

March 11: Josh Thompson/Justin Moore (7:30 p.m. $15-20), Ray Price (3:30 p.m. $10-15).

March 12: Billy Ray Cyrus (7:30 p.m. $20-25), Allstar Weekend & Jennette McCurdy (3:30 p.m. $10-15).

March 13: Lady Antebellum (7:30 p.m. $45 sold out), Easton Corbin (3:30 p.m. $15-20).

Booking popular country stars at Strawberry Festival involves more than just good timing 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 11:50pm]
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