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Love of country music keeps luring English couple to Strawberry Festival

Drawn by big-name country music performers, Sue and Phil Poulson figure they have made 15 trips from Morecambe, England, to the Florida Strawberry Festival.

AUSTIN ANTHONY | Times

Drawn by big-name country music performers, Sue and Phil Poulson figure they have made 15 trips from Morecambe, England, to the Florida Strawberry Festival.

PLANT CITY

They've rubbed elbows with the well-to-do in oil-rich Dubai and played the slots in Las Vegas. They've trekked through Malaysia, Thailand, Egypt and Australia, sometimes staying with friends from their travels.

Just about every year, Sue and Phil Poulson, who live in Morecambe, England, a wind-swept town of 39,000 on the northwest coast, pack their bags for an exotic holiday.

None of those destinations, however, rivals the Florida Strawberry Festival for frequency of visits. The annual gala is a regular stop for the Poulsons, who figure they've attended 15 times since the mid 1990s, including each of the last seven.

"There's nothing like it back home," Phil Poulson, 67, says.

The couple, it turns out, are avid country music fans.

Like pilgrims, they're coaxed across the Atlantic each winter to catch the festival's numerous musical acts, in particular the country and bluegrass headliners who perform on the main stage and show up only occasionally on the telly back home.

Even universally known acts rarely stray across the Atlantic in person, Poulson explained, so they go to them, slogging a staggering 4,300 miles and 11 hours each way.

While here, they watch pig races, indulge in festival fare, from strawberry shortcake to elephant ears and lemonade, and catch the dairy and swine shows at the Madonia Agricultural Center.

They mingle, watch other musical acts on the festival grounds and comb through the expo center's odd assortment of merchandise — hot tubs, T-shirts, canine-themed mugs, magnets and picture frames.

"She likes the elephant ears. I like the corndogs," says Phil Poulson, adding, "One of the reasons we go is just to meet people. Everyone is so nice. We think it's brilliant."

They are also favorites of festival staffers, who regard them simply as Phil and Sue.

"Even though they're from another country they're just so down to earth and fit right in," special events coordinator Sunny Smith said. "They've met all of my family, my husband and three kids and granddaughter."

It's not unusual for throngs of county music fans from across the South, even the Midwest and Northeast, to travel to the 11-day festival, board of directors chairman Ron Gainey said.

Known nationally, the festival regularly draws 10 percent of its 525,000 visitors from out-of-state. Most of the remaining 90 percent originates from within 100 miles of Plant City, he said. Given the crowd's size, it's not a stretch to assume some Canadians and Europeans occasionally pass through the turnstiles.

"My wife and I were in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1984 and we met some folks at a watch factory and they had heard of the Strawberry Festival," Gainey said.

Still, the Poulsons remain an anomaly given their number of festival visits.

They say they enjoy taking a respite from the frigid English winters. They don't catch every act at the festival, but pick and choose. For this festival, they're most looking forward to Blake Shelton tonight.

On Tuesday, they huddled at the back of the Sweetbay tent to watch country musician Jay Taylor and his band before catching Martina McBride later that night.

"So rock me mama like a wagon wheel," Taylor sang, performing the Old Crow Medicine Show hit Wagon Wheel.

"Rock me mama anyway you feel. Hey mama rock me."

Tapping to the beat, the Poulsons resembled the rest of the 60ish crowd filling the tent. Sue, 64, wore a yellow cotton blouse and sunglasses. Phil, more in tune with the event, was clad in a long-sleeved striped shirt, a gray T-shirt emblazoned with "Florida Gators" and a ballcap with "USA" embroidered across the front.

"We don't go on the rides, not at our age," he said. "We look at the stalls and the side shows. I like the music. The major stars we can't see in England, over in America they're quite accessible."

A mutual love of music runs through their lives.

The Poulsons grew up in Manchester, about 180 miles northwest of London. Phil was at a club playing guitar in a rock and roll band, the Cymerons, when he ran into Sue — almost literally.

"I was walking up the stairs and she was walking down."

He looked up and thought, "Wow," he said.

They married two years later and a year after that moved to Morecambe, a seaside resort, where Phil found work as an engineer for United Kingdom energy supplier British Gas.

The Poulsons raised a son and a daughter there. Both adults now, they never quite grasped their parents' passion for country music.

"They understand we like country music, but I wouldn't say they appreciate it in the same way," Poulson said, laughing. "They like the heavy metal stuff. They understand we have our own tastes."

Their affair with country music started in the mid 1990s when they caught a country line-dancing show. Later, a couple suggested they join them on a trip to the Strawberry Festival. That was in 1997. They've been hooked ever since.

"We just like to have a wander round," Sue Poulson said of the festival. "Everyone is so friendly here. We like to look at the little stalls, the craftsmen. It's like a state fair really. And there's the music. There's nothing like that in England."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

Love of country music keeps luring English couple to Strawberry Festival 03/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 3:25pm]

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