TAMPA — Amid the giant Candy Land game, the clowns and trapeze artists, the bears and sea lions, eight country singers known as the Country Gold tour will take to the stage at the Florida State Fair.
This year's concert event, always a big hit, features Leroy Van Dyke, Johnny Lee, David Frizzell and Barbara Fairchild on Feb. 14, and Van Dyke, Steve and Rudy Gatlin, Marty Haggard and Bobby Bare on Feb. 15.
"I think its popularity is due to something very simple — the traditional country music," said Haggard, son of the late country legend Merle Haggard. "It's different than the modern brand and there is a large base who is narrow in their likes of music and the traditional, like my dad's and what I do. There's nothing like it anymore. Modern entertainment music in general, every brand in the modern age as opposed to the old days — it's about what you see more than what you hear."
Lee also attributes the old-school country feel to the popularity of the tour: "It's classic country music. It's all about the music."
Haggard was raised around traditional country music, traveling everywhere with his famous father for fifteen years. Merle Haggard died in April.
Marty Haggard has been on the road with his own music since 1979.
"I have brothers and sisters who didn't follow the music route, but it was something I was born for a love for, just like dad. I didn't follow in his footsteps with my dad in mind. I was just loving on music like he did."
Lee's passion also developed early.
"The first moment I knew I loved music was when I first started hearing it as a baby," Lee said. "I didn't get into music, the music got into me.
Thirty-five years later, he became the vocals behind the No. 1 crossover hit, Lookin' For Love, part of the soundtrack for the film Urban Cowboy in which Lee appeared as himself alongside John Travolta.
"Not only am I going to sing it at the fair, I'm still lookin'," Lee said.
Still Lookin' For Love is actually the name of Lee's new autobiography, to be released Feb. 14 — the day he performs at the Florida State Fair.
In addition to singing "all the hits I've got time to sing," Lee will also perform music from his latest album, You Ain't Never Been to Texas.
For Haggard's performance, fans can expect plenty of songs and plenty of stories.
"It's country and corn bread. If they like my dad's brand of country, they'll like what I do, I believe," Haggard said.
"One fine difference is that I talk a little more than he did. Dad wasn't much of a talker. I talk more in my programs and tell stories about songs here and there. I believe what I do on stage is intimate, like sitting down in a living room somewhere, eye to eye. There's no separation between the audience and me by the time I'm done."
Merle Haggard notched 38 No. 1 hits on Billboard's Hot Country chart, inspired in part by a troubled youth that included time in San Quentin prison. The son shares a musical genre with the father, but his style is all his own.
"Naturally, I am definitely my mother's son, so just because of that difference right there. Plus, it'd be silly to be just like my dad since there's already one of him. My dad always said, 'Try to be yourself,' and that's what I do. George Strait got into music because of my dad but you can't tell in his music."
The time he spent growing up and living in a music-centric world molded Haggard into the musician he is today, one who appreciates playing for fans and sharing the stage with fellow artists.
That doesn't mean he necessarily embraces the industry.
"I don't like the music business. It's phony. But I like where I am. I am in a perfect world. No one knows me when they see me on the street but I make a decent living."
On Feb. 15, there won't be any doubt who Haggard is as he stands on stage, performing with country legends like Lee and Van Dyke.
Embarking on a tour like this is nothing new for Haggard or Lee, who have both enjoyed lasting careers.
"I always take time for my fans, plus all the top 10's I've had, and just being a people person has got me this far," Lee said. "I'll do it till I die, ya know."
Contact Arielle Waldman at [email protected]