Kari & Billy have played colleges, casinos and bars, but nothing beats the crowds at a big festival.
When the country duo of Kari Nelson-Arnold and Billy Arnold take the stage in the Borden Dairy Strawberry Tent at the Florida Strawberry Festival at 6 p.m. today and Saturday, they want their audiences to feel like they're longtime friends.
"They can feel like we're all just sitting around a campfire somewhere," Billy said. "That's the kind of shows we like to do."
They've both been to the festival before, Kari as a performer and Billy as a festivalgoer.
Billy, 36, was born in Tampa and lived in Plant City until the age of 10. He recalls going to the festival with his brother and cousins to see musicians like Conway Twitty.
"We thought we were super cool walking around there. We would get our wristbands," he said. "We loved it."
Kari, 25, grew up in Roseau, Minn., and moved to Nashville in 2006. She played at the Strawberry Festival in 2007 and 2008 as part of the Dennis Lee Show.
They both enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere of festivals and fairs. "Of all the places I've played it's definitely the most conducive environment to playing music," Kari said.
Billy moved to Nashville in 1999. The two met when they were both working as musicians, about six years ago. They hit it off right away, and Billy hired Kari to play fiddle for him in some shows. They became good friends, and though they both traveled a lot and didn't see each other often, they kept in touch.
"There was a real good chemistry. We're both Christians, neither one of us ever drank or smoked, so we generally stand out in a crowd," Billy said. "It was really refreshing to find somebody who didn't think I was a weirdo."
Billy kept his feelings for Kari to himself for a while. She was always kind to him, and they got on well, but "I figured it was obvious that she was out of my league," he said.
He finally came clean about his feelings during a phone conversation. They talked for eight hours, dated for two years, and were married in Kari's childhood church in Minnesota in January. The wedding was filled with music. They both sang during the ceremony. The first band Kari played with in high school played at the reception.
They wrote their first album, Whole Lotta Love, in 2010. Billy wrote the lyrics and Kari wrote the musical hooks. They produced the album themselves.
Writing and playing music with her husband is a source of inspiration, Kari said.
"We've both put a lot of miles on. When we used to travel in the past, it was hard to be out there and not really have anybody to share it with," she said.
They try to keep their relationship off the stage, and focus instead on the crowd, but the audience sees it anyway.
"They always feel like it's a really sweet and genuine thing," Billy said. "We always felt like we kept our romance off the stage but people see through it."
Kari started playing the violin at the age of 7. Billy had grown up listening to country music, but it wasn't until he was about 22 that a friend overheard him singing in the shower and encouraged him to try it for an audience.
"I thought he was just teasing me, because I thought I sounded really awful," he said. But he started entering some karaoke contests and eventually started playing professionally. For a long time, he thought of it just like any other job.
But writing and playing his own music, first as a solo artist and now with Kari, has convinced him that music can mean something.
"Music does mean a lot to people," he said. "A lot of times you never even knew you made a difference to someone, until years later somebody points out a moment in your show that was a turning point for them."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected]