Blake Shelton wasn't sure how he felt about playing the Florida Strawberry Festival. After all, this is a famously dry event, and the Dean Martin of country music, the final act on the final night of the 11-day shindig, isn't used to sober crowds.
"I don't see any guys with throw-up on their shirts like I normally do at my shows," the tall, scruffy singer deadpanned Sunday as he surveyed the sold-out throngs packing the Wish Farms Soundstage, a stadium that seats about 12,000.
In the end, though, the love between the rural fruit fiesta and one of music's biggest stars was mutual. In fact, thanks to Shelton and Hunter Hayes, a young hunk who played earlier in the day, the annual salute to strawberries set a new record: For the first time in its 78-year history, the fest had two sold-out concerts in just one day.
That juicy mark is a testament to the enduring popularity of the event; more than 525,000 visited last year, and although 2013's final tally isn't available yet, officials did boast of having two record-breaking weekends. But the sell-outs are also a nod to the fest's sly ability to draw top-notch talent to a humble patch of the Sunshine State that is not exactly a bustling metropolis (no offense!).
Combine that old-school charm with showbiz savvy, and the resultant mobs were so thick coming and going (oy, with Interstate 4), they almost derailed Shelton's plans, as well. "No wonder traffic sucked so bad getting here," he said. "I didn't even think I'd make it to my own show!"
No fear, Shelton's a pro. The Country Music Association's reigning entertainer of the year, the 36-year-old is involved in a hot TV show (The Voice) and a hotter marriage (with country spitfire Miranda Lambert, whose song Baggage Claim was his cheeky walk-on music). Being a boozehound is his schtick, but despite the fact that he couldn't lean on that here, he still proved a charming showman.
"After the last two nights I've had in Florida," he shrugged, "it's probably a good thing I don't drink."
Backed by a seven-piece band, the 6-foot-5 Oklahoma native played a relaxed 90-minute set made up mainly of his more recent hits (She Wouldn't Be Gone, Drink On It, Some Beach), although he did sneak in covers of George Strait (All My Exes Live in Texas) and Kenny Loggins (Footloose).
"I believe absolutely, 100 percent, no doubt about it that I am the most misunderstood person in country music," Shelton said. He was bragging about his belt-buckle bona fides, but he was also telling the truth. He's an oddball in a genre that adores cliche comforts, and he was a lot more believable singing songs such as the wordplayful Honey Bee and Ol' Red than the ugly Kiss My Country A-- which is way beneath his talents.
But hey, a minor quibble on a major night for the Florida Strawberry Festival. Right around Sure Be Cool If You Did, all yeehaw broke loose as the fest queen, her court and a few thousand buddies gang-rushed the stage. No hooch necessary to wild it up here — just the good, clean notion that on this night, lil' ol' Plant City was the place to be.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.