The Florida Strawberry Festival has a special place in the hearts of the Band Perry. It's where singer Kimberly Perry met her future husband, major league catcher J.P. Arencibia.
"He was in spring training," said bassist Reid Perry, Kimberly's brother. "He knew a couple of guys at the radio station there in Tampa, and they actually brought him to a meet-and-greet. None of us knew exactly why he was there, other than he was a baseball player and he knew the radio guys. But a couple of months later, it came out that he was there to meet Kimberly."
As festival tales go, that one's hard to top. No wonder it happened at the down-home, low-key Strawberry Festival, which kicks off its 81st year of shortcake and country music Thursday.
But after decades at the top of Florida's country-music food chain, the Strawberry Festival has started seeing increased competition to keep booking top artists like the Band Perry. A slew of splashy new festivals have popped up around the Sunshine State, packing dozens of A-list acts into a single weekend.
This month, the Runaway Country Festival brings stars like Kenny Chesney and Eric Church to Kissimmee. In April, the Tortuga Music Festival returns to Fort Lauderdale with Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton. And in May, the inaugural Country 500, with Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, hits Daytona International Speedway.
These festivals have "drastically" affected how the Strawberry Festival books its lineup, said general manager Paul Davis.
"There's so much competition for the popular acts," Davis said.
The biggest roadblock is each festival's "radius clause," which precludes artists from booking a second show within a geographic radius in a set window of time. Most concerts and festivals have them, including the Strawberry Festival. But the competition for top talent — and pressure to survive in an increasingly crowded festival marketplace — has prompted some events to expand their event's radius clause and enforce it more strictly.
"Generally speaking, if I've booked an act and then there was a show about 60 miles away that wanted to book him and advertise, I would say, 'Go ahead and book 'em, let 'em play,' " Davis said. "But when I call, they don't let me. They make me stick to the boundaries, a lot of these places. And that's the nature of the beast."
Davis started feeling the heat from these new festivals a few years ago. The Runaway Country festival launched in 2011. Tortuga launched in 2013, as did the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach. In 2014, the Country 500 launched as the Florida Country Superfest in Jacksonville. Yet another new festival, the Panama City Beach Spring Jam, takes flight in April.
The country-festival industry has grown so rapidly that it has seen a few casualties. Last week, Alabama's Dega Jam, with Eric Church and Toby Keith, was canceled without explanation. Two second-year events, New York's FarmBorough Festival and Delaware's Big Barrel Country Music Festival, also went on hiatus.
The Strawberry Festival is in no such danger, in part because it offers so much more than just concerts. A majority of attendees, Davis said, come to Plant City for the food, rides, displays, agriculture and camaraderie.
"It takes a particular type of person that wants to go to the Daytona event," he said of the Country 500. "It's almost like a three-day vacation. Ours can be a Saturday afternoon with your family."
Musically, the Strawberry Festival has carved out a niche, emphasizing more nostalgic acts, as well as rock, pop and Christian artists — a third of this year's lineup doesn't play country at all. And on the country side, artists like Martina McBride and Cole Swindell are playing Plant City exclusively.
"The business has changed, and I know we've had to change a little bit," Davis said. "But it still seems to be working good, as long as we can stay diverse and get entertainment for everybody."
The Band Perry is exactly the sort of band that can crush a festival gig — young, high-energy and capable of playing to almost any crowd. Festivals, said Reid Perry, are always where they play to the most people, and see the most potential to win over new fans.
And, he added, country festivals are just plain fun. There's a reason the tailgate scene at a major country concert is so bustling, with clusters of friends listening to music, playing cornhole and sipping beer.
"The genre lends itself to that environment," he said. "It's very much a summer genre, if you will. It's very much a feel-good genre, and a 'together' genre as well. All that together combines for bringing around the right fans and the right artists.
"It's a good formula that obviously someone figured out," he added. "I kind of wish I had."
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.
A little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll
It's hard to imagine a more perfect act for the Florida Strawberry Festival than Donny and Marie Osmond. The squeaky-clean sibs are the highest-priced act at this year's festival, with reserved seats at $55, but they'll still put plenty of granny fannies in the seats at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. And their "little bit country, little bit rock 'n' roll" philosophy sounds a lot like the fest itself these days. Since booking Taylor Swift in 2009, the fest has branched out to include more rock, pop and Christian acts every year. Here are some highlights from both sides of the aisle.
Martina McBride (7:30 p.m. Wednesday, $20-$25): The four-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year was one of country-pop's brightest stars in the late '90s and early 2000s, and she's aiming to recapture some of that magic on new single Reckless. Classics like Independence Day and This One's for the Girls should still sound just as good.
Cole Swindell (7:30 p.m. March 11, $35-$40): After touring with Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean the past two years, the Georgia hitmaker behind Chillin' It and Ain't Worth the Whiskey might just premiere a song or two from his sophomore album, You Should Be Here, due in May.
Merle Haggard (3:30 p.m. March 12, $35): The outlaw country icon had to cancel a few dates recently due to a bout with pneumonia, but he has since returned to the stage. But at a hard-lived 78, his most dogged touring days may soon draw to a close. Now's the time, as Eric Church once sang, to pledge allegiance to the Hag.
UPDATE: Merle Haggard has had to drop out due to more health troubles. Kris Kristofferson will replace him at the same time for the same ticket price. Tickets already bought to see Haggard will be honored for Kristofferson.
The Band Perry (7:30 p.m. March 13, $40): Technically, they're a country act, but maybe not for long. The telegenic trio has been pushing bright new single Live Forever to pop and adult alternative radio, and forthcoming album Heart + Beat will feature production from Pharrell Williams and Diplo, among others.
ROCK, POP AND GOSPEL
Lecrae (3:30 p.m. Saturday, $25): The rapper was already one of the biggest stars in contemporary Christian music, and then his 2014 album Anomaly landed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — a huge accomplishment for any artist, let alone one from such a niche genre. At 36, he's now one of gospel's most dynamic stars.
Cheap Trick (7:30 p.m. Saturday, $20-$25): About a month after they play the Strawberry Festival, the proud sons of Rockford, Ill., will enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Wish them well as they rocket through hits like Surrender and Dream Police, and possibly unveil songs from their forthcoming album Bang, Zoom, Crazy … Hello.
Charlie Wilson (7:30 p.m. March 12, $35-$40): An ageless 63, the former Gap Band singer is coming off two Grammy nominations for his album Uncle Charlie, but in Plant City, he'll also drop funk, soul and gospel bombs from across his more than 40-year career.
Echosmith (3:30 p.m. March 13, $20-$25): It's not often that a veteran of multiple Warped Tours plays the Strawberry Festival, but the siblings of young indie-pop quartet Echosmith have such sweet crossover appeal, thanks to endearing hits Bright and Cool Kids, which singer Sydney Sierota performed twice on Taylor Swift's 2015 tour.
Florida Strawberry Festival concerts
Concert admission is on top of gate prices for the festival itself, but about 3,000 seats for each show are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. Here's the full lineup.
Today: Josh Turner (7:30 p.m., tickets are $20-$25), Charley Pride (3:30, $15-$20) and Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra (10:30 a.m., free)
Friday: Big & Rich (7:30, $25-$30) and Mickey Gilley (3:30, $15-$20)
Saturday: Cheap Trick (7:30, $20-$25) and Lecrae (3:30, $25)
Sunday: Donny and Marie Osmond (7:30, $55) and Shenandoah (3:30, $15-$20)
Monday: Lonestar (7:30, $15-$20) and Gene Watson (3:30, $15-$20)
Tuesday: Trace Adkins (7:30, $20-$25) and Dick Fox's Golden Boys starring
Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobbie Rydell (3:30, $20-$25)
Wednesday: Martina McBride (7:30, $20-$25) and Ray Stevens (3:30, $15-$20)
March 10: Casting Crowns (7:30, $20-$25), Oak Ridge Boys (3:30, $15-$20)
and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (10:30 a.m., free)
March 11: Cole Swindell (7:30, $35-$40) and Tanya Tucker (3:30, $15-$20)
March 12: Charlie Wilson (7:30, $35-$40) and Kris Kristofferson (3:30, $35)
March 13: The Band Perry (7:30, $40) and Echosmith (3:30, $20-$25)
florida's Festival lineup
The Florida Strawberry Festival is the grand old dame of country music events in Florida, but its hegemony has been challenged by a handful of newer festivals. Here's a look.
When: March 18-20
Headliners: Kenny Chesney, Eric Church and Jake Owen
Beach Spring Jam
When: April 7-9
Where: Panama City Beach
Headliners: Chris Young, Thomas Rhett and Rascal Flatts
When: April 15-17
Where: Fort Lauderdale
Headliners: Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley and Sam Hunt
When: April 27-30
Where: Live Oak
Headliners: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Big & Rich and Chase Rice
When: May 27-29
Where: Daytona Beach
Founded: Launched as the Florida Country Superfest in Jacksonville in 2014, it moves to Daytona International Speedway this year.
Headliners: Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Kid Rock and Lady Antebellum
Gulf Coast Jam
When: Sept. 2-4
Where: Panama City Beach
Headliners: Eric Church, Brad Paisley, Jake Owen