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 protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.