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Welcome to the Strawberry Festival, annual meeting place of the County Club

Every year, the Florida Strawberry Festival manages to put together a country music lineup that resembles a group shot at the Country Music Awards.

This year is no different. Getting Billy Ray Cyrus was considered a coup for the festival last year. This year he's back, closing out the festival on March 13. Cyrus is joined by superstars like Tanya Tucker, John Anderson, Barbara Mandrell, Ricky Van Shelton and Wynonna Judd, among others.

So what's the festival's secret? First of all, says Assistant General Manager Patsy Brooks, there's the location. Performers, she says, "love to come to Florida this time of year, especially after they've been touring up north around all the cold and snow." Then there's the festival's reputation in country circles, built through more than a half-century.

In addition to all this, festival organizers have just enjoyed good fortune.

Getting a high-profile artist often involves some educated guessing _ putting heads together and picking out artists that could be hot around festival time. That's a good way to save money, since a big hit or a Country Music Association Award will hike an artist's asking price substantially.

"Billy Ray Cyrus (last year) was a correct prediction," said Brooks. "We've been pretty lucky to have quite a few artists who have had big hits right during the time of the Festival. I also think it helps to have a committee that's really knowledgeable about country music and the music industry in general."

Otherwise, says Brooks, festival organizers look to tried and true winners.

"Some of them we had back," she said. "Like Wayne Newton; he was very popular with our tour groups two years ago. We tried to get him back last year, but there was a scheduling conflict. And Wynonna Judd did a super show for us last year."

The entertainment is set to run through March 13. General admission to the fair is $5. If you want to see a stadium concert, tickets are either $4 or $8, with Wynonna Judd and Billy Ray Cyrus sold out. There are still some $4 tickets left for Barbara Mandrell, and any unsold tickets will be available at the Fairgrounds Ticket Office. Also, there are 10,000 free seats available on a first-come, first-served basis for each show. Each main stadium artist will perform twice daily, at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, call 813-754-1996 or 754-2190.

Music Schedule (all shows in the Stadium).

Today:

4:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Doug Stone:

Stone, best known as a romantic balladeer, has rebounded strong after open heart surgery in 1992.

Saturday:

4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. John Anderson:

A Florida native, Anderson was hot in the early '80s, faded from the spotlight, but came back in a big way with 1992's Seminole Wind, one of the year's top country albums.

Sunday:

4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Wynonna Judd:

Judd, country's answer to Bonnie Raitt, is one of the genre's top performers, lacing her shows with a dash of rhythm and blues.

Monday and Tuesday:

4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Wayne Newton:

Newton, is synonymous with the Las Vegas circuit, but did you know he also plays a mean Orange Blossom Special on fiddle?

Wednesday:

4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tanya Tucker:

The former teen star (she recorded Delta Dawn at 13) continues to make hits, including It's A Little Too Late (To Do The Right Thing Now).

Thursday:

4:30 and 7:30 Barbara Mandrell:

The most famous member of one of country music's most famous clans, Mandrell is also one of its most honored artists, with a shelf load of CMA awards in her 29-year career (she was the first back-to-back winner of its Entertainer of the Year Award, in 1980-81).

March 11:

4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.: Ricky Van Shelton:

One of the original members of country's "neo-traditionalist" movement, Van Shelton rebounded from a mid-career bout with alcoholism a few years back.

March 12.

4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Grand Ole Opry Legends:

Connie Smith, Little Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Russell and Ronnie Prophet bring back the old memories.

March 13:

4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Billy Ray Cyrus:

Country's premiere pinup boy showed he was more than a one-hit, Achy Breaky wonder with a surprisingly strong album, It Won't Be the Last, last year.

Daily Entertainment:

Plant City's Southern Star Bluegrass Band will perform at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. daily in the Strawberry Tent. Dennis Lee will perform at 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m. daily in the tent near Gate 5. The Robinson Family will perform in the family's tent in the southeast corner of the Main Exhibit Building at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m and 3:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Mike Snider and his band will perform at 11:15 a.m., and 2 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in the gazebo on the South Side Patio. Susan McCann will be appearing in the Jeep/Eagle Entertainment Show tent at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 a.m. Thursday and 12:30 p.m. on March 12. She will also be appearing in the Stadium at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. today, Sunday through Wednesday, and March 11 and 13.

Limited Engagement Entertainment:

Sandy Powell will be in the tent near Gate 5 at 10:30 a.m., 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. through Tuesday. Claudia Nygaard will play in the tent near Gate 5 at 10:30 a.m., 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through March 13.

Jim Miller and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and Warren Bills and his Orchestra will be appearing from 10:30 a.m. till 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the stadium. Children's group The Reppies will be appearing at 11 a.m. and 1:30, 4:30 and 8 p.m. through Tuesday in the Tampa Electric tent.

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