When the Florida Strawberry Festival returns to Plant City this weekend, fans will face some tough choices. Cake or biscuit? Racing pigs or flying Frisbee dogs? Should you gorge on Amish doughnuts before you ride the Wacky Worm, or after? (Okay, that one’s not so tough.)
But as always, the hardest decision is: Which concert should I check out?
Once again, the Strawberry Festival has packed two dozen top-notch concerts into its 10-day schedule, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Rascal Flatts to Reba McEntire. It’s a strawberry smorgasbord, one that always forces tough choices about when to brave traffic and go.
We’re here to help. Like judging a shortcake-eating contest, or winning a deep-fried-strawberry-pie-on-a-stick relay, ranking the Strawberry Festival’s concerts top to bottom is no easy task. But in the name of all things berrylicious, we consider it our duty.
Grab a plastic spoon and let’s dig in.
24. Battle of the Bands final (3:30 p.m. March 7, free): No doubt, this local band battle will produce some solid jams. But it brings zero star power, and the festival knows it: It’s the only afternoon show with no cover charge.
23. Darci Lynne and Friends (7:30 p.m. March 6, $25): This is not a shot at Darci Lynne, the teenage ventriloquist who became wildly popular on America’s Got Talent. She’s really charming and funny. It’s more a statement about standup at the Strawberry Festival. Comedy generally works better in theaters than outdoor festivals, and talented artists like Darci Lynne deserve the best venues they can get.
22. Jimmy Fortune and Dailey and Vincent (3:30 p.m. March 6, $20): The Strawberry Festival always books solid veteran acts, and with Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary winning raves last fall, this would have been a good year to lean into country traditionalism. But a former member of the Statler Brothers and a 21st century bluegrass outfit feels like a letdown.
21. Ricky Nelson Remembered (10:30 a.m. March 5, free): Endearing as it is to see the Nelson twins, Gunnar and Matthew, pay tribute to their late father, we’re really just here to see if they bust out (Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection.
20. Neal McCoy (3:30 p.m. March 2, $25): In Wink and No Doubt About It, McCoy’s got some solid ’90s country hits. He scores extra points for 2005′s Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On but loses more for his cringey anti-Colin Kaepernick song Take a Knee, My Ass (I Won’t Take a Knee).
19. Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots (3:30 p.m. March 1, $35): As basically country music’s Ryan Seacrest, Bones is one of the most powerful figures in Nashville. He’s parlayed that power into a stint on Dancing With the Stars and gigs as a comic and musician. Fun stuff, but hardly essential.
18. Dick Fox’s Golden Boys starring Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell (3:30 p.m. March 5, $30): For folks of a certain age, it’s like seeing Justin Bieber, Harry Styles and Shawn Mendes on the same bill. THIS IS YOUR FUTURE, MILLENNIALS.
17. Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra (10:30 a.m. Feb. 27, free): Polka maestro Sturr, who opens the Strawberry Festival every year, owns 18 Grammys. Had they not retired the Best Polka Album category in 2009, he’d probably have more than U2 or Beyoncé. Put some respect on his name!
16. Josh Turner (7:30 p.m. March 4, $35): He’s a PG-rated traditionalist with a deep, gospelly voice — in other words, he’s the ideal headliner at the family-friendly Strawberry Festival. Baby, lock the door and turn the lights down low ...
15. Skillet (7:30 p.m. March 3, $30): This is about as heavy as the Strawberry Festival gets. The grungy Christian group might go down as the only act ever to play both the Strawberry Fest and 98 Rockfest.
14. Chubby Checker and the Wildcats (3:30 p.m. March 4, $25): An incredible 60 (!) years after The Twist, Checker’s still twisting, and twisting, and twisting again (like he did last summer). He doesn’t have the deepest catalog, but this is still a slice of rock 'n' roll history.
13. Eli Young Band (3:30 p.m. March 8, $35): While they’ve been surpassed in popularity by fellow country-rock upstarts Old Dominion, Young and company still have some underrated hits, including Love Ain’t, Even if It Breaks Your Heart and Crazy Girl.
12. Aaron Tippin, Sammy Kershaw and Collin Raye (3:30 p.m. Feb. 29, $30): There should be more ’90s country package tours! Tippin (There Ain’t Nothin Wrong With the Radio), Kershaw (She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful) and Raye (That’s My Story) are a great start. Next year, let’s get Joe Diffie, Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Byrd!
11. Sara Evans (3:30 p.m. March 3, $30): Evans gets a little lost in the country-queen boom of the late ’90s and 2000s, an era that gave us Faith, Martina, Shania, Taylor and Carrie. But she’s still a Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music award winner, and good luck sitting through Suds in the Bucket without tapping your toes.
10. Oak Ridge Boys (3:30 p.m. Feb. 27, $25): As far as we’re concerned, the Strawberry Festival doesn’t officially start until you hear Elvira bopping from the main stage. It’s basically Plant City law.
9. Tommy James and the Shondells (3:30 p.m. Feb. 28, $25): James is an underappreciated figure in rock history, having sung a number of iconic songs (Mony Mony, Hanky Panky, Crimson and Clover, Draggin’ the Line, I Think We’re Alone Now) that were, in some cases, later made more famous by others. If you haven’t been able to get Crystal Blue Persuasion out of your head since Breaking Bad, you have James to thank.
8. 98 Degrees (7:30 p.m. Feb. 29, $35): They never reached the same teeny-boppin’ heights as the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync, but Nick Lachey’s crossover star power ensured they’d have a long career. That their original lineup has stayed together for nearly 25 years is impressive.
7. MercyMe (7:30 p.m. March 5, $40): Frontman Bart Millard wrote one of the most enduring worship songs of all time in I Can Only Imagine — a song so instantly beloved it spawned a 2018 film that became one of the top-grossing musical biopics ever.
6. Michael Ray (7:30 p.m. Feb. 28, $35): Finally, a little Central Florida love! Eustis’ own Michael Ray is a killer performer with rock-star chops who deserves this prime-time slot. If he brings out wife Carly Pearce for a surprise cameo, even better.
5. Patti LaBelle (7:30 p.m. March 2, $35): From New Attitude to Lady Marmalade to On My Own, Dancing With the Stars to The Masked Singer, LaBelle is an all-time diva, the rare singer who could make us trade our shortcake for a sweet potato PattiPie.
4. Charlie Wilson (7:30 p.m. March 7, $45): We can’t guarantee he’s the only man to appear on a Tyler, the Creator album and perform at the Strawberry Festival in the same year, but it’s got to be a short list. The former Gap Band singer is an icon of soul, funk and hip-hop, and vocally, he hasn’t lost much of his fastball.
3. Rascal Flatts (7:30 p.m. Feb. 27, $51): They were already one of this year’s biggest bookings, and then they went and announced a farewell tour on top of it. That tour returns to Tampa in October, which is the only reason this not-quite-final show doesn’t rank higher.
2. Lynyrd Skynyrd (7:30 p.m. March 8, $56): Speaking of farewell tours, Florida’s finest Southern rockers started theirs in 2018, and it’s still rolling. It was never a guarantee they’d make it back to Tampa Bay, so consider yourselves lucky you get to scream “FREE BIRD!” one more time.
1. Reba McEntire (7:30 p.m. March 1, sold out): This will be Reba’s fourth Strawberry Festival in a decade, but this time around feels different. Since last fall, America has experienced sort of a Rebaissance, between her featured role in the Ken Burns documentary, a gig co-hosting the Country Music Awards, a forthcoming Spotify podcast and a recent vinyl reissue of her 1994 album Read My Mind. We Stan a Fancy queen, and so does the Strawberry Festival crowd — this was the first of this year’s concerts to sell out.
FLORIDA STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL
Gates open at 10 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. daily Feb. 27 through March 8. The Midway remains open until 11 p.m. most days. $10 adults, $5 children 6 and up, free for ages 5 and under. Discounts available on various days and at participating Publix stores. 303 BerryFest Place, Plant City. For details, call (813) 752-9194. For tickets, call (813) 754-1996. For a full schedule of events, see flstrawberryfestival.com.