Mike Barhorst, the founder of Country Concert, passed away on March 1 at age 77.
However, his spirit will loom large over the annual festival, presenting top acts such as Blake Shelton and Florida Georgia Line at Hickory Hill Lakes in Ft. Loramie Thursday through Saturday, July 6-8.
"We're fortunate to have had him as a father and a leader for all these years," said Barhorst's son, Paul, who has been president of Country Concert since 2007. "We wanted to recognize our dad's memory with something special so we're bringing in Country Music Hall of Famers the Oak Ridge Boys for the opening ceremony at 2:45 Thursday.
"They're one of mom and dad's favorite groups," Barhorst said. "This will be the fifth time they've played our event since the early '90s and they're going to do some special things to kick off the show in our dad's memory."
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THE EARLY DAYS
Today, Country Concert is one of largest such gatherings in the Midwest — but the annual festival has a modest origin story. It started in the late 1970s, when Mike and his wife, Mary Jo, began inviting friends and family over to celebrate their wedding anniversary with a large outdoor cookout and concert. Local groups performed and the revelers indulged in food and homemade wine and word began to spread. Attendance had grown so much by 1981, the Barhorsts decided to make the event public.
"I have four brothers that are involved here too with our families," Barhorst said. "Now, we're looking forward to carrying on the tradition our father laid out for us. We grew up doing things like taking care of the campers and checking them in when it was a campground. There would be conversations and planning around the kitchen table so we got to see it all unfold as the event grew.
“We all have great memories of the first concert in 1981,” Barhorst continued. “That’s when it went from being an anniversary party to officially having Louise Mandrell. I was 10 years old and the Mandrell sisters’ show was really hot on TV and we had a big audience so it was a lot of fun.”
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THE BIG NAMES
In the years that followed, Country Concert became a literal who’s-who of Nashville royalty like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Loretta Lynn.
This year’s headliners include top-sellers like Jake Owen and Justin Moore. According to Barhorst, the two most anticipated acts are Blake Shelton and Florida Georgia Line.
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“It’s not just country music fans that are interested, it’s people who generally like to have fun,” Barhorst said. “There’s the star power and allure of an artist like Blake Shelton. Since we had him he’s become a household name across genres because of his popularity on ‘The Voice.’ It’s been neat to watch his career grow.
“We had Blake in 2002 already, 15 years ago, and he was an opening act,” Barhorst recalled. “His career grew slow but he kept putting out hits and it grew over time. We had him as a headliner in 2012 but he has really gone to the next level since then with ‘The Voice.’ Now, he’s selling out arenas and stadiums by himself.”
Florida Georgia Line also has a history with Country Concert.
“Every year we have a survey and ask the fans who they want to see,” Barhorst said. “Florida Georgia Line was the No. 1 requested artist. They’ve been immensely popular across the board and are selling out stadiums now, but we had them here for a camper party in 2012. The week after we had them, they signed to Big Machine and ‘Cruise’ was already making headway on satellite radio.
“They were on their way after that and now they’re headliners on Saturday night within five years,” Barhorst said. “They always put on a great show here. The first time they played ‘Dirt’ live was here at the Country Concert a few years ago. Since we’ve had them they’ve had songs like ‘H.O.L.Y.’ and ‘God, Your Mama, and Me.’ They’ve just gone to the next level.”
RISING STARS ON SALOON STAGE
The headliners are, naturally, always a major draws at the festival but there’s always plenty of interest in some of the lesser known performers. The Saloon Stage is the place to discover some of this rising talent.
Florida Georgia Line, Colt Ford, Justin Moore and Chase Rice are just some of the established acts to make their festival debut in that capacity.
“Run Away June is one of those artists that’s on the verge,” Barhorst said. “They have a hit in the Top 40 now with ‘Wild West.’ It’s a trio of ladies and one of them is actually John Wayne’s granddaughter. They have a lot of opportunity ahead of them. We also have Drake White and he has a very powerful, soulful voice. Any one of these stars are just three minutes away from being a next level superstar.”
This year, the Saloon Stage features Clark Manson, Aubrie Sellers, Mark Cantwill, Tara Thompson, Carter Winter and others.
“The permanent Saloon Stage is a great outdoor pavilion with a club-like feel,” Barhorst said. “It accommodates more people than it did when we originally had it in the tent so we can put bigger artists in their now. We’re mixing in traditional country like Mark Chestnut, who is going to be playing all of his hits on Friday night at 7o’clock.
“It’ll feel like a Texas honky-tonk in there,” Barhorst said. “We have some fans that really look forward to the Saloon Stage most and then they’ll bounce out to the main stage for the big headliners.”
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While many fans prefer to drive from home or stay in area hotels, camping has always been a huge component of the annual festival. Spaces are available for everything from tent camping up to deluxe motor-home sites with water and electricity.
“Most of our fans come for all three days and they can stay right on site,” Barhorst said. “You don’t have to drive or worry about going home at night. We have 500 acres, so we have plenty of space for camping. We have people that come every year and they re-reserve their site from the previous year. They have the tradition of making lifelong friends at the Country Concert and meeting up with them every year here.”
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FOOD AND DRINK
Food and beverages are available to purchase, but concert-goers can bring in outside items.
“We have reasonably priced beer and food onsite, but you can also bring a 14-inch cooler into the show,” Barhorst said. “You can bring your own food and beverages as long as it’s not glass. You can have your own picnic right there if you like and I don’t know many places where that exists.
“You can also leave the show area and go back to your car and then re-enter,” Barhorst added. “Those are a couple of things that are unique about our concert compared to what some people might be used to.”
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WANT TO GO?
What: Country Concert 2017 with Blake Shelton, Jake Owen, Florida Georgia Line, Justin Moore and others
Where: Hickory Hill Lakes, 7103 Ohio 66, Fort Loramie
When: July 6-8; starts at 2:45 p.m. Thursday, July 6; 4 p.m. Friday, July 7; and 1 p.m. Saturday, July 8
More info: 937-295-3000 or www.countryconcert.com
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