Condolence messages flooded the Country Concert Facebook page as news that co-founder Mike Barhorst had passed away March 1 in Fort Loramie.
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The 77-year-old, along with his wife Mary Jo, started the event -- which has grown to draw thousands from all over the world each year -- to celebrate both his birthday and their anniversary.
The festival, which is currently run by Barhorst’s sons Paul, Tony, Brian, Mark and Scott, started out as a 500-acre campground built on the family’s farm in 1971.
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All five sons were charged with helping maintain and improve the facilities at Hickory Hill Lakes as they grew up, eventually getting involved in all aspects of organizing Country Concert.
“Dad had a vision and came from a family business,” Paul Barhorst said. “He came from a history of transitioning the family business over to the children over time. That’s what (my parents) were doing, slowly training us.”
The family began hosting local musicians for the annual showcase years later. By 1981, with crowds growing, the Barhorsts asked Louise Mandrell to perform the show. Based on the success of that concert, the family expanded the event to three days, while constantly making improvements to the facilities. The campground now boasts a 108-foot wide permanent main stage with two additional, smaller, permanent stages, as well as six giant video screens.
The Country Concert is seen as a stop on the road to stardom for many of today’s top country acts, including Rodney Atkins, Justin Moore, Tyler Farr, Craig Campbell , Florida Georgia Line and Chase Rice. However, it’s also a place where some very big names like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers and Garth Brooks have performed.
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“Mike Barhorst has left a legacy that will reach those in our area and around the nation for years to come,” said K99.1 FM DJ Frye Guy. “Country Concert has become a staple in the music world that fans and country artists both look forward to. It is a one-of-a-kind experience that gives fans memories that will last a lifetime. This is a major loss to all those who love country, as a fan, as an artist, or those who support the music. My deepest sympathy goes out to the entire family and community."
Paul Barhorst has been humbled by the outpouring of love for his father from both the community and music fans everywhere.
“It’s really a blessing and an honor. That’s how he lived his life and operated Country Concert. He always treated everyone equally -- fans, performers, workers or whoever,” Barhorst said.
As for the future of the festival, Barhorst says his family has no plans of slowing things down anytime soon.
“On the 35th anniversary show (2015), Dad issued a challenge to us from the stage to run it another 35 years and to continue to improve,” he said. “Dad would want (2017) to be a celebration. He always felt it belonged to the fans. It takes a community to operate Country Concert, not just one family.”
Country Concert is believed to be the largest family owned and operated country festival in the country.