FORT LORAMIE, Ohio — A never-ending sea of humanity stretched out before Eric Church on Saturday night at Country Concert, the crowd’s energy symbolically embracing the grieving country music star, whose younger brother, Brandon, died on June 29.
“It’s been a tough week for me. But I need this. I need my people,” Church told the crowd, his voice cracking, after performing “How ‘Bout You,” his 2006 debut single that he wrote with Brandon. “Here is the deal: I’m going to give you everything I have. I’m going to sing, drink, and we’re going to have fun being with each other.”
At @countryconcert @ericchurch plays “how ‘bout you,” which co-wrote with his brother who died last week. Tells crowd: it’s been a tough week. But I need this. I need my people.” Tough night for him, but he’s playing heart out.— Brian Dugger (@DuggerBlade) July 8, 2018
It was a memorable moment in a day filled with memories.
When Mike Barhorst was 19 years old, he bought a small piece of land off of State Rt. 66 in Shelby County to raise cattle. Over the years, his property grew into what is now the Hickory Hill Lakes campground. And what started as a camper appreciation party 38 years ago has grown into one of the largest country music festivals in the country.
Barhorst died last year, but he would have been beaming with pride looking out over a fist-pumping, beer-raising Saturday crowd estimated at close to 25,000 people — all of them gathered at his campground beneath a crystal blue sky.
The day started at 1 p.m. with Elizabeth Cook, a sultry-voiced Nashville veteran and SiriusXM radio personality, entertaining hundreds of people in the Country Concert saloon.
The always-entertaining Cook later told The Blade: “I had a great time. There were a lot of people not wearing their shirt. That was fun that they felt so free.”
Men without shirts and women in skimpy outfits were in abundance. At one time, Country Concert was a four-day event. It has been trimmed back to three, but it is still an endurance test for the crowd, many of whom camp in tents or trailers and test the mettle of their livers over the long weekend.
Jaci Bostelman of Forest, Ohio, was attending the event for the 11th time and the low-80s temperature and sunny skies were only two of the reasons this year’s festival was one of the most comfortable and enjoyable for her. One year she was six months pregnant and endured near-100 degree temperatures. Another year, she showed up while nine months pregnant.
“I’m dedicated,” she said, chuckling, while watching Eric Sowers of Sycamore perform on a secondary stage. “It’s just great to be able to spend time with family, and there is great music. And it’s always fun to people watch.”
Shortly before she spoke, a young man tipped back his head and drained the contents of a beer bong. When asked how much was in the bong, he slurred: “Whatever was in that can,” pointing to a crushed beer can before stumbling away.
Eric Sowers of Sycamore makes his Country Concert debut on a secondary stage.
Memories were probably fuzzy for a lot of people on Sunday morning, but they were surely clear for Sowers, who placed in a Country Concert karaoke contest years ago and returned to make his performance debut on Saturday.
“I have been a fan here for six years — and I’m still a fan. I remember getting that call to play on this stage, and it didn’t seem real. Thanks to y’all, it feels a little more real,” he told the crowd, many of them wearing his t-shirts.
His parents, Alice and Bill Sowers, were among the crowd, reveling in the love being shown their son. “This is great. It’s a lifetime dream of his,” Bill said, with Alice adding that it was “unbelievable.”
More than once, the term unbelievable was thrown around to describe Saturday’s lineup. Country Concert has always featured a who’s-who of country royalty. Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Kenny Chesney, Randy Travis, Charlie Daniels, and Tim McGraw are just a few of the big names who have appeared in Fort Loramie. On Thursday night, Toby Keith headlined the show, and on Friday, Brad Paisley played for about 100 minutes to close out the night. On Saturday, the main stage featured Lauren Alaina, Kane Brown, Luke Combs, Brothers Osborne, and Eric Church. The lineup was a stroke of good luck for promoters, who begin booking acts close to a year in advance. Over the past year, Brown, Combs, and the Brothers Osborne have exploded in popularity. Church is playing a limited number of dates this year.
The weekend was a success for Jill Persinger of Tiffin, who was at Country Concert for the seventh time. She spent the first couple of years in the rowdy Vera campground, but has aged into the motor home portion of the grounds closer to the main venue.
“When I became an ‘adult,’ I came over here, where I can take a shower,” she said, chuckling. “But this event is a good time. It’s outside and everyone is your friend when you are here.”
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