Richland Center's music fest is back


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Posted by Yee-Haw on June 22, 2009 at 07:30:53:

Small city, big stars: Richland Center's pride, population burst for its country music festival

Tom Alesia | June 18, 2009

RICHLAND CENTER -- The stars return here each year in late June, but don't look toward the sky.

Spot them on local roads, where their tour buses stand out in this city of 5,000 residents as much as a fleet of Oscar Mayer Weinermobiles. Go to Krouskop Park, home to youngsters' T-ball diamonds and grassy fields, which converts into a concert venue with capacity nearly as large as Madison's Kohl Center.

That's because 14 national country music acts -- from Kenny Rogers and Gretchen Wilson to Chuck Wicks and Eli Young -- take the stage at the 16th annual Star Spangled Celebration from Thursday to Saturday and, weather permitting, could draw up to 40,000 fans here.

"You get that little bit of fun, like Madison does or other bigger cities," said Celebration ticketholder Jason Schultz. "It's awesome. The town is always filled with excitement."

Unlike many major music festivals in relatively remote locations, which rely on fans driving long distances from elsewhere, the Star Spangled Celebration was designed for Richland Center-area residents. It then started drawing crowds from outlying places like Madison, about one hour east of the city.

The festival's appeal requires nearly 1,000 volunteers from Richland Center (population: 5,114) and surrounding communities. They set up the stage, sell food and beer, work security and handle ticket booths.

Chris Drea, the Celebration's board president and a longtime volunteer, compared the work to "a giant barn raising."

And the residents promote the fest. It's nearly impossible to find a business, from Kwik Trip to the downtown bank, without a Star Spangled Celebration poster or event handouts. More than 150 businesses are sponsors, too.

Why this much local hoopla? It's a nonprofit festival -- simple as that, supporters and organizers said. Yes, some acts are paid handsomely, but all the money that's left over goes to Richland Center-area organizations.

Since 1994, $511,000 has been awarded to everything from free health care clinics to the city's swimming pool. This month's festival will support a homeless shelter, Richland Center High School's band and first responders to emergencies in rural areas. In addition, seven $1,000 high school scholarships are given annually to students who excel in both academics and community service.

How much money is distributed varies depending on how well the celebration does. Weather can curb attendance and the bottom line. Hail and strong winds hurt last year's attendance, which meant the event could give only about $20,000 (low by previous years' standards) to its chosen charities, said Jenny Perkins, Star Spangled Celebration's administrator and lone paid employee.

How it started

The festival began in 1994 when community officials hoped to bring a national music act to Richland Center while raising money as a nonprofit. Phil Nee, program director at Richland Center's country outlet WRCO-FM 100.9, said it had been almost 15 years since the city held a big concert.

Organizers picked late '80s hitmaker Holly Dunn for its first event. Dunn hadn't had a hit in about four years, but she drew 5,000 fans, more than twice as many as expected, and Star Spangled Celebration was born.

"The community never seemed to be standing behind one purpose. Star Spangled became that one purpose," said Judy Davis, president of Richland County Bank. "A lot of times small communities are pretty divergent and don't get along as they should because everybody knows everybody. But this worked."

The one-day event jumped to two days by 1997 and, in 2001, it became a three-day festival.

Throughout the years, the celebration survived while monstrous country fests in Eau Claire, Twin Lakes, Oshkosh, Rhinelander and elsewhere battled to book the biggest acts. Add Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and county fairs into the mix, and prime country talent can cash in on the state's glut.

The Richland Center fest tends to stick with up-and-coming acts and headliners not on country's current A-list.

As fees for superstars such as Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift climbed above $500,000 per appearance, the event is banking on Kenny Rogers, Blake Shelton and Gretchen Wilson as its headliners this weekend.

Alabama turns the tide

Over the years, Star Spangled Celebration has landed before-they-were-big gigs by Rascal Flatts, Montgomery Gentry, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, Martina McBride, Keith Urban and Sugarland.

Everyone connected with the festival pointed to Alabama's headlining show in 1999 as the event's crucial moment. The concert drew the park's capacity of nearly 17,000 fans. Impressed by Star Spangled Celebration's nonprofit status, Alabama agreed to return in 2002.

Not every act goes on to become a chart topper. (Sixwire, anyone?) The entertainment committee meets in early fall with a list of acts and their prices on three legal-sized pages, provided by a Nashville promoter. Keith Urban's star power, for instance, soared between his early fall contract signing and his June 2004 appearance.

WRCO's Nee said the committee missed a few future stars. A then-little-known group called the Dixie Chicks was available for less than $5,000 in the late '90s, but the committee passed.

Supporter Bonnie Jones of Richland Center said ticket prices remain far less than most multi-day country festivals. A three-day pass is only $70, if purchased during the winter. It jumped to $80 last month.

Jones pulled out photos of her and her husband with Toby Keith, Brad Paisley and Clay Walker. Most acts sign autographs after their sets, attracting lines of several hundred people.

The park also is split down the middle by temporary fences -- delineating a non-alcohol section and a drinking one. Only 12-ounce beer cans are sold and ample city and county police curb rowdiness, organizers said.

Ticket sales are up from last year despite the economy. Perkins said police officials expect larger crowds this weekend as more people attend from an hour's drive radius instead of taking longer trips.

Mildred Karac, who co-owns the Park View Motel across the street from Krouskop Park, said the same group of people reserve all of her rooms each year -- they are always reserved one year in advance for this weekend. She charges $110.99 per night. "They would pay $500 per night," she said, only half joking.

Drea, the Celebration's board president, said a for-profit operation wouldn't have lasted operating the festival over 16 years.

"We're a small community," Drea said. "We're not an economic stronghold. We're pretty much middle-class folks in town. To pull off this huge event is amazing. We do what big towns can't pull off with our elbow grease, work ethic and community spirit."

She paused and smiled. "Makes me proud to live here."

The Lineup

Thursday: Jason Michael Carroll, 5:15 p.m; Kellie Pickler, 7:15 p.m.; Kenny Rogers, 9 p.m.

Friday: Eli Young Band, 3 p.m.; Jack Ingram, 4:45 p.m.; Jake Owen, 6:30 p.m.; Rodney Atkins, 8 p.m.; Blake Shelton, 10 p.m.

Saturday: Timothy Craig, 1:15 p.m.; Ashton Shepherd, 2:45 p.m.; Chuck Wicks, 4:30 p.m.; James Otto, 6 p.m.; Joe Diffie, 7:45 p.m.; Gretchen Wilson, 9:30 p.m.

IF YOU GO
What: Star Spangled Celebration country music festival

When: Thursday to Saturday (June 25-27)

Where: Krouskop Park, Richland Center

Tickets: Reduced-priced advance ticket sales have ended. At the gate, $100 for three-day pass; $60 for one-day pass.

Information: starspangled.com or 800-375-0876


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