Showtime: The Country Concert

Country Fest in Shelby County

Michael Barhorst never tired of standing near the covered stage in the natural amphitheater on his property in rural Shelby County, watching thousands of country music fans enjoy the Country Concert he organized every year.

Fans came there to enjoy headliners, old favorites, and newcomers to the country music scene, to camp out and have fun with friends, and to share their love for the music with a massive crowd. “It is so rewarding,” Barhorst often remarked to friends and family, “to watch thousands of people take a shared emotional journey through the power of a song.”

Barhorst, who died in March 2015 at the age of 77, instilled a passion for continuing his legacy in his wife, Mary Jo, and their five sons — Tony, Brian, Mark, Scott, and Paul — who have assumed the challenge.

The family will once again roll out the welcome mat this month for popular recording artists and appreciative fans alike, as Country Concert ’19 takes place July 11 to 13 at Hickory Hill Lakes, their 500-acre complex located along State Route 66 near Fort Loramie. This marks the 39th year of the event.

Headliners include Chris Stapleton, Kid Rock, Thomas Rhett, Gary Allan, Dustin Lynch, and the Roots and Boots trio featuring Sammy Kershaw, Aaron Tippin, and Collin Raye. They are among 30 performers scheduled to appear during the weekend.

The event, which drew folks from 47 states and seven countries in 2018, began on a decidedly smaller scale at the picturesque campground that the Barhorsts established in 1971 in the midst of Pioneer Rural Electric Cooperative territory. They hosted an annual party to celebrate their wedding anniversary and to show their appreciation for seasonal campers with local talent and tasty food.

In July 1981, the couple expanded their party into a full-day concert featuring three performers: Louise Mandrell, R.C. Bannon, and Johnny Russell. The overwhelming response paved the way for further expansion to the current three-day format that consistently brings between 20,000 and 25,000 fans per day.

Paul Barhorst, who serves as president of the family corporation, spent 10 years planning concerts with his parents. He and his brothers also had a hand in many of the site improvements over the years.

“The planning never stops,” he says. “We already have offers out for the lineup for the 40th anniversary concert in 2020.”

Barhorst says he won’t release those names until later this year, but fans can expect the same careful planning that goes into the event every year.

“Dad and Mom believed the concert should feature a mix of new performers, established stars, and country legends,” he says. “Each year, we ask fans to complete surveys listing who they want to see here, and we try very hard to act on those requests. We want to put on as big a show as possible.”

Fans, many of whom have come for decades, fondly recall “newcomers” Reba McIntire, Garth Brooks, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Kenny Chesney serving as opening acts before they attained headliner status. Country legends such as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty, and Tom T. Hall have also graced the stage.

Fifteen miles of all-weather roads facilitate movement in, out, and around Hickory Hill Lakes. A state-of-the-art sound tower and six jumbo screens ensure visitors don’t miss any of the action. When shows outgrew the original covered pavilion, the Barhorsts built a 109-foot-wide covered stage. Two more stages — the Saloon and the Home Grown Honky Tonk — have space for entertainment before each day’s show and between acts. The family has expanded parking facilities adjacent to the main stage several times, to accommodate the entertainers’ entourages.

“In the early years, performers were lucky to have a bus,” Paul Barhorst says. “Now they come with 10 or 12 semis and six buses.”

Organizations like the Fort Loramie Fire Department, the Newport Sportsmen’s Club, the Jackson Center Boosters, the Red Cross, and Shelby County Relay for Life step up each year to handle various assignments. The Fort Loramie High School football and volleyball teams clean up the grounds throughout the weekend. In exchange, the Barhorsts make generous donations to those groups, in addition to supporting other area charities.

“It takes more than one person or one family to put on a concert,” Barhorst says. “It takes a community of people to make this happen. Dad and Mom took a leap of faith when it came to starting this tradition. We like to say Dad is sitting back and watching our efforts from the best seat in the house.”