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It's Just a Great Gig: Country Stars Join Strait for Festival
First of 10 Dates Kicks Off Saturday in Charlotte
The numbers are in -- but they tell only part of the story.

"Nokia Presents the George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival" gets underway Saturday at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., the first of 10 dates Strait and his entourage will play before wrapping up June 11 at Enron Field in Houston.

An estimated 31 tractor trailers and 20 tour buses will travel to each venue. Each show requires more than 2.5 million pounds of equipment. Since Strait plays two shows a weekend, in different cities, he uses two stages, two sound systems and two lighting systems -- one for each city.

The tour, in its third year, grossed $66 million and played to nearly 2 million fans nationwide in its first two years. Tickets remain for all concerts on the tour except Houston, which is nearly a sell-out.

Impressive though they are, the statistics don't capture the real excitement. The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd have mounted larger productions, with inflatable figures, movable bridges and extended stages. The drawing power of the Strait tour comes from the man himself.

"Those bands rely heavily on their production," points out Louis Messina, chief executive officer for Pace Music Group, producers of the concert. Messina spoke at a press preview this week at Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville, where he unveiled the stage Strait and his support cast will use.

"George relies upon George," Messina says. "The fact that he allows me to put him on a stage like this is pretty incredible, because George is all about him and his music. He doesn't need dancers or anything onstage. It's just him, his music and his smile."

What Strait has in addition to those components, of course, is a star-studded support staff including the Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year, Tim McGraw, and the Female Vocalist of the Year, Martina McBride. Also on the daylong concert, which begins at 1 p.m. in each venue, are Kenny Chesney, Mark Chesnutt, Lee Ann Womack and Asleep at the Wheel.

McGraw and McBride both have undertaken major headlining tours of their own. McBride, in fact, is interrupting her own dates to join the Strait entourage. How does Strait, a former CMA entertainer of the year, attract such high-profile touring partners?

"It's George Strait," reasons McGraw, who has been with Strait all three years. "He's George Strait -- and he pays well. I've done it for two years and it's a lot of fun. It's painless, easy work. We love doing it. We get to go out in front of 60 or 70,000 people, play an hour, come back, get a shower and sit on the side of the stage drinking Bud Light watching George Strait. It's just a great gig."

McBride, joining the Strait tour for the first time, pretty much agrees. "It's an incredible opportunity," she says during a recent interview. "First of all, I am such a fan and I respect George Strait so much artistically -- to be able to have a career as long and as successful as he has.

"To be with him is great, to be part of that," she continues. "And it's an event. It's unbelievable to get to play in front of 50,000 people at once. That's exciting and it's not something we get the chance to do very often."

Chesney, who comes back for a second year, echoes his friends. "For any artist in country music today, this is definitely the tour to be on, and we're just so proud to be here."

All three artists also see the tour as a rare opportunity to spend time with their colleagues. McGraw and Chesney have been running buddies for years, and McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill, are friends with McBride and her husband, John.

"There will be a great camaraderie and a great feeling, a vibe to the tour, which we don't get when we go out and do headline shows," McBride predicts. "It's just a different kind of thing. It's just something for the memory book."

"It's a lot of fun," echoes McGraw, speaking from experience. "It's a good atmosphere, very conducive to making good music. We did a lot of jamming [in previous years], backstage and on the buses. It's like a big family thing, a party thing going down the road -- but not too much partying, 'cause we're all getting old."

Instead of being intimidating, playing before such large crowds can mean the artist has more freedom to let go, McGraw explains. "You know they're all there to have fun, and they've had great acts on before you, so they're all primed up and ready to go, and you know you've got George Strait coming on right after you. You're just sitting in a great spot to go out there and turn it loose."

McBride will tailor her presentation to the stadiums where she'll be playing. "It's a different kind of energy than in an arena or in a theater," she feels. "Really sensitive, introspective ballads that no one's ever heard before don't go over real well.

"I try to keep the show more uptempo and more upbeat and a little bigger as far as movement and everything else," she says. "They have huge video screens, so that helps you project to the back and top of the stadium. People can really see your facial expressions, which is where a lot of the emotion comes out."

A large festival area outside the stadium, "Straitland," will feature vendors, lifestyle exhibits, recreational fun and games and performances by Clay Davidson, Jerry Kilgore and Lace for early arrivals. Straitland opens at 11 a.m.

Sponsors signed on to support Strait include Nokia, Chevy Trucks, Jack Daniels, Bud Light, Pemmican Beef Jerky, Wrangler, Justin Boots and Resistol Hats.

"Imagine all the stars on stage, imagine lights just going absolutely crazy, the biggest production on the road today," Messina says, touting the presentation Strait has mounted. "You're going to have a lot of energy and a lot of excitement in this stadium, 'cause this place is going to be rockin' with the best of Tennessee and the best of country music."

Tickets for the Strait country music festival are $39.50, $49.50 and $59.50, plus service charges, available at regional Ticketmaster outlets or online at www.ticketmaster.com.



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