PALMETTO -- Cowboy hats, leather boots and country twang filled the Manatee County Fairgrounds on Saturday, as musicians Gretchen Wilson and Easton Corbin headlined the inaugural DeSoto Music Fest.
For years the Hernando De Soto Historical Society has gained notoriety for its Seafood Festival in the Spring, but members decided they wanted to do something more and began brainstorming a Fall music fundraiser. This year the idea materialized.
"We started really planning at the end of April," said Rob Bell, event chairman. "We established a date and started trying to book the artists. Then it was all about promotion because this is a first-time event."
A large part of the more than $100,000 budget went toward hiring acts, including country crooners Gretchen Wilson, Easton Corbin, Love & Theft and Craig Campbell. Local acts Lawyers, Guns, & Money and the Dr. Dave Band opened the event, with live music starting at noon.
"We were trying to stick with country music, but a good variety," Bell said.
The historical society expected 4,000 to 5,000 in attendance, with people trickling through the gates all day.
Kids 10 and younger were free, with general admission tickets ranging from $30 pre-purchased to $35 at the door. VIP seats within the first five rows were sold for $100
each, and included all-you-can-eat food and drinks.
"Everybody's been excited and asking about how to get tickets," said Chris Atkinson, society president. "A lot of feedback has been amazement that it is such a family-friendly event."
An indoor Kid Zone, across from the open-air venue, included performances by local acts, inflatables and a rock-climbing wall.
Free child admission was a major draw for friends Jeanne Weissman and Kim Boynton of Sarasota.
"Everything costs so much money," said Boynton, keeping a close eye on children Cayden, 4, and Julie, 3, who played with Weissman's son, Jake, 4. "This gets us out of the house. They can play all day and we have the music."
Letitia Becker, of Bradenton, happened upon the event by luck, winning the ultimate VIP package from 106.5 CTQ.
"I was driving in my truck after picking up my kid from school (Wednesday)," Becker said. "I heard something about caller No. 5 wins. I didn't know what it was, when it was, but I called and it actually started ringing."
Becker first thought she had just won general admission tickets, but then she was told a limousine would pick up her and friend for the show.
"I've never won anything that big in my life. It's all surreal," said Becker, who was most excited for Gretchen Wilson's set. "They told me I'd be on stage, but I'm not nervous. How many times do you ever get to do that without paying for anything? It's definitely the VIP treatment."
Becker and her friend Meagan Allee, of Englewood, watched the concert from two recliners on the elevated stage.
"I'm just happy she picked me," Allee said.
Fan club members and meet-and-greet winners also had the chance to meet the different artists.
All proceeds from the event go to the historical society's foundation, which donates to various local nonprofit organizations.
"It's all about giving back to the community, That's why we're here," Atkinson said. "Without our sponsors, we could not put these events on."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.