Big-name musicians, small-town charm highlight Plant City's Strawberry Festival

mclear@bradenton.comFebruary 28, 2013 

Dennis Lee has spent the past 31 years performing at fairs and festivals all over the country, but the Florida Strawberry Festival will always be special.

He had been a street performer, traveling around the country with his solo music and comedy act, when an official from the Strawberry Festival came across him in Las Vegas. He liked Lee's act and got his phone number.

"When I got back home there was message from him asking if I could come down there with my band to play at the Strawberry Festival," Lee said. "I didn't have band, but I wasn't going to tell him that. I put a band together in less than 24 hours."

That performance led to others, and he's been working steadily ever since, playing the festival circuit all over this country and occasionally in others.

This year Lee will perform at his 32nd consecutive Florida Strawberry Festival.

"I tell you what, I feel very blessed," Lee said.

The Dennis Lee Show is always a popular part of the festival, but it's just one element of a massive 11-day celebration that has been drawing visitors from all over Florida since 1930.

This year's festival boasts dozens of big-name country and rock acts on the main stage, dozens of other music, comedy and variety acts, almost 100 midway rides, and the down-home attractions of agriculture and horticulture exhibits

"As trite as it may sound, we're still a slice of Americana," said Paul Davis, the festival's general manager. "The festival started in 1930 as a celebration of the strawberry harvest, and we've never strayed far from that."

The Florida Strawberry Festival may not have changed, but it has certainly grown. More than a half-million people come to the Plant City festival every year.

Among the major draws are the headline music acts. They span genres from classic rock to current country. The one thing they all have in common, Davis said, is that they're family-friendly.

The biggest names this year include Chubby Checker (3:30 p.m. Feb. 28), Foreigner (7:30 p.m. Feb. 28), Gloriana (3:30 p.m. March 2), Alan Jackson (7:30 p.m. March 3), Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis (3:30 p.m. March 4), Dwight Yoakam (7:30 p.m. March 4), Martina McBride (7:30 p.m. March 5), Trace Adkins (7:30 p.m. March 6), Mel Tillis (3:30 p.m. March 7) and Bret Michaels (7:30 p.m. March 9). Blake Shelton's performing on March 10, but his show is already sold out.

Those shows are ticketed separately, but there are dozens of acts, including the Dennis Lee Show, that festival patrons can see as part of their regular $8 admission price that also includes all the rides and agricultural exhibits. Besides Lee, this year's festival includes the perennial favorites Robinson's Racing Pigs, the Gothard Sisters, who specialize in traditional Irish music and dance, magician/hypnotist Ron Diamond, and a comedy revue called the Sweeney Family Band.

"We try to keep it affordable," Davis said. "For the price of a movie, you can bring your family here and have a full day of entertainment."

Details: Feb. 28- March 10, 303 N. Lemon St., Plant City. Tickets: $8 general, $4 children 6-12, free for children younger than 6; Various prices for headliners. Information: 813-754-1996, www.flstrawberryfestival.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist can be reached at 941-748-0411. ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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