Sonoma County goes country at first BBQ festival

  • Country Singer Dierks Bentley is photographed Kevin St. James Pub in New York, Oct. 17, 2006. Bentley remembers when he had to beg to be a part of the CMA's annual awards show. This year, he's one of the leading nominees. The country star's status has certainly risen over the last few years, and his latest album, "Long Trip Alone," may further solidify him among country's establishment. (AP Photo/Jim Cooper)

If only the hippies who founded Health and Harmony Festival back in the &‘70s could have foreseen the impact they would one day have on country music in Sonoma County.

This weekend's Sonoma Country Music BBQ in Santa Rosa marks Harmony Festival Inc. Presents' first foray into the land of Nashville twang. Picture a Harmony Fest overrun with mechanical bulls, barbecued ribs, big belt buckles and cowboy boots instead of gravity boots.

"Two things triggered this," says Harmony Festival CEO Howard "Bo" Sapper. "One was the closing of Konocti (Harbor Resort music venue), which left a big hole in the market for country music. And two was looking closely at what (concert promoter) Goldenvoice was doing with Stagecoach (music festival, billed as &‘California's Country Music Festival') down in Coachella."

Teaming up with radio station Froggy 92.9 FM, HFI has lined up a nationally renowned bill boasting Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Thompson Square and local heroes Pete Stringfellow and McKenna Faith. On last week's Billboard country singles chart, Bentley's "Am I The Only One?" was No. 4, Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" was No. 7 and Thompson Square's "I Got You" was No. 20.

"We just want to broaden who we are as a company and speak to a more mainstream demographic," says Sapper.

Keifer and Shawna Thompson - the Nashville married couple who make up Thompson Square - see the Harmony-produced Country BBQ as just another example of how the genre has evolved over the past decade.

"What's cool about country music nowadays is it's much more forgiving than it used to be," says Keifer Thompson on a tour pit-stop in Salt Lake City. "It's more accepting. And there are so many more styles of country music than there used to be."

For Sapper, a Harmony country festival may be "ironic," but it's really just a reflection of the music he fell in love with decades ago.

"I love country music," he says. "I believe a lot of the bands I grew up with - Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco - all those bands would be country bands signed in Nashville now."

To get the word out, Harmony Fest staffers have been manning the Froggy radio booth at the Sonoma County Fair for the past two weeks. Harmony Festival general manager Cheryl Itamura even took a field trip to Lake County, where Konocti Harbor - the lakeside resort that once booked country superstars like Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood every summer - now lies boarded up and closed.

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