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Vern Fest: Rain stays away

An hour before Saturday’s annual Vern Fest concert in Woodland, the town’s mayor Scott Carter was worried that history was about to repeat itself.

Last year the show was canceled due to an uninterrupted downpour that extended late into the night. This year an eerily similar downpour started up again right around when the gates were scheduled to open, two hours before the 7 p.m. scheduled start time for the concert.

The rain was every bit the deluge from a year ago, but this time the clouds parted around 6 p.m. and stayed away.

“I was watching the weather constantly,” Carter said. “It wound up being a good show. Of course we were worried about the rain, but it got out of there about 6 p.m. and it wound up being a real nice evening.”

Billy Dean, who made a name for himself with a handful of country hits in the early 1990s, was the headliner for this year’s concert, which also featured opening acts Callie Knight (a Wadley native) and Carrollton-based band Homegrown.

Knight has performed at previous Vern Fest shows, which commemorate the August 5 birthday of Woodland native and late country music star Vern Gosdin, who died in 2009.

It was the first time at Vern Fest for Homegrown, which was actually scheduled to make its debut at last year’s show before it was rained out. According to Carter, it was worth the wait.

“They were actually going to start everything off last year, but they came back and blew the doors off of it,” Carter said. “They did a combination of originals. The did some Vern stuff too and some cover songs too. They’ve got a lot of good stuff.”

Dean took the stage shortly after Homegrown finished, and performed his biggest hits including “Only Here for a Little While” and “Billy the Kid” among many others.

In between Dean entertained the crowd with stories from his 30-plus years as a professional musician.

“He’s a story teller,” Carter said. “He’s got several good hits and stuff like that too, but in between he was telling stories about when he was on the road with Dolly Parton and George Strait. Just a great, laid-back guy. He did really good on it all night. Everybody was just very pleased with the whole thing.”

With so many talented performers and a nationally known name like Dean, it’s easy to forget how much of a hometown production the show actually was for the town of Woodland.

(Carter even admitted as much: “When you’re sitting out there watching that show, you don’t realize you’re in Woodland, Alabama,” he said.)

But it’s a full day of setup and breakdown that starts at 6:30 in the morning with an all-hands-on-deck approach.

The show takes place on the 50-yard line of Warren Sewell Field with a rented 36 x 24-foot stage that has to be rolled into place. In order to prevent damage to the football field grass, a base layer of plywood is laid down to create a pathway to get the stage into position.

“We get that stage out there,” Carter said. “We put down plywood on the field because I don’t want any tires or trailers on there rolling on that field, especially as soft as it was with the rain. So we got a set of plywood laid out. We called it the golden road. That way they roll that thing out through there and it never touches the grass.”

The Woodland Bobcat football team provides the muscle to set up the “golden road,” and once the stage is in place another crew comes in around noon to set up the lighting and audio equipment.

“That’s when we’re setting up the stage, getting all the lights, the speakers, the amps. That’s a lot of heavy lifting. So those football players work,” Carter said.

And it’s not just the football team that lends its services. The seating arrangement features tables on the football field in front of the stage, where concert goers sit and eat and watch the show. The Woodland cheerleaders help serve those sitting at the tables. The school’s FFA club helped with the food in the concessions stands. And the track and field team helped with parking.

“It’s good experience for those kids to be out there taking responsibility,” Carter said.

It also gave them a peek behind the scenes of how professional musicians go through their pre-show soundchecks and get everything dialed in for the performance.

“These guys are professional musicians. And then the next thing you know, when all of them kick off into a song, it’s like wow,” Carter said. “It went from just a banging of a drum and hitting on a keyboard and testing on a microphone, and then when they all put it together and start playing a warm-up song, then you can see it in the kids’ faces and it’s kind of special.”

Carter said he didn’t make it home until 2 a.m. after the Saturday show wrapped up around 10:30 p.m.

“It’s a big production,” he said. “It’s not just a bunch of hay bales on a flatbed truck.”

But the satisfaction of a job well done hasn’t stopped Carter from already turning his attention toward next year’s show.

“Got a couple of ideas. I want to step it up a little bit. I want to go a little bit bigger on the name,” he said. “Not that Billy Dean was bad at all. But I’m going to do some pricing around on a few others that would be really well known. I don’t want to jump the gun yet, but I’m excited.”

Vern Fest 2023

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