Do you ever forget your first country concert experience? Not me.
I saw George Strait with opening act Steve Wariner at the Worcester Centrum in September 1996. It was a present for my 17th birthday, and I went to the show with my father. He's not a big country music fan, but he could appreciate Strait's talent and vocal ability.
Growing up in Massachusetts, I never saw that many people wearing cowboy hats in one place. Unlike some of the earlier rock concerts I'd been to, Strait and Wariner just stood up and sang their songs. Nothing fancy, just straightforward excellent country vocalists.
I remember hearing Strait sing most of his songs from his excellent "Blue Clear Sky" album and he even did "The Seashores of Old Mexico", introducing it as an old Merle Haggard song. Who would have known that he would have released a version of the song about a decade later?
I've since seen Strait concerts at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. and ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif., and all three of them were stellar shows.
One place I grew to love was Indian Ranch in Webster, Massachusetts. It was amazing to me that so many great country artists would come to a small Massachusetts town, but it was after all, New England's Capital of Country Music.
It's the place where I wrote my first country music concert review for Country Standard Time, a 1998 Lee Ann Womack show not long before her second album was released.
I also saw shows by Joe Diffie, which featured an opening act called The Ranch, whose lead singer was Keith Urban, in the summer of 1997. It was great to see George Jones, Blackhawk, JoDee Messina, Marty Stuart and others at The Ranch.
I remember how it wasn't that far from my home in Sharon, Mass. but there was no direct way to get there, so I'd always take different routes through the countryside. I traveled on roads that I never knew existed. Highway 16, routes through western Rhode Island. That was all part of growing up and the country music experience.
I even discovered a drive-in movie theater on the way there, located in Rhode Island, something I'd never experienced until I was 17.
You could go out on the lake and enjoy the day before the show. And there's always local talent opening for the big-time acts. I remember seeing Bobby Carlson open for Womack, and he put on a stellar show in his own right. Nine years later, I found his album in a California store and couldn't stop listening to it for a week.
I definitely miss the uniqueness of Indian Ranch and the down-home feel of the place. I wish we had a similar country music park here in California, but unfortunately, few of these places exist.
If you live anywhere in New England and you like country music, trust me, you'll really enjoy this place.