Dee West, left, and Deborah Collier stand near the newly renovated Sasser Flea Market entertainment stage.
SASSER — More than 2,000 country music fans had already made their way to the Sasser Flea Market to catch Craig Morgan’s show here last July despite a surprise thunderstorm earlier in the day that had dumped inches of rain on the grounds.
Those fans started heading dejectedly toward the exits, though, when Morgan announced from the stage that the rain had affected his sound equipment badly enough to keep him from playing.
Dee West, the farmer’s wife who has become one of the most successful promoters in south Georgia, stood in tears as Morgan made the announcement. It wasn’t just that she was about to disappoint 2,000 people who had come from all over the Southeast for a night of country music and fireworks. There was also the matter that Morgan’s contract clearly stated that in the event of inclement weather, he could opt not to perform but still would be owed his contract price.
“I was standing beside the stage with tears streaming down my face,” West remembers. “The show was canceled, and I still owed Craig $20,000.”
Before the Sasser staff could hand out too many rain-check vouchers for a future show, however, West felt a tap on her shoulder.
“I’m standing there wondering what I’m going to do, and Craig Morgan says, ‘If you think it will help and you can set me up a place inside, I’ll play a couple of songs, just me and my guitar,’ ” West said. “And just like that my sorrow turned to delight.”
With the help of volunteers and fans who’d stuck around in hopes of seeing Morgan perform, one of two barns that are part of the Sasser Flea Market complex was cleared, and fans were ushered in for what was to be an intimate few moments with the man they’d come to see.
“That ‘couple of songs’ turned into a 2 1/2-hour show, and Craig Morgan put on the performance of a lifetime,” West said. “And we only had a few people leave. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people got one of those up-close-and-personal shows that you’ll never see at one of those big venue.
“And it was all because Craig just didn’t want to see the night turn into a disaster. We try to treat everybody who performs out here like they’re special. They seem to appreciate that.”
‘SOMETHING TO DO’
West and a couple of her friends — artist Deborah Collier and Bob Perry — shared a number of such stories with a visitor recently as the most unlikeliest of promoters recounted how she’d turned some unused land on property she and her late husband had purchased a decade ago to “give me something to do away from him” into the hottest concert venue in Southwest Georgia.
Since that time, West has brought such musical luminaries as Jesse McReynolds, the Osborne Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, the Lovin’ Spoonful, John Anderson, Sammy Kershaw, David Allan Coe, Joe Nichols, Morgan and Jake Owen to a community seven miles west of Albany with a population of 279.
“I never had a dream that I’d do anything like this,” said West, who is as down-home genuine today as she was when she was a shy high school student in nearby Dawson “more years ago that I want to remember. But the whole thing was pretty simple, really. We started having folks play out here, we treated them just like we treat everyone else from around here, and they liked it.
“I consider every artist who’s played here a personal friend, and several of them, after playing a show, have told me they wanted to come back.”
After spending her obligatory “year away in the big city” in Atlanta, Cordelia “Dee” Almon returned to Southwest Georgia and her roots for good in 1983. She married Webster County farmer Gary West, they had two kids — Blake and Bonnie — to go with his two from a previous marriage, and she helped out on the farm. That lasted as long as Gary, who died in 2006, could stand it.
“He was the most laid-back person, and I was just the opposite,” Dee West said of her late husband. “I was so shy when I was younger — I had a teacher who mispronounced my name a whole year and I was too shy to correct him — but once I went away to college and started talking, I haven’t stopped.
“The Sasser Flea Market had just been built in 1999, and Gary bought it for me in 2002 so that he could get away from me.”
THE FLEA FESTIVAL
The flea market complex included 18 acres of land, most of which was not being used, so Dee West devised a plan to drum up business and put the land to use. She and a couple of friends came up with the idea of holding a weekend arts and crafts festival, and thus was born the Sasser Flea Festival.
“It was a way to make some money and things went well, but the thing I noticed that went over best was the entertainment,” West said. “The first couple of years we had local talent, then I got this idea to maybe step out a little and bring some bluegrass artists in. That’s very popular in this region, and those shows went well.”
It turned out that West was a natural at enticing agents and artists to give her little venue a shot. And the process for her was simple beyond belief.
“I listened to the radio and talked with friends and neighbors and asked them who they’d like to see,” she said. “I’d do a little research on the Internet, find out who the artists’ agents were, pick up the telephone and call them. Once our name was established and word got out that we were legitimate, agents started calling me.”
Case in point: Rising country star Colt Ford, who is scheduled to open his “Declaration of Independence Tour” and kick off the flea market’s 2012 concert season with a show April 6. Ford will be joined by Rehab, Les Cooper and J.B. & the Moonshine Band.
“Chris Hurt with Average Joes Entertainment called me and said he was looking at four venues in our area for Colt to start his tour at,” West said. “He said he looked at the Albany Civic Center, Chehaw Park, the racetrack in Cordele and our place. He asked if he could come down and see what we had. I was just thrilled to be considered.
“He came down, visited with us, then called me and told me of all the places he’d gone, he liked the way we treated him and the attitude we had best. So he’s renting out the place for Colt’s tour kickoff.”
Ford said the Sasser venue is just the kind of place he wants to play on his tour.
“My show is for the everyday, hard-working, American,” the singer said. “So many venues now overcharge with high ticket fees that most people can’t afford in this economy. We wanted to find venues who understand our philosophy, and Sasser Flea Market is one of them.”
One would assume that West’s name in Terrell County, one of the poorest counties in the state, would be gold since her shows bring desperately-needed tax revenue to the county’s coffers. One would be wrong.
“I really don’t understand the situation in the county, but they’ve actually made it as hard for me to have concerts as they can,” she said. “You’d think the fact that we’re bringing tax revenue in — we paid $4,000 in taxes just on the ticket sales from the Jake Owen concert — would be a good thing for the county, but that’s apparently not the case.
“They required me to get outdoor permits that no one else had to get until I challenged them and not one but two judges said what they were doing was unconstitutional. And for some reason the sheriff’s department finds it necessary to put a roadblock at every pig trail leaving Sasser on the nights we have shows. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t think anyone should drink and drive, and I encourage people who drink to have designated drivers. But their tactics keep people away.”
Collier, who serves as artist chauffeur, noted that she had been stopped while transporting Morgan and that Coe’s tour bus had been stopped by Terrell sheriff’s officers as well.
“Craig said he couldn’t believe that we’d been stopped,” Collier said. “He said it’s been his experience that artists are usually escorted to and from venues by law enforcement.”
TOO MUCH TO HANDLE
West hints that her status as a female businesswoman may be too much for some local officials to handle.
“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot to do in this community, and rather than supporting me with what I do, some of our county officials want to make it harder for me.”
Terrell County Sheriff John Bowens said that his office has done nothing to interfere with West’s shows.
“We don’t just have roadblocks when she has shows, we have them all the time,” Bowens said. “And what we’re doing is out on the roadways; we don’t do anything that interferes with her shows or her property. What she should be concerned about is the underage drinking that goes on out there. What’s the difference in kids going into a bar and going out there where alcohol is available?
“Ms. West seems to be making a mountain out of a molehill with this. She should appreciate that we’re on the roads as a safety precaution. If some underage kid was at her show and drinking and had an accident, it could come back on her.”
Still, it’s obviously going to take more than a few roadblocks and questionable permits to stop Dee West. She’s already putting together her 2012 lineup with Lori Morgan, Uncle Kracker, Chris Young and Thompson Square among the artists she’s negotiating with. And then there are folks like Sledge, Owen, Morgan and Nichols who’ve made it clear they wouldn’t mind a return trip to Sasser.
“Here’s the thing about this: I absolutely love it. This is my baby,” West said. “I love dealing with the agents, the artists, the people who come to the shows, everything about the process. I just double up on my Prozac and have a ball.”
And music fans from Columbus to Albany to Macon to points north, south, east and west come along for the ride.