ALBANY — While initial — and most likely overly enthusiastic — estimates had the Wednesday-night crowd at the Exchange Club Fairgrounds here at “between 12,000 and 20,000,” the fact that that number was moderated to “between 8,000 and 15,000” Thursday did nothing to diminish the overwhelmingly positive response all around to the Luke Bryan-headlined Heart of South Georgia benefit concert.
The artists at the concert — Bryan, Phillip Phillips, Cole Swindell, the Peach Pickers and DJ Rock — all hail from the region, Bryan, “American Idol” winner Phillips and Peach Picker Dallas Davidson all with ties to metro Albany, while Swindell hails from Terrell County’s Bronwood community, and the “other” Pickers, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, from Valdosta.
Albany businessman/musician Bo Henry, who has personal relationships with all of the artists and was instrumental in helping bring the home boys back home for the show, said Thursday the benefit concert allowed Albany and southwest Georgia — as well as the artists — to shine.
“Goodness, yes, the show was a huge success for this community,” Henry said. “There was a great crowd, the musicians were exceptional, and everyone had fun. This was such a morale booster for our community; it showed that our folks can get out and have a good time when given the opportunity. Look, people in Albany are not used to having shows like this, especially on a Wednesday night. But they stepped up and supported the show.”
Henry said many in the community don’t understand the logistics — and some sacrifices — artists must make to be a part of this type show.
“If the support isn’t there, a lot of time these guys have to pay for everything (staff, production) out of their own pockets,” he said. “People kept saying, ‘Why are they waiting so long (after January 2017 storms) to have the show? The biggest thing is that you have four artists who all have their own schedules, their own management team, their own agents and their own record companies. It takes a lot to make everyone’s schedules mesh.
“They probably could have done something sooner at a smaller venue, but these guys wanted to put on a full-fledged, first-class show for the people of their hometown. I think what the people of Albany should know is that this production really shows the kind of people these guys are.”
While Albany and Lee County residents, as well as country fans from throughout southwest Georgia, made up a large portion of the audience Wednesday, fans drove to Albany from neighboring Southern states like Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Louisiana, and one group even made the trek south from Ohio to see the all-star lineup.
“We appreciate all of you being here on a Wednesday night,” Bryan said as the crowd roared in response. “How many of y’all have to go to work tomorrow? How many of y’all have to go to school tomorrow? We’re just thankful you’re here, supporting us and supporting your community.”
Phillips, who recently completed a co-headlining tour with Gavin Degraw, drew a huge response from the crowd when he segued from the classic “Georgia on My Mind” — a signature hit for Albany native Ray Charles — into his own No. 1 song “Home.” Phillips altered the closing line of the former with a grace note for his hometown, singing, “Just an old sweet song that keeps Albany, Georgia, on my mind.”
“People all over ask my why don’t you move away from Albany?” Phillips said. “But I like going to House of China. I like being in a place where it gets quiet. This is my home, and I love Albany, Georgia.”
Swindell and Davidson also paid homage to their native land.
“People all over ask me, ‘What have y’all got in the water down in y’all’s part of Georgia that keeps turning out all these country stars?’” Swindell said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I drank a lot of that water.’”
Davidson, who donned a T-shirt of his high school alma mater, Albany’s Westover High School, for the Peach Pickers’ performance, said, “The songs that I’ve written come from right here; the people here in Albany and southwest Georgia are what got me where I am.”
Fans started lining up at the fairgrounds at 10 a.m., anxious to secure prime viewing spots once gates opened at 5 p.m. By 2:30, a group of around 200 had already joined the queue.
“We’ve been here since around 2 o’clock,” Monica Bullington of Warner Robins, who noted she won her tickets from a Macon radio station, said as she and her group waited patiently for gates to open. “I’ve seen all of these guys live, but my daughter (Destinee Clay) told me I had to go and take her along.”
As DJ Rock, who served as MC as well as throwing together amazing between-set mixes (Who would have guessed “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and “Sexyback” would work in one of his more creative mash-ups?), introduced the Peach Pickers, noting the number of No. 1 songs written by the trio, he told the crowd, “These guys have written every country song you’ve heard on the radio in the last seven or eight years. Welcome some of Luke’s best friends.”
Staff security, Albany/Dougherty County law enforcement personnel and EMTs at the fairgrounds reported no incidents … other than some overabundant partying that left a few among the crowd feeling a little fuzzy.