Unusual as it seems, St. Leonard (population 751) becomes a major hub of the country music scene for a few days each year. The tiny Calvert County community’s volunteer fire department has hosted a summer concert series for nearly a decade, pulling in big-name acts to raise money for the organization. Bryan — who just spent two weeks at the top of the Billboard albums chart — appeared last year; he was preceded by fellow chart-toppers Reba McEntire, Blake Shelton, Sugarland and Alan Jackson.
The spectacle keeps growing. Last weekend, Gary Allan and Florida Georgia Line performed in front of a sold-out crowd, with nearly 6,300 people packed into the sprawling field next to the firehouse on Calvert Beach Road; this Sunday, rising star Brantley Gilbert takes the stage for the final show of the season.
In the early days of what is now an annual tradition, some had doubts it could work. At first, no one knew if such an off-the-radar event could recruit popular performers. People said, “Those acts are too big for you,” remembers Roberta Baker, co-chair of the concert committee.
“Well,” she said, “we got them.”
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A country music concert in St. Leonard may feature the same acts as the Washington area’s largest venues — in fact, Allan, Gilbert and Florida Georgia Line all will play at the nearly 20,000-capacity Merriweather Post Pavilion later this month. The main difference is that the rural community actually resembles the small towns that country artists often sing about.
On concert days, the town descends on the fire department. The event is almost entirely volunteer-run. Everybody knows one another. Cars and trucks line up bumper to bumper on the road next to the field; some park their RVs in the adjacent lot, where they can tailgate and then spend the night.
Inside the fire hall, a small army of volunteers devours a meal before work begins. During each show, the department’s regularly scheduled volunteer firefighters and EMTs (still on call for fires and emergencies) ensure the event runs smoothly. They bring their kids, who bring their friends, who bring their neighbors to help. The Calvert County Sheriff’s Office pitches in, too, serving as security.
Familial lines run deep at the fire department. Bill Lankford, the other concert committee co-chair, has volunteered at the station for more than 30 years; his wife, Jen, is the fire chief.
“This department is very much like a family,” Jen said, adding that the family-friendly aspect of the concerts influences the planning process. There’s not a lot to do in Southern Maryland in the summer, and concerts are an ideal activity for restless kids on vacation.