Crisfield Organizers of the Tangier Sound Country Music Festival in Crisfield, as well as the handful of die-hard music fans who had waited outside the gates since as early as 4:30 a.m. to stake out the best seats, heaved a collective sigh of relief Saturday morning when the sun peaked through the overcast and mildly threatening skies.
As it turned out, they needn't have worried. The serendipitous weather conditions -- partly sunny skies and a delightful breeze blowing in off Tangier Sound -- combined with good planning, a solid lineup of musical talent and an exceedingly well-mannered crowd of 18,000 to make for a pleasant day of country music.
As gulls wheeled overhead and sailboats glided by on the nearby waterfront, festival-goers were treated to an approximately nine-hour show that kicked off at 11:30 a.m. with the heartland country-rock music of the band Great Plains, and wrapped up near sunset with the rowdy neo-honky tonk/"hillbilly rock" combination of co-headliners and duet partners Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt.
Aside from a half-dozen minor marijuana arrests, two cases of heat exhaustion and some last-minute juggling of the lineup (singer Pam Tillis' bus reportedly broke down and she and her entourage got a police escort from Severna Park to expedite her tardy arrival; Sammy Kershaw, scheduled to open the festival, was late after he and his crew got lost en route from Salisbury), the closest thing to a crisis was a rumored sellout of souvenir T-shirts.
"This is great, really beautiful," said Linda Cooper, 45, an xTC employee with the state's attorney's office in Howard County. Mrs. Cooper, a dedicated country music fan, had come from Randallstown for the show with her husband Jim, their two daughters and two granddaughters.
"We've been in some real dives" to hear country music, Mr. Cooper said, "but this is nice." He was sporting a Marty Stuart/Travis Tritt "NO HATS" tour T-shirt that matched the one his wife wore. "We'll definitely be back here next year," he said.
The Tangier Sound Country Music Festival, first held two years ago, but canceled last year due to problems in leasing the Hammock Pointe site, means more than just music to the economically beleaguered Somerset County/Crisfield region of Maryland's lower Eastern Shore. Sponsored by the state in conjunction with the Somerset County-based Tangier Sound Music Festival Foundation, the festival was created to pump economic vitality back into the community.
"This means a lot to the Crisfield area," said Somerset County attorney Tony Bruce, a foundation member. Mr. Bruce pointed out that the 1990 festival, which drew about 14,000 people, brought in $1.2 million in gross sales and provided 20 temporary new jobs.
"Because of the  festival we've had a couple of new businesses open here -- a restaurant and a bed and breakfast," Mr. Bruce added. "We held it early in the summer this year to get people's attention to come back to the area."
And while the emphasis Saturday was on music -- seven different acts performed during the all-day festival -- no effort was spared in acquainting visitors to the bounties of the Crisfield area, which bills itself as "The Crab Capital of the World." Some 7,000 locally prepared crab cakes and 6,000 soft crab sandwiches were provided for sale at the event. And recreational exhibits sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce and the state Department of Natural Resources were located in tents and booths on the grounds, along with additional musical, dancing and children's activities. Shuttle buses ran constantly between the festival site and Crisfield's small central business district about a half-mile away.
At mid-afternoon, as the temperature rose into the mid-80s, the Main Street liquor store did a booming business (the shuttles made special stops there; one courteous shuttle driver waited patiently for a rider stalled in line with a bag of ice and a
bottle of aspirin).
But otherwise Main Street was relatively deserted.
"We had right many in here this morning," said Dawn Harris, a cashier at Rustic Charm, a Main Street gift shop near the city pier.
Whereas last year's state-sponsored Fair Hill Country Music Festival in Cecil County seemed a textbook disaster of how badly things can go at such events, this year's Tangier festival seemed to demonstrate the opposite -- that with thorough planning and fortuitous weather, an event of this scale can be done right.
"This is a lot more than just a festival to this area, and we have a major responsibility to the people who come -- some of them from as far away as Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even Tennessee," said Jody Albright, a director of the Governor's Office of Culture and Arts and a key state-level organizer of the festival. "We want to make sure they come back again."
Country music festivals
The Tangier Sound Country Music Festival is one of three large country music festivals scheduled for Maryland this summer. Rocky Gap IV, at Rocky Gap State Park in Cumberland, will be held July 31 through Aug. 2; call (301) 724-2511 for information. The second annual Fair Hill Country Music Festival, at Fair Hill in Cecil County, will be held Aug. 15-16; call (410) 225-4712 or (800) 374-6874 for information.