It’s big. Four days packed with live music. The broad beach serving as a backdrop. Thousands of fans filling an outdoor Grand Strand venue to hear stars of the country music scene.
Headliners in this year's lineup feature some impressive stars: Darius Rucker, Kenny Chesney, Lee Brice, Billy Currington, LANco and Jason Aldean. Other artists include a host of lesser-known musicians seeking to make their mark in the country music industry.
It’s the third year for the Carolina Country Music Fest, which blasted out of the gate in 2015 promising a big economic impact on Myrtle Beach and signaling the start of summer. It has delivered.
The festival is, by far, the biggest such event in South Carolina, drawing tens of thousands of people to two stages on 14 acres of beachfront land. Other important festivals, such as Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA and Columbia's Indie Grits Festival, are well-attended bonanzas, offering multiple forms of art. But the country music marathon is a unique offering of A-list talent in a single musical genre.
The Carolina Country Music Fest, or CCMF as it is popularly called, has become a “marquee event for the Myrtle Beach area,” said Brad Dean, chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, which promotes the event.
CCMF, which runs from June 8 to 11 featuring 33 acts, is presented on the old site of the Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park by Charlotte-based Full House Productions, and it is an answer to many prayers.
The 58-year-old amusement park closed in 2006. The Great Recession that hit at the end of 2007 sapped the tourist industry. Myrtle Beach's long-running Sun Fun Festival shut down in 2012 after more than six decades of activities that mostly appealed to locals and helped kick off the summer. (Oceanfront merchants brought it back on a smaller scale last year.)
“The Sun Fun Festival was created at time when Myrtle Beach wasn’t a popular destination,” Dean said. “Lots of locals have fond memories. The challenge was that the economic impact was limited and the publicity value didn’t reach beyond the region.”
So the chamber started looking for a good replacement.
Close to Nashville
Bob Durkin, president of Full House Productions, said the partnership developed naturally.
His company had been looking for an opportunity to organize a country music festival in the Carolinas, and it had worked with the Myrtle Beach chamber when Charlotte hosted the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which Full House produced. The Myrtle Beach chamber opened a temporary headquarters at a downtown Charlotte bar with a large sand sculpture on the sidewalk to attract delegates and journalists.
When the production company realized it could have access to 15 acres of prime real estate by the beach, the gears started to turn fast.
Durkin said recently completed research done at the request of his company shows the festival has an immediate economic impact of more than $20 million, representing spending at the festival itself as well as at area hotels, restaurants and stores. Some festival patrons plan on being in town for two or three days during the festival then decide to stay longer, he said.
The success, Durkin said, is due to a few converging factors: a great partnership with the city and its chamber, the ability of Full House to lure big country stars to the festival, effective marketing and the right timing.
That last contributing factor has proven to be a bit of a surprise, according to Durkin and Dean. CCMF coincides with the CMA Music Festival in Nashville but, interestingly, the events don’t really compete. Rather, the festival benefits from the concentration of country artists in a city that’s 600 miles from Myrtle Beach, Durkin said.
“It works because of the talent, talent right there in Nashville,” he said. “It’s far enough away, but close enough so they can get back to Nashville, to their obligations.”
What's more, CCMF filled a gap.
“That particular weekend had been an underperforming weekend for several years as it was nestled between the spring travel and summer travel seasons when most schools are still in session,” Dean said. “So we had been looking for a number of years at a way to boost travel and tourism that weekend, and had looked at many events, but none that we felt were the right fit for the destination.”
The chamber of commerce folks got together with the Full House folks and quickly realized they had a win-win.
“For us, the benefits go well beyond the economics,” Dean said. “CCMF is bringing millions of dollars into our community at an otherwise slow time. But there’s an extended benefit from the publicity it attracts. CCMF is promoting our destination regionally and nationally and helping boost the Myrtle Beach brand into the mainstream, in addition to attracting top talent that also helps promote our brand.”
When Tim McGraw performed at the festival last year, part of his concert was filmed and used in a music video, with the oceanfront of Myrtle Beach clearly visible behind him. Millions of fans viewed the video and, by extension, the Grand Strand, Dean said. That’s the sort of happenstance marketing any tourist destination would kill for.
“So we view CCMF as the gift that keeps on giving,” he said.
'What a blast'
Year One was a success. Eric Church, a big country music star, was a headliner in 2015, and the festival drew thousands of patrons, secured sponsorships and received plenty of local and regional promotion. Year Two was a smashing success, drawing more than 20,000 fans. This year, Durkin expects as many as 30,000 people.
Maybe that’s why Lewis Brice is joining the fun this year. Brice, a Sumter native, is playing Friday on a secondary stage.
“This is my second year to play the festival,” he said. “What a blast it was the first year. ... The setup makes you feel like a rock star.”
He said the event, which has blown up in just three years, gets good radio support and the crowds are huge, despite summer heat. And it’s great for the country music industry because it gives new artists a chance to shine alongside established stars.
“It’s definitely an experience I want to keep being a part of,” Brice said.
The festival kicks off with a Thursday night show featuring up-and-comers Montgomery Gentry, Brett Young, Trent Tomlinson, Darrell Harwood, Walker McGuire, Taylor Norris and Dee Jay Silver.
The show will give local police, fire and security officials a good practice run for the larger concerts to follow, Durkin said. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, musicians will fill two stages on the site. Rucker is the big headliner on Friday, Chesney takes command on Saturday, and Aldean performs Sunday.
Five or six other artists also perform on the main stage each day; three more are presented every day on a second stage called the Fire Stage.
Morgan Myles Myles, a Pennsylvania native who classifies her music as “country-soul,” takes the main stage Friday. CCMF provides up-and-coming artists like her with a venue to showcase their music, Myles said.
“It’s jam-packed with great artists,” she said. “The talent's through the roof, the crowd’s great, and you’re right on the beach, so it’s pretty cool.”
The headliners play in the evening, of course, but the afternoons are replete with talented musicians like Myles who, eager to reach a broader audience, get the party started, she said.
“You’re seeing the future," Myles said, "what’s next in Nashville."