Thousands flock to Independence Day Concert

WARNER ROBINS -- Crowds gathered early Monday afternoon for the 30th annual Independence Day Concert, huddling under umbrellas for shade and guzzling water.

About 50 people lined up seated in lawn chairs or on beach towels outside McConnell-Talbert Stadium more than two hours before gates were scheduled to open.

Those who arrived early were just a small portion of the more than 15,000 to attend the city’s largest annual event.

“This thing has gotten bigger and bigger every year, so we know to get here early to get a good seat,” said Joel Dudley, as he shaded his wife, Barbara, with an umbrella. “We’ve attended probably the last 10 of them.”

As experienced concert-goers, the couple came equipped with a plan -- get in as soon as the gates open, and then go back to the car to retrieve the cooler, chicken, strawberries and water.

While they brought the goodies, the provided entertainment was free.

The event was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., with music provided by the Band of the U.S. Air Force Reserve and former band member and NBC’s “The Voice” performer Angie Johnson. Country star Josh Turner was this year’s headliner, and a short fireworks display was set to wrap up the night.

“The Air Force is one of the best shows, and these are the best fireworks in the area,” Dudley said. “We’re just here to celebrate America.”

This year’s event is anticipated as the last for The Band of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, which has coordinated the event since it began.

The Robins Air Force Base-based band is slated to be deactivated due to Department of Defense budget cuts.

Lt. Gen. Charles Stenner, commander of Air Force Reserve Command, said his command has yet to see President Barack Obama’s budget, and “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. ... This band has a great history.”

Stenner said while the future for the band and the event are uncertain, the possibilities are endless when the community and Air Force Reserve Command come together.

While the band has quite a following, many first-timers were drawn by the chance to see headliner Turner up close and personal.

Donna Garner drove from Williamson for the event, prompted by her 7-year-old granddaughter, who is a big fan of Turner.

Ivy Groem said she likes the country singer’s deep voice best.

Hannah Johstono, a 19-year-old from Macon, also shares an affection for the singer.

“He’s my future husband. He just doesn’t know it yet -- and he might already be married,” she said.

Johstono and her friend Brandon Walker said they try to attend the event each year.

“Especially when they have good concerts,” Walker said. “Good concerts and good seating. That’s the draw for me.”

Though temperatures were still in the 90s as crowds filed into the stadium, many, like DeAnne Ralley, who travelled from Eastman with her two daughters, were thankful for Sunday’s rain, which cooled record temperatures set over the weekend.

Event organizers were happy with the turnout on a balmy Monday, said Philip Rhodes, public affairs spokesman for Air Force Reserve Command.

The Independence Day Concert is “the pinnacle event” for the community each year, he said, adding that the event’s reach spans beyond Warner Robins and Georgia.

“This is also broadcast to our troops overseas,” Rhodes said. “It’s a way to show our appreciation and give them a little taste of home.”

To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 256-9751.

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