As a child, Billy Arnold lived a half-mile from the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds, where he enjoyed munching on shortcake and tapping his toe to country music.
He didn’t ever think of taking the stage – because he never thought of himself as an accomplished singer and disliked standing in front of crowds.
“I never dreamed I’d be part of the festival,” he said. “I was too shy.”
He got over his bashfulness and in his 20s hit the road as a country singer and moved to Nashville. Three years ago, he teamed up with a pretty blonde singer, Kari Nelson, who a little more than a year ago became his wife.
Last year, the Kari & Billy duo played one day at the festival. But this year they will be a daily act, performing at noon, 2 and 4 p.m. from Thursday through the festival’s end on March 9.
Festival General Manager Paul Davis said the festival booked Kari & Billy – and dozens of other entertainers – to offer more on-ground entertainment. There will be more acts and more shows than ever, free for the price of admission, he said.
Of course, the festival will still feature its typical staple of big name entertainers on the Wish Farm Soundstage, carnival rides on the midway and mountains of strawberry shortcake, Davis said.
But the number of free shows per day has been nearly doubled to more than 50. The festival took the step at the urging of its customers.
“People who visited the festival told told us that they wanted more entertainment so they could stay longer at the festival without spending a lot of money,” Davis said. “They told us that sometimes they couldn’t get into our shows because they were too crowded and there wasn’t room.”
The festival added another stage near the main ticket office so it could accommodate more entertainers than ever. Kari & Billy will perform at the new venue, the Paradise Grilling Systems Stage.
“It gave us a chance to open the festival up to more performers and more diversity. We have Hispanic acts, gospel and others that appeal to more people,” he siad.
Some entertainers will perform just one show, such as former American Idol contestant Shannon Magrane, who takes the stage 7 p.m. Thursday, and daily performers such as the 37-year-old Arnold and his 26-year-old wife.
The festival staff members took about as much time finding and booking free acts in the past few months as they did signing headline acts, Davis said.
“We have a new emphasis on our on-grounds, free entertainment and we are going into it in a big way. People will notice the difference,” he said.
The new acts include newcomers, such as Kevin and Martina Keith’s Wild about Monkeys animal exhibition and Redhead Express, four country-music playing sisters. Longtime on-grounds favorites return as well, such as the Runa Pacha music group, Robinson’s Racing Pigs and Dennis Lee.
Apryll Walker, mother of Redhead Express members, Kendra, 24, LaRae, 22, Alisa, 20 and Meghan, 18, said the family was looking forward to the festival, where her daughters perform daily at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., except for no 5 p.m. show on March 2.
“We know that the strawberry festival is a great place to play,” she said.
The Redhead Express’ younger siblings, Sean, 15, Joseph, 13, and Ammon, 11, will also perform at the festival as the bluegrass-playing Walker Brothers, at 1, 5 and 8:30 p.m. March 5-9.
The family, including dad Brett, started out performing in churches and nursing homes in their native Alaska, and in recent years moved to Nashville so the children could pursue their music careers, she said.
Apryll and her husband now work behind the scenes, marketing the acts and running the sound system for concerts.
The visit to Plant City has an added bonus, Apryll Walker said.
“We all love strawberries.”
Another new free act is Savannah Jack, a trio that performs in the showcase tent daily at noon, 3 and 6 p.m., except for 6 p.m. on March 2. Davis said the festival likes the high-energy act that includes a lot of audience interaction.
Don Gatlin, the lead vocalist, said he and fellow Savannah Jack members Jay Darby and Matt Thomas have been together more than 10 years and have opened for Kenny Rogers and other stars. Many of their fellow musicians have told them that the strawberry festival is a great place to play, he said.
“We’ve heard so much about it in Nashville and we’re excited that we are getting the chance to play there,” he said. “It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for a long time.”