NEWPORT — A founder of one of the largest outdoor concerts in the United States has died.
Michael “Mike” Barhorst, 77, of Fort Loramie, died Wednesday morning. He and his wife, Mary Jo, founded Country Concert in the Hills nearly 40 years ago.
“He was one of a kind,” said Jim Prenger, who has worked with the Barhorsts since before Country Concert was established. “He was my best friend. He was a unique man and was one of a kind.”
The Barhorsts opened a seasonal campground on their land in 1971. As campers returned yearly, the couple decided to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary with a party at the campgrounds. There were 300 invited guests for the 1978 party and local entertainers were featured.
In 1979, there were 500 invited guests and in 1980, the Barhorsts opened the event to the public. Some 800 people attended the one-day event.
The first official Country Concert was in 1981. The first performers on the stage were Louise Mandrell and R.C. Banon. Jim Prenger and Home Brew of Minster also took the stage.
This was the first year admission was charged for the concert, which has grown to a three-day event today, with more than 80,000 people attending the concert yearly.
“They started with a party at the campgrounds, which was an anniversary and birthday party,” Prenger said. “Mike said he needed Connie [Prenger’s late wife] and me to perform. Then we did it again the next year.”
When the Barhorsts decided to start Country Concert, the Prengers were at their side each step of the way.
“It’s been 40 years since we started working together,” Prenger said. “He’s such an amazing man. He was so nice to people and treated them with respect. I was very lucky to know him.”
Country Concert, Prenger said, was more than just a concert — it was a family affair.
“In the early days, my boys could be seen sleeping on the stage,” Prenger said. “Mike never had any problem with kids being around the concert. The Steinke family has three generations of their family working at the concert. He let the people take ownership in the show.”
Since 1981, more than 300 artists have performed on the stages at Country Concert. Many of them were repeat performers from year to year.
Many times, the performers were unknown or on the verge of stardom. Country Concert helped enhance their popularity.
“Some of it was luck,” said Prenger of Barhorst’s ability to pick the “right” entertainers to perform at the concert. “Some of it was skill. He was a country music fan, and he’d go to different places to listen to them perform.
“He knew what people liked to listen to and that they liked to listen to music outside,” Prenger said. “The people around here are hardworking and hard playing. He wanted to give them the chance to listen to something they liked.”
And Barhorst received satisfaction from watching the fans at the concerts.
“He was proud of all the fans’ enjoyment at the concerts,” Prenger said. “He loved that they were singing along to an emotional song that touched them.”
Some of the performers who have brought their talents to Country Concert included Garth Brooks, Lee Greenwood, Blake Shelton, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley.
“Garth Brooks performed here before he was famous,” Prenger said.
Prenger said the Barhorsts wanted each and every concert to be perfect for the audience.
“We drove [around] the campgrounds constantly,” Prenger said. “We probably put 250,000 miles on his Jeep and we never left the campgrounds. Every year, something at the facility would be improved.”
The concert — and in turn the Barhorsts — have wonderful fans, Prenger said.
“Our wonderful fans are a tribute to Mike and Mary Jo and their family,” Prenger said.
Barhorst’s legacy to Shelby County isn’t just through Country Concert. He has touched the lives of many people, said Mike Meyer, owner of Meyer’s Garage in Newport.
“He was a great person and was very community-minded,” Meyer said. “He was very active in the Newport Sportsman Club. He and my dad, Sonny, were together a lot.”
When the Barhorsts started Country Concert, Michael Barhorst asked the club to get involved with the event.
Michael Barhorst “would donate to Hospice and help with our spaghetti dinner every year,” Meyer said. “Anything that was a benefit to the people in the county or the businesses in the county, he was involved in up to his eyes.”
Barhorst, Meyer said, was one of the morning regulars at Meyer’s Garage.
“Every morning we have a roundtable session,” Meyer said. “I looked forward to his dry humor and his stories from ‘back in the day.’ He was fun to be around.”
Before the start of Country Concert, Barhorst owned Springcreek Gravel.
“When he was driving truck, he was in here the majority of days,” Meyer said. “After he sold the business, he was here every day. He’d tell us, ‘I have to go or I’m going to be late to work.’”
The growth of Country Concert, Meyer said, was because Barhorst would listen to what people wanted to see at the following year’s concert.
“He would take constructive criticism and make [the concert] better,” Meyer said. “Whether it dealt with traffic, entertainment or who they wanted to see, he listened to them all. That’s why the event has gotten to where it is today. He had key people who he confided in and he listened to them.”
And local community organizations also benefited from the Barhorsts’ generosity. Members of the organizations work at Country Concert on an annual basis to raise funds.
Prenger summed up the death of his friend with one simple statement: “I will miss him a lot.”