The setting sun casts long shadows over a crowd of nearly 100,000 people. They are gathered in lawn chairs and upon blankets, and have come from all over this great country, and in some cases, from all over the world. The sweet summer air is filled with the sounds of laughter, conversations, black cat firecrackers and the occasional whistle and pop of a bottle rocket. Children with sparklers entertain themselves as everyone waits in anticipation for the real entertainment to begin. Off in the distance, cumulonimbus clouds on the horizon pose no threat as the glow of dusk continues to fade more and more as though someone is slowly turning down the dimmer switch. The smell of hamburgers and hot dogs floats through the air as someone grills somewhere in the park. American flags are numerous, occasionally rustled by a rare breeze on this mostly still summer evening. Finally, after some people have literally waited for days, the moment arrives. Four men who need no introduction take the stage – the pride and joy of Staunton, VA. The air is now filled with thunderous applause, whooping and hollering, and many come to their feet to show their gratitude and appreciation. The crowd sits back down ready to be entertained in a grand fashion as another Independence Day is celebrated in Gypsy Hill Park.
When people ask me what my first concert was, I typically respond “The Dave Matthews Band.” My VMI roommates and I would see the group, which was still in its infancy in the early to mid-90s, at least twice a month if not more. Generally, the concerts were free and much more intimate than the sold out stadium performances of the past two decades.
However, my first actual concert was at a celebration called Happy Birthday, USA! I had been in Virginia for about a year and was almost seven years old. My adoptive parents decided we would go to the park to be a part of the yearly celebration that included a parade, picnic and the main event – a concert put on by a group known as The Statler Brothers.
It all started in 1969. The Statlers were riding around the park on a July 4th in their hometown when they noticed that, other than a few picnics here and there, there really wasn’t much going on. So, the brothers decided they were going to do something about it. They knew that it was this great country that was giving them their opportunities, and they wanted to show their appreciation by giving back to the community that had supported them. In 1970, The Statler Brothers put on their first Happy Birthday, USA! performance, free of charge. Every year after that until 1994, The Statlers put on a show in Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton, Virginia. Each year, they included guests such as Crystal Gale, Johnny Cash and Barbara Mandrell just to name a few. (I can still clearly remember the incredibly long hair of Crystal Gale). Each year, the crowd size grew and grew. Eventually, it reached a point where Staunton’s population would more than quadruple its normal size of 15,000 to 20,000 during the July 4th festivities.
I was privileged to attend several of these concerts from 1980 to 1994. They are events that I will never forget and were truly special occasions where patriots and people of all races and creeds came together to celebrate this great country. To say that there was an electricity in the air at these gatherings would be an understatement
I look back with very fond memories upon those Independence Day celebrations. To be a witness to and a part of something that was incredibly wholesome and good is a blessing I will always cherish. The impression of four men who selflessly gave of themselves for the community has been lasting upon me. The Statler Brothers and their Happy Birthday, USA! celebrations will always have a very special place in my heart.