Big John Mcanelly Music Fest – 4 p.m. Saturday, Pyramid Acres at the Lake of Egypt; admission is free; lineup includes local favorites Dave Clark, Jim Cato and Dave Simmons, and popular Nashville club performers Zack Neil, Craig Curtis, Mark Dooley, Becki Mcleod and Melissa Page
Twenty years ago, Jon Mcanelly was a lukewarm country music fan. He knew Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson were vitally important to the ‘Outlaw’ movement. Everything else was basically filler he picked up from local FM radio stations.
The Marion native was turned into a bigger fan of the genre by the high-energy shows of Neal McCoy, who frequently appeared in Southern Illinois in the mid-90s. He then caught a performance by hard-core, traditional honkytonk crooner Mark Chesnutt and was hooked on tunes like “Brother Jukebox,” “I’ll Think of Something” and “Bubba Shot The Jukebox.”
Mcanelly was so excited with his newfound passion for country music that he decided to go to Fan Fair in Nashville. It was a life-changing experience.
“I went down there specifically to attend the Mark Chesnutt Fan Club dinner, but I had a great time the entire week and met so many great people. It was amazing,” he said. “There were so many free shows all over town by established big-name stars. I just couldn’t believe I was there and all this great music was happening. It was overwhelming. I was hooked.”
During the next two decades, Mcanelly attended hundreds of concerts throughout the Midwest. He goes to Nashville at least once a month and is a regular at every club in town. He is on a first-name basis with bouncers and bartenders all over Music City, which he affectionately refers to as “NashVegas.”
At the drop of a hat, he will travel from his Williamson County home to the legendary clubs like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Legends on Lower Broadway to hear unknown “up-and-coming” artists play marathon sets for a handful of enthusiastic and supportive fans.
Mcanelly never misses a major concert anywhere within four or five hours from his house. Shows in St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Chicago are on his radar. Last Thursday, he was in Music City to see Chesnutt and “the Garth Brooks of Texas,” Kevin Fowler, play a packed club gig. He attended the Grand Ole Opry on Friday night, just hours after George Jones died.
“It was sad and incredible at the same time,” he said. “Everyone was singing their favorite George Jones songs as a tribute. It was very touching.”
Next week, he will travel to Springfield to see Carrie Underwood and Hunter Hayes.
“I don’t sleep much,” Mcanelly says. “I keep pretty close track of all the concerts coming anywhere close and get the tickets ordered as soon as possible. You never know what is going to show up in the mailbox.”
His Facebook page is dominated by a mountain of photos of virtually every name appearing on the Billboard country charts, like Eric Church, Zac Brown, Jason Aldean, Hank Williams Jr. and Randy Houser. His favorites are Miranda Lambert and his “drinking buddy” Blake Shelton.
Friends are constantly posting envious messages and wondering how he affords to pursue his passion, which requires deep pockets because of the extensive travel and the incredibly high cost of tickets. Mcanelly isn’t shy about paying premium prices to sit as close to the stage as possible.
The obvious answer about his finances is simple — he works hard. He is employed full time at the Southern Illinois Power Cooperative (the “power plant”) at the Lake of Egypt. He also owns two successful businesses, Neat Cut Lawn Care & Dirt Work and L & M Limo Service.
Mcanelly has become a sort of unofficial ambassador for country music in Southern Illinois. He knows every major player on the local scene and countless singers and musicians from Nashville, acquaintances from his many junkets south.
A tribute to his father, who passed away last year, and the enormous amount of fun he has had following the world of country music, Mcanelly is hosting the Big John Mcanelly Music Fest Memorial at 4 p.m. Saturday at Pyramid Acres at the Lake of Egypt. Admission is free.
The lineup includes longtime area favorites Dave Clark, Jim Cato and Dave Simmons, plus popular Nashville club performers Zack Neil, Craig Curtis, Mark Dooley, Becki Mcleod and Melissa Page.
“The first three hours we are just going to have acoustic performances. People will sing popular songs that have impacted their careers and talk about original songs they have written. I’m sure there will be a lot of George Jones tributes,” Mcanelly says. “At 7 p.m., Jim Cato has put together an entire band for the show, and it will be an all-out jam session for the final five hours. There is going to be a tremendous amount of talent on stage.”
Mcanelly says not to worry about the weather. The plan is to have an outdoor event. In case of rain, the show will be moved inside Pyramid Acres.
VINCE HOFFARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 618-658-9095.