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Waco's Stars & Stripes fest pays tribute to first responders, medical staffers

Waco's Stars & Stripes fest pays tribute to first responders, medical staffers

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Saturday’s Stars & Stripes Music Fest could serve as a case where the B in a Plan B means bigger.

The festival, which features country artists Kylie Frey, Cory Morrow and headliner Corbin Easton, premieres at McLane Stadium, but it’s more a new face on an older event.

It’s the current iteration of the Freedom Ball, a 13-year event that has honored active-duty military service members and raised scholarship funds for McLennan County students. But when COVID-19 community protocols last year banned large gatherings and many indoor events, planners started thinking of alternatives, said Rachel Martinez, an event organizer and director of leadership development for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.

One idea was a socially distanced concert where bands would submit recorded videos with Waco shoutouts rather than a live performance, but as spring rolled around, state restrictions on large gatherings had relaxed and opened up a new option. “As the governor opened things up, we thought, why don’t we do a live concert,” she said.

McLane Stadium offered a venue with plenty of space to distance concertgoers for safety and country bands were eager to get back into shows before live audiences. Those two combined to result into Saturday’s Stars & Stripes Music Fest and broadened to add first responders and health care workers for their community service, particularly during the pandemic.

Freedom Ball supporters ended up raising more than $15,000 in scholarship money this summer, turning Saturday’s concert into more of a community “thank you,” with any funds raised donated to the chamber’s economic development affiliates, Martinez said.

Scholarship money goes to McLennan County high school and college students who are planning careers in aviation, aerospace and related engineering fields, with priority given to dependents of military personnel and veterans. In 2020, the ball awarded $13,500 to eight students and $17,000 this year to nine students, Martinez said.

Free tickets have been given to military personnel and their families, first responders and health care workers, with discounted tickets for Baylor University students. Tickets for all others cost $35 at the gate or $30 online at the chamber’s website, wacochamber.com.

The Freedom Ball returns March 5, 2022, at The Base at Extraco Events Center, the new events space at the fairgrounds.

For Easton, one of country’s leading performers with seven Top 10 singles to his credit, it’s a return to touring that had been sidelined last year due to pandemic protocols. The Florida native, who’s performed several times in Waco over the years, is touring in support of his EP “Didn’t Miss A Beat,” released last summer.

It’s a welcome return to live performances for opening act Kylie Frey, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter with roots in Louisiana and the rodeo world. “Just being able to play again is great,” she said in a recent phone interview.

While up-and-coming artists often lean on sets of covers for new audiences, Saturday’s opener and her five-piece band will offer an original-heavy set. “I’ll play my original music and sprinkle in covers of songs that shaped me,” she said. So far audiences have responded, in live concerts and in music sales, to her songs such as “Spur of the Moment,” “Rodeo Man” and “Too Bad.” “I wish I had a secret to tell you, but I’m just trusting my instincts and staying true to my tastes of what sounds good,” she said.

Her latest is “Horses in Heaven,” a duet with Randy Houser from her EP “Rodeo Queen,” and one that hints at her years growing up as a young rodeo rider. While her experience made her a fan of country singer-songwriter Chris LeDoux, it also taught her lessons that have shaped her professional career. “The lessons I learned from the rodeo were about hard work and dedication. As a rodeo queen, I learned how to interview and use my charisma,” she said.

The fall ahead offers new and bigger audiences, with a slot on the national PBR Monster Energy Tour with headliner Laine Hardy ahead.

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