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Behind the curtain: WE Fest plans surprises for 30th anniversary

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For most surprise parties, the guest of honor is usually the one to be surprised.

For the 30th WE Fest, which officially opens today, promoters of one of the nation's biggest country music festivals promise lots of surprises for attendees.

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John Gourley, vice president of Face Concerts, which puts on WE Fest, says concertgoers will want to stick around after Alabama closes the main stage on Saturday night. He is coy about the details and won't say if there will be a surprise appearance or an announcement, only smiling and saying that it will be a shocker.

With 29 previous WE Fests under their belt buckles, organizers say the only surprises left for them are which artists' career will take off next.

"The fun thing is trying to see who the next superstar will be," Gourley says.

This year, his pick is Eric Church, the penultimate act on Saturday.

"He's a star in waiting," Gourley says. "Church is going to be amazing."

He also points to the harmonious quartet Little Big Town who are currently peaking with their hit "Pontoon."

"Talk about lucky timing," Gourley says. "It's the ultimate summer song."

One surprise fans already know about is Steve Martin, who plays Friday night. Gourley is an old friend and was at the 2010 Grammys when Martin won for best bluegrass album and the two started talking about getting the actor/musician to WE Fest.

"Those out-of-the-box ones don't just come out of the air," Gourley says, acknowledging other non-mainstream country appearances like Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Ringo Starr and Ray Charles. "Sometimes you have to stretch a little."

Martin, who plays bluegrass banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers, may be a stretch compared to the other classic country stars, but Gourley says it's still a good fit.

"He's got an amazingly broad audience, and there's a little bit of his comedy in there," Gourley says, noting that Martin has been playing his comedy classic "King Tut" on tour. "It'll be high quality for sure."

Quality is why organizers got Alabama to play the final main stage set on Saturday. The group played the very first WE Fest.

"It's huge," Gourley says of the signing. "We agonized over what to do to make the 30th special."

Huge may also refer to the group's paycheck for the show, which the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported to be $1 million, quite a bit more than the group got to play the first show 29 years ago.

"The fact of the matter is that no one believed they were going to come," Gourley says of that first show in 1983. So promoters borrowed the group's bus and paraded it through Detroit Lakes with speakers on top.

"We won't be able to repeat that again," Gourley says, noting this is one of only a few American shows the group has come out of retirement to play.

"The idea is to get WE Fest ready for the next 30 years," he says. "And the only way to do that is to continue to make it a top-of-the-heap experience."

So far Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood have been announced for 2013, and Gourley says tickets for that show are already outselling this year's.

If you go

What: 30th WE Fest

When: Today through Saturday

Where: Soo Pass Ranch, Detroit Lakes

Info: Only single-day, music-only tickets remain for $89.93, (800) 493-3378

Lineup

Today:

2 p.m. - Gates open

2:45 p.m. - Rocket Club

4:15 p.m. - Colt Ford

6:15 p.m. - John Anderson

8:30 p.m. - Luke Bryan

10:45 p.m. - Jason Aldean

12:15 a.m. - Rocket Club (Barn Stage)

Friday:

2 p.m. - Gates open

2:45 p.m. - Hitchville

4:15 p.m. - Miss Willie Brown

6:15 p.m. - Brantley Gilbert

8:30 p.m. - Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers

10:45 p.m. - Toby Keith

12:15 a.m. - Hitchvillle (Barn Stage)

Saturday:

2 p.m. - Gates open

2:45 p.m. - Florida Georgia Line

4:15 p.m. - Little Big Town

6:15 p.m. - Sawyer Brown

8:30 p.m. - Eric Church

10:45 p.m. - Alabama

12:15 a.m. - Florida Georgia Line (Barn Stage)

Online: www.wefest.org

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