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Gone Country set to entertain, support Memorial Auditorium

Performers set to take the Memorial Auditorium stage for this year's "Gone Country" production are shown Sunday afternoon outside the auditorium. This year's show will be presented at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday. (Ryan McGaughey / Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Whether your music preferences lean to country or you simply want to be entertained, “Gone Country: Tribute to Country’s Greatest” will fill the bill.

With shows at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, the annual fundraising event for Worthington’s Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center (MAPAC) is jam-packed with a full program of country hits, both contemporary and classic.

“I’m a huge country music fan, and whether it’s ‘old’ country or ‘new’ country, there isn’t any country artist that I don’t like,” attested Cindy Elsing, director of Gone Country for a fourth year.

“There’s always a song I can connect to, and I believe a lot of other people feel that way, too, because this music is popular for a reason.

“Our entertainers reflect that, too; our youngest entertainer is 12 and our oldest is in his 70s. Age is not a factor when it comes to this music.”

Elsing is banking on country music’s cross-generational appeal to fill the seats, not to mention the attraction of a cracker-jack back-up band comprised of highly skilled musicians.

“We have one of the best bands in the area,” affirmed Elsing of the six-member Gone Country ensemble, headed by John Grosz of Sioux Falls, S.D., on lead guitar, harmonica and vocals.

“They’re familiar with each other’s skills, they’re fantastic musicians and they make our singers shine. There’s just a ton of talent in the band.”

With more than a dozen local singers involved, ranging from Teresa and Riley Widboom teaming up to deliver a John Denver tune, Stephanie Appel crooning “Cowboy, Take Me Away,” Laura Koepsell channeling Carrie Underwood or Harold Vander Sloot reminding the audience of country’s deep roots, Elsing is confident every audience member will find something to love.

“The singers and other participants volunteer their time and talent, and we’re very thankful for that,” said Elsing.

In addition, the 17 fourth- through sixth-grade singers of Jeanne Mammen’s Celebration Chorus will be present to share a medley of mountain folk songs, and at least 20 dancers (ranging in age from 10 to 17) from Kay Williams Prunty’s The Dance Academy will perform to “Country Girl” and “Heads California, Tails Carolina.”

“This is an exciting opportunity for us,” said Mammen. “It’s the first time we’ll have had a professional band accompany us.”

Bandleader Grosz is involved with Gone Country for a fourth time, and it’s the third consecutive year his particular blend of instrumentalists will support the show.

“Gone Country is an opportunity for us to do something completely different,” explained Grosz, an account executive for AutaBuy by day and an active professional musician on nights and weekends.

“All of our band members gig regularly, but more often that’s in a bar setting so we prepare for this differently.

“The Worthington area audiences are very appreciative, and it’s a tradition for the show participants to be greeted in the lobby after each performance,” he noted. “People are so thankful, and we don’t get that kind of receiving-line recognition in our normal gigs.”

This year, Grosz is adding a fiddler — Howard Hedger, who originally hails from England.

“We met doing a church gig, and I was just knocked out by how he played,” revealed Grosz. “When we first met with this year’s Gone Country singers and heard what they wanted to do, there were so many pieces that I thought would benefit from a fiddle, so that will bring a new dimension to our sound.”

Grosz adds that Hedger will also be playing and singing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” with the twist being his English accent incorporated into a downright Southern song.

Among those anticipating the 2017 Gone Country performances are MAPAC staff members Mark Brodin (technical director), Tammy Makram (managing director) and Janene Winters (box office manager).

Winters has personally joined Gone Country as a singer and comic sketch performer, and she is thrilled with the way Grosz and his band mates interact with and elevate the show.

“They are excellent, and it’s fun to see the performers, with the band’s encouragement, really rise to the occasion and have the support of a professional band backing them up,” said Winters.

“This band is super patient with the singers and makes sure all the performers are comfortable,” Winters continued.

“What makes Gone Country great is the camaraderie that develops among the performers backstage; every year we have a few new people as well as returning performers, but everyone seems to look forward to the ‘next time.’”

Elsing, who is also the current board president for Friends of the Auditorium (FOTA), agrees the unique mix of volunteer performers and professional band members is a win.

“John Grosz has been fantastic,” Elsing credited. “He takes the time to listen to everyone and accommodates their voices in the best keys.

“And the value of this show as a fundraiser is that the proceeds allow us to bring more professional entertainers and event to the auditorium. To me, it’s important to have those opportunities in our community, and the auditorium itself is a piece of Worthington history that we want people to continue enjoying.”

Makram is always pleased with the support expressed by Gone Country participants.

“These people volunteer their time to put on the show so it can feed funds back to FOTA for other performances,” said Makram.

“They spend a lot of time rehearsing and preparing, so I hope audiences will turn out to hear their efforts. Plus, the live band is fabulous.”

As Gone Country’s director, Elsing says one of the trickiest aspects is assembling the entire crew for rehearsals.

“We can’t seem to control Mother Nature,” she joked, noting they had intended to rehearse the previous Sunday evening when a snowstorm spoiled their plans.

Nevertheless, the disparate elements are starting to gel, and Grosz, for one, is so confident of its success that he’s invited a very special guest to see both performances.

“I’m flying in my mom, Alice Tulio, from Yuma, Ariz.,” he shared. “She’s specifically coming to see the show.”

If Tulio can make it all the way from Arizona, then Elsing guarantees it will be worth the trip for those already closer to downtown Worthington.

Assured Elsing, “You can’t ask for anything better for our community to enjoy and share. I know that anyone who comes won’t be disappointed and will have a good time.”

“Gone Country: Tribute to Country’s Greatest” is scheduled for 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center, 714 13th St., Worthington. There is a discount for tickets purchased through Friday. Visit the box office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, call 507-376-9101 or visit friendsoftheauditorium.com to purchase tickets.

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