By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO September 8, 2006 In more than 25 years on the road, Mark Miller has never been upstaged by a bat.
Saturday night, the band thats commonly referred to as the Rolling Stones of country came to Monticello Gaming and Raceway.
As Miller, Gregg Hobie Hubbard, Joe Smyth, Jim Scholten and Shayne Hill came onstage, a bat fluttered around while women in the front row shrieked.
He flew off, and Sawyer Brown began rocking the grandstand with charismatic Miller dancing across the stage.
But the band was no more than three songs into their nearly two-hour set when the bat was back, swooping in on Miller.
Grabbed in a towel by a stagehand and carried off the stage, the bat made for easy target the rest of the night.
I promise you, Hubbard said with a grin. Weve got nothing to top that.
Miller nodded, turning to the keyboardist.
You were jumping around like a girl! he said with laugh.
But Hubbard said hes thought of the better ways to die.
Dropping dead from a bat bite in a casino isnt one of them! he said.
Welcome to the boondocks, came a scream from the audience.
Thank you, Miller replied. You should have seen us trying to get here! Theres six of us gathered around a map, and everywhere you stop for direction, everybody just points down the road!
The band that got its start on Star Search in the 80s was in town for Thunderjam, the third and final concert of country station Thunder 102s summer concert series.
Station owner Vince Benedetto never expected Thunders meteoric rise from upstart in the summer of 2005 when he purchased the former all-news station and made a format switch.
Since then, independent ratings corporation Arbitron has listed Thunder atop the Sullivan County charts by an increasingly large margin.
To say thank you for that success, Benedetto said the station threw Thunderbash in March at the racino with cover band X Country in town.
Some 4,000 fans packed the grandstand for the free concert.
It caught us off guard, Benedetto said. We were expecting maybe 500, and there was close to 4,000.
And the next day, not one person called in a complaint, he added with a laugh. Thunder has been our biggest success the station exploded, the community just went wild for it.
Coming to Sullivan County after nine years in the Air Force, Benedetto bought two stations with a deep connection to their communities in Wayne County.
The third, 102.1 FM, was a 24-hour news station with few community ties.
The Thunder crew has changed that, and thats what the summer concert series was all about.
Instead of just making a country concert, to build a community country base with the local acts playing too, Benedetto explained.
In July, Lonestar came to Monticello Gaming and Raceway for Thunderfest with at least 2,500 fans and a slew of bands celebrating the birthday of Thunder 102 and the racino.
Saturday, Sawyer Brown was invited in for what Benedetto themed a smaller, more rock-like concert.
Before Bethel Woods, Benedetto said Sullivan County didnt have the chance to see world class acts in their backyard.
Now that hes here, he wants to provide that to the community.
And the indoor grandstand at the raceway makes it possible for more concerts at different times of the year.
Thats fine with the raceway.
Marketing Director Regina Hensley said shes trying to reimagine the raceway as an entertainment venue, not just a place to gamble.
The Lava Lounge is now host to stand-up comedians, rock bands and country acts.
The Monkees Mickey Dolenz has made an appearance, so has Johnny Cashs brother Tommy.
Theyre coming to more than a video gaming machine place, Hensley said.
The same can be said of Thunder its more than just a country radio station, Benedetto said.
We wanted to make it local, and local means Sullivan County, he explained. There was a big hole in the market for country music, and we gave it the best go we could.
Theres no superficialness to what we do, he continued. We always say were just getting started because literally, we really are!
We just give it our best shot, normally were just so busy we dont have time to sit down and look and critique.
So whats next?
The stage is set, Benedetto said, for Thunderbash, Thunderfest and Thunderjam in 2007.
Its hard to say what the next 12 months will hold, he said.