The moment the parking lot gates opened at Raymond James Stadium at 10 a.m. today, they started rolling in.
Thousands of country music fans arrived in RVs, buses and cars decked out in pirate flags and other regalia showing they were there to party before Kenny Chesney kicked off his No Shoes Nation Tour at the stadium.
The concert, which also features country star Eric Church, was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.
Within an hour of the first tailgaters arriving, the grass lots outside the stadium were a sea of red plastic cups, tents, burger smoke, coolers and elaborate temporary setups made for a fun day in the sun. Cornhole was the game of choice, and country music played from every direction.
Barbie Newton, of Redington Beach, was one of the first to arrive. Her setup included plastic flamingos, beach sand and buckets full of colorful leis that she insisted everyone who visited her area put on, including reporters.
“This is without a doubt the new parrot head movement, but even better,” she said, explaining the island vibe that seemed to flow through the tailgate.
Newton said she’s seen Chesney perform all over the country but loves the local flavor of his Tampa concerts the most. She said she always pays top dollar to be in the “Sandbar” section – the standing-room-only pit that puts her against the stage.
“It’s absolutely worth it to be right there where you can actually feel his sweat get on you. One time in Dallas I got to touch his boot; it was amazing,” she said.
Sam Clues, of Riverview, were tailgating nearby with a setup that included intricately painted Kenny Chesney guitars and a Welsh flag flying high above.
“The key to tailgating is food, beer and talking to strangers,” he said. “You can’t isolate yourself, you’ve got to talk to everyone. Like these guys to my right, we just met, but they’re ex-Marines and I’m ex-British navy. Now we’re all friends.”
A booth selling Chesney T-shirts and other concert merchandise had a long line of customers. The most popular items, vendors said, were straw cowboy hats in Chesney’s signature style, which were selling steadily for $25.
Parking lot attendants stuffed huge wads of cash into their aprons, as vehicles kept arriving through the afternoon, each paying from $25 to $100 to park.
The concert even attracted some new fans.
“I used to say I’d never listen to country music,” said Tampa resident Evelyn Olivencia as she gestured at her sister, Carmen Montalvo, who was visiting from New Jersey for the concert. “She was the one who got me started listening to it. Now, I love it. She corrupted me.”