GILFORD, N.H. — R.J. Harding told his father he was nuts when he decided in 1996 to turn an 80-acre field next to the family's hotel into a concert venue by setting up a temporary stage and lawn chairs.
He succeeded in bringing in names like Johnny Cash and Chubby Checker for that first summer, but the place alongside Lake Winnipesaukee struggled to survive. But Harding's dad stuck with it, and by 2002 the place was making a profit and drawing names like Bonnie Raitt, Sammy Hagar, Eminem, Hootie & The Blowfish and others.
"We just got clobbered, of course," Harding said of the early years. "We lost tons of money. But my father caught the fever," he said.
The Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion in Gilford, a small venue surrounded by quaint lake resort towns, puts on about 25 shows a summer from a variety of artists. But it has gained an especially ardent following in country music.
The pavilion, which can accommodate an audience of up to 6,500, has been named by the Academy of Country Music as one of the top country music venues in the nation for the last few years, competing with much larger arenas in Nashville, Chicago, Kansas City and Oklahoma. It's also been named one of the best small amphitheaters by Pollstar, based on box office attendance.
"I think we're on the radar because we started doing country up here before country was really cool up here," Harding said. "We've always done pretty well with it." He noted the growing popularity of country music on "American Idol," where both winner Scotty McCreery and second-place finisher Lauren Alaina were country singers.
This year's country concert lineup includes Trace Adkins, Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum and Reba McEntire.
"I just love it over there," said Sally Oliver, 51, of Concord, who's been attending concerts at the pavilion for over 10 years. "I never miss a country concert if I can help it."
Oliver, who also goes to see concerts in Nashville, said she would love to see her hometown venue actually get an award for being the best.
"They do offer good music and excellent service," she said.
This year's summer season also features rock, jazz, hip-hop, children's performances and comedy. Some of the other artists performing are Bob Dylan, Chicago, Peter Frampton, Miranda Cosgrove, Wiz Khalifa, Slightly Stoopid and Selena Gomez & the Scene. There's also the fourth annual "Greenerpalooza" concert on Aug. 5, which brings together energy efficient programs and renewable energy companies.
"It's really family oriented," said Katrina Morse, 32, of Twin Mountain, who has five children. "I feel comfortable bringing my kids there."
She added that she likes that a second stage before the main concert features up and coming performers.
The property was once known as the Meadowbrook Farm. The family that owned it built cottages on the land in the early 1900s and held family concerts; each member of the family played a musical instrument. The family passed along ownership of the land hoping that it would be kept as a park for anyone to use.
"We sort of got into concerts by accident, when a good friend of ours needed a place to host a really small Beatles tribute show. We loaned him our field," said Harding, who inherited the venue from his dad after he died in 2008.
"It's a tough industry to make money, but once you're in it, you're addicted," he said. "We don't usually make money until we've sold halfway up that lawn."
Last year, Meadowbrook made a modest profit, which allowed for a new VIP restroom area and a new LED screen and audio system. Meadowbrook also has helped raise money for charities, including music materials and scholarships for students.
The Meadowbrook is in New Hampshire's Lakes Region, a longtime haven for summer homes and watersports.
"It's definitely an important tourism driver for our region," said Carmen Lorentz, executive director of the Belknap County Economic Development Council. "It certainly brings a group of visitors that might not otherwise be coming. ... They are probably staying overnight, going out, eating, purchasing things at our local stores."
The venue has a lot of fans, including the performers themselves, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Garrison Keillor.
"It still blows my mind to drive to this seemingly remote location, only to find it is summer getaway central for people who live within driving distance," Tommy Shaw of Styx wrote in a letter to the venue. "Beautiful lakes all around, populated by those out to have a good time. ZERO tension to be found ANYWHERE."
If You Go...
MEADOWBROOK U.S. CELLULAR PAVILION: 72 Meadowbrook Lane, Gilford, N.H.; http://www.meadowbrook.net or 603-293-4700. Concert schedule this summer includes Peter Frampton, July 2; Trace Adkins, July 3; Toby Keith, July 8; Styx/Yes, July 9; Miranda Cosgrove, July 19; Lucinda Williams/Amos Lee, July 24; Wiz Khalifa, July 27; Bright Eyes, July 28; Alan Jackson, July 29; Alison Krauss & Union Station, Aug. 5; Slightly Stooped, Aug. 11; Miranda Lambert, Aug. 13; Hippiefest 2011, Aug. 14; Selena Gomez, Aug. 16; Bob Dylan, Aug. 19; Chicago, Aug. 20; Lynyrd Skynyrd and Doobie Brothers, Aug. 26; ZZ Top, Aug. 27; Lady Antebellum, Sept. 4; Reba McEntire, Sept. 24; The Avett Brothers, Sept. 25. Ticket prices vary.