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December 09, 2016
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Lightning in a bottle

Prior to performing the national anthem at ThunderBash, Alyssa Startup joined David Adam Byrnes for a duet at the Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon, NY.
TRR photos by Jonathan Fox

It’s almost impossible to think about Sullivan County ( without recalling a little music festival that put the town of Bethel on the map during a rain-soaked three days in 1969. Since then, music lovers have flocked to the region seeking to rekindle memories of that event, or create new ones in honor of it.

While many styles of music were represented at Woodstock, I think it’s fair to say that country music was not at the forefront. But flashing forward to present day, country is alive and well in Sullivan County where the genre is huge. In recent years, the grounds of the original festival consistently sell out with concerts at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts ( featuring country performers, and local radio station Thunder 102 ( has become the number-one country station in New York and Pennsylvania.

Last weekend marked the eighth annual concert and celebration of lightning hot country music, courtesy of ThunderBash, held on the Big V Tours stage at Monticello Casino and Raceway. Created by the team at Thunder 102 and sponsored by Bethel Woods, Crystal Run Healthcare and the M & M Auto Group, ThunderBash has become a tradition and draws thousands to Sullivan County each year with its glowing roster of talent. Although the event lures big names in the industry, it’s the local connection that creates the ties that bind, and popular on-air personality Paul Ciliberto never lets us forget that it is the residents who make ThunderBash the “biggest bash in Sullivan County since ‘69.” Aided and abetted by Mike Sakell, The River Reporter’s readers’ favorite celebrity of 2012, and by Michelle Semerano, the station invited “Mr. Nashville” Billy Block to host ThunderBash this year. It was a nice moment when Block was honored by Town of Thompson Supervisor Anthony Cellinni, who announced to the crowd that April 27 would now officially be known as “Mr. Nashville-Billy Block Day.”

The bash began with a big welcome to spectators by Bold Gold Media Group’s Vince Benedetto and Cellinni, followed by the Marine Corps’ presentation of the colors and newcomer Alyssa Sartup’s rendition of the national anthem. The show featured plenty of homegrown talent including Cathy Paty, Jason Casterlin and Brian Dunne, all of whom are (IMHO) stars on the horizon. Local boys-make-good Ken and Barry Somerville were also on the bill and the wildly popular duo now splits their time between Monticello and Nashville, writing and recording for themselves and well known giants in the industry. Even though the brothers have experienced a meteoric rise in country music, they continue to play local venues whenever they can and are always on hand for fundraisers like ThunderBash.

Tickets for the concert were offered to the public at no charge, but folks were asked to make a donation once there, benefiting the St. Jude Research Hospital and the Sullivan County YMCA ( More than $10,000 was raised for the organizations, and a pair of tickets to the Country Music Association (CMA) Music Fest in Nashville was awarded to one lucky winner, who will have the opportunity to see superstars Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, among others.

As the excitement mounted, Tommy Steel took to the stage and entertained with a solid set of hits, as the band’s fans flocked to the stage, prepping the crowd for southern rock faves Iron Cowboy. Cowboy’s motto “country music with horsepower” makes sense when you hear them, and front man “Big John” Davis never disappoints. Davis and company rocked the house and brought the audience to its feet before headliners Steel Magnolia hit the stage. Duo Meghan Linsey and Joshua Scott Jones formed the band in 2009 and have already been nominated by the Academy of Country Music as Top Vocal Duo. Their gorgeous harmonies and incredible stage presence have made them an “overnight sensation” and their performance was stellar, showcasing their musical talent as well as their incredible chemistry with each other and their topnotch band.

I’ve seen a lot of concerts over the years, but it still amazes me how giving country artists are. Whether just starting out or already established, these men and women (and ThunderBash itself) always remind me of “lightning in a bottle,” capturing something powerful and elusive and then being able to show it to the world.