Balloons, Tunes & BBQ festival celebrates its 25th anniversary

Pilot Dave Bobel of Rochester, In., examines the external part of his hot air balloon to make sure there are no problems before he takes off in the balloon race on Sunday. 

Nicole Ares

It was a weekend of authentic Kentucky barbecue, soulful Southern music and inclement weather. But even the unfortunate forecast could not dampen the crowd or keep the hot air balloons from lifting off and filling the sky with a vibrant display of color.

From Sept. 10 to 13, the U.S. Bank Balloons, Tunes & BBQ festival celebrated its 25th anniversary at the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional airport.

Craig Browning, the festival co-coordinator and regional president for title sponsor U.S. Bank, has volunteered at this festival for the last 15 years. Each year, Browning becomes more proud of this quality, family-oriented event that is offered to the Bowling Green area.

“It is the largest outdoor festival in South Central Kentucky … you don’t see hot air balloons in this part of the state any other time of the year, and you don’t have the quality entertainment in a weekend that we bring in,” Browning said. 

Setting up for the festival electrically is like building a small city, according to Browning. On the site, they have seven generators and 20 light towers to accommodate enough energy for on-stage performances and an anticipated 10,000 people.

On Friday night, the festival featured tunes by Jericho Woods, THE FARM and headliner Joe Nichols, who has produced numerous No. 1 singles like “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” and “Gimmie That Girl.” 

The crowd returned to the stage Saturday with performances by Van Winkle, Confederate Railroad and Mark Wills—a “blast from the past for country fans,” Browning said.

“There’s always a moment on Saturday night [when] the last act of the concert takes the stage, when I’ll steal away behind the audience for a couple of songs,” Browning said. “For me, it’s just really cool to be able to see thousands of people enjoying themselves.”

Maria Jaime, a WKU freshman from New Albany, Indiana, was excited to see the event performances but came to the festival to indulge in the barbecue. 

I feel like [in Kentucky] barbecue is a lot bigger deal, so I’m excited to try it,” Jaime said.

Christian Chandler, 19, from Bowling Green owns Jimmy D’s Bar-B-Que, one of the many vendors at the festival. This is Chandler’s fifth time serving at Balloons, Tunes and BBQ, and he anticipated that Jimmy D’s would sell over 160 pounds of barbecue and 800 hot dogs.

“The feeling I get whenever I serve barbecue to people and I can see on their face how good it is—that’s the best part,” Chandler said.

Another major attraction of the festival is the hot air balloon rides and races. Kathy Shive, a Glasgow native, came to the festival for the balloons and was disappointed that the weather prevented her from seeing them.

“I’ve heard about the festival for years,” Shive said, “and [riding in a hot air balloon] is on my bucket list, so I figured I’d come and check it out.”

Scheduled for Friday were free tether balloon rides and the Balloon Glow event. Then on Saturday, the hot air balloon competitive events were supposed to take place; however, due to inclement weather, the competitive balloon events were postponed until Sunday morning.

“The weather has been against us this weekend,” Matt McClinton, one of the hot air balloon pilots, said.

For the festival, McClinton, 26, from Louisville, was in charge of organizing the pilots and making the fly-or-no-fly decision based on the weather. McClinton was also scheduled to compete in the balloon events, which he won last year. 

“I was kind of born into the sport. My dad is a pilot, and I think I went to my first balloon event when I was two weeks old,” McClinton said. “I’ve literally been around [the sport] my entire life, and it was inevitable that I started doing it myself.”

Despite the weather, the turnout for the festival was still substantial according to Mandy Hicks, the director of marketing and communications at United Way of Southern Kentucky. Hicks estimated that over 10,000 people attended the festival.

The proceeds for the festival benefit the nonprofit organization United Way of Southern Kentucky, and it will use those proceeds to impact critical issues like education, income, health and quality of life. The organization aids those in need across the Barren River Area Development District region.

“It makes all the hard work worth it … to know you’ve had a successful event and you’ve raised thousands of dollars for a community in need—that’s just the icing on the cake,” Browning said.