DECATUR — Country star Gretchen Wilson was here for the Decatur Celebration's party Friday night, and so were Herb and Deb Oliver of Neoga.
Wearing a T-shirt adorned with Wilson's image and her Sharpie-scrawled signature, Deb Oliver said she's a big fan of the popular singer. Friday was the first time the couple had been to the Celebration, which kicked off its three-day run that evening.
Wilson was the Show Stage headliner on Friday, with fellow country performer Jessie G serving as her opening act.
"I sing all of (Wilson's) songs at karaoke," Deb Oliver said. "... I was hoping to get on stage, but I ain't that close, so I ain't going to get on the stage."
Deb Oliver said her go-to song of Wilson's is "Redneck Woman," the singer's debut single that earned her a Grammy Award. Another favorite is "Here for the Party," for which this year's Celebration theme is named.
As per custom, the fun couldn't truly begin until after the Celebration's opening ceremony. During the ceremony, Decatur's Matt Minder and Sarah Pritts were named the festival's king and queen. The candidates have campaigned for the title and raised money for the Celebration since May.
Pritts, a Decatur public schools teacher, addressed the crowd after being crowned. She shared a sentiment with them that was greeted with several enthusiastic cheers: "Long live the Celebration!"
The street festival is in its 33rd year in Decatur, and has since become a staple of the city's summertime activities. Recent financial struggles led organizers to start charging admission at the formerly free event, installing a chain link fence around its perimeter.
Organizers have also said that a continued financial shortfall drove them to nearly double the price of admission from $8 at the gate to $15. This is the second year the Celebration has charged admission.
Celebration Producer Lori Sturgill said that she was pleased to see how many people turned out on the festival's first night, despite the event's changes.
"Setup is done and everything is thriving," she said. "The volunteers who help out are fantastic."
Attendees turned out in droves to check out Friday's packed slate of musical performances, which also included alternative rock band Escaping Neverland and Christian singer-songwriter Jonathan McReynolds.
Carolyn Taylor of Decatur waited patiently by the event's main stage near the Decatur Civic Center for the opening ceremony to begin. Not only was she there to support Celebration Queen candidate Kim Taylor, but she was also looking forward to seeing Wilson.
While Taylor said she's more of a Carrie Underwood fan, she loves country music as a whole. She's also a big fan of the Celebration itself.
Among her favorite things about the festival: "The concerts, the food, just the ambiance and everything," Taylor said. "It's fun, exciting (and there's) lots to see. Good time, good people."
North Franklin Street has been transformed from a busy Decatur roadway to a bustling alley of food vendors and people either walking to an attraction that's caught their eye or enjoying the nearby sounds of the live performances that fill the air.
Davin Bean and Teona Dandridge got their fill of lemon shakeups and crab fritters while on their trek to visit many of the Celebration's food offerings.
Food is a big Celebration draw for the Decatur couple, along with the concerts. They said they'll be back today to see Grammy-award winning rapper T.I. perform on the main stage.
Other Saturday night performers include country artist Chuck Wicks on the Funfest Stage and Christian music duo Love & the Outcome.
Bean and Dandridge both took bites of their fried crab fritters, and wasted no time in heaping praise upon them.
"It's good, man," Bean excitedly told Nick Conner and April Wood, the duo manning the crab cake booth. Dandridge agreed, much to the delight of Conner and Wood.
Those who visited the Celebration on Friday were greeted with clear skies and warm temperatures. To the delight of many, the National Weather Service in Lincoln said rain isn't expected to crash the Celebration's party on Saturday or Sunday.
However, the weather service anticipates hot and humid conditions for the remainder of the festival. Partly cloudy skies and highs in the low 90s are expected during the weekend, with heat indices in the mid-to-high 90s.
Even when the sun sets, it will still be a little warm and humid at night, according to meteorologist Dan Smith. Finding shade around the festival grounds will be key to stay protected from the harsh heat, he said.
"It's going to be difficult, as there's probably very little shade," Smith said. "But if you can find some, that would probably be our best advice."
Smith also encourages Celebration visitors drink lots of water, apply sunscreen when outside and to avoid over-exertion during the festivities.
To help with that, cooling stations have been set up inside and near the civic center, at the commercial expo near the Neuhoff Media offices at 250 N. Water Street, by the Central Park stage and near the Kids Block entrance on East Main Street.
Nursing moms and adults can also find respite at St. Paul's Lutheran Church's Family Oasis, located near the Christian Music stage on Water Street. Richland Community College's ice water oasis serves free water to anyone who says hello to the volunteers at its water wagon on South Park Street.
Mike Burtimus, Richland's buildings and grounds manager, said the college has provided this service for years. Alex Berry said it's as easy as looking at the college's name to see why it wants to give back to the community.
"We're an integral part of community," said Berry, Richland's director of student development. "Why not be an integral part of the Celebration?"
Not too far from the water oasis in Central Park, Josh Hammer and his family found themselves in the middle of a Decatur Power Tumblers performance.
Hammer and his children, 2-year-old Levi and 4-year-old Lydia, volunteered to stand in a single file line as red-suited members of the tumbling team used a trampoline to springboard over them, much to the delight of the crowd gathered to watch.
"Obviously, it's a little intimidating to have a guy running toward you at full clip," Hammer said. "But they're very good at this. I wasn't very worried. He went up, got up there and cleared everybody. It was pretty awesome."
The next step for Josh Hammer, his wife Lindsay and their kids was to check out the face painting area and then visit the Kids Block on East Main Street.
"They're still a little bit young for rides and things like that, but it doesn't matter," Josh Hammer said. "There's something here for every age. Food's good, music's good. It's nice to get out with everybody."
PHOTOS: Decatur Celebration 2018 Day 1