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Country music star Michael Ray will be one of the headline acts for the upcoming Swine & Dine celebration in Paxton.

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PAXTON - The Paxton Swine ‘N’ Dine BBQ Contest & Festival is returning on Sept. 18. The fun-filled community event on Market Street will include a free concert by rising country music singer/songwriter Michael Ray and special guest Lily Rose.

Dave Mabrey and The Humble Hog owner Ben Grice started Paxton Swine ‘N’ Dine in 2012 as a back yard barbecue contest among a few friends. The competition grew from there, moving downtown. The Paxton Chamber of Commerce now presents the event each September.

Paxton Area Chamber of Commerce President Alan Meyer estimated that the festival draws about 5,000 people, noting that each year he fields phone calls from as far away as Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. “Every year it seems to get bigger,” Meyer said. “There’s a lot more excitement, and a lot of people are interested in it.”

Last year’s festivities had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re happy to be able to have it again after a break,” Meyer said.

The festivities will include music, barbecue, a cruise-in, vendors, children’s activities such as an inflatable bounce house and more. Guests can enter a raffle for a Traeger smoker; tickets are available at True Value, Mom & Pop’s Kettle Korn Stop and the Paxton Chamber office and are $5 for one or $20 for five. Teams can pay $40 to enter the afternoon bags contest; profits are split among the top teams.

There are typically 20 to 30 entrants in the barbecue contest, and early registration is strongly encouraged to guarantee entry. Entry and set-up is at 5 a.m., registration is at 5:30 p.m., meat inspection is at 6 a.m., chicken turn in is at noon, and ribs turn in is at 1 p.m.

Two years ago, a People’s Choice contest was introduced. In that contest, festival-goers can purchase tickets, try three different kinds of ribs and then vote for their favorite. That contest will take place at 1:30 p.m.

Awards will be presented on the main stage at 3:30 p.m. For more information, contact John Haile at jhaile309@gmail.com or 217-712-0088. Trophies will be awarded to the grand champion, reserve champion, first through third place in the various categories, in addition to monetary prizes. For a complete list of rules, visit paxtonchamber.com.

The music will get started at 5 p.m. as Champaign-based singer/songwriter duo Mank & Sass, who describe their music as a “blend of soulful, bluesy music ... with a hint of funk and rock,” will perform as they have in for the past few years. “They’re always a favorite for us,” Meyer said.

Artist Michael Ray and special guest Lily Rose will take the stage at 7 p.m. in a free public concert. While general admission to the concert is free, a limited number of party pit passes for spots closer to the stage can be purchased at paxtonchamber.com or on the day of the concert for $25. Over the past six years, the concert lineup has included the Corey Dennison Band in 2015 and 2016, Walker McGuire in 2017, Dylan Scott in 2018 and Jerrod Niemann in 2019.

Meyer said that festival organizers have been trying to get Ray as a performer for three years and were finally successful.

Raised in rural central Florida, Ray has two hit records and three No. 1 songs, “Kiss You in the Morning,” “Think a Little Less” and “One That Got Away.” The first two, from Ray’s self-titled debut, reached the top of the Billboard Country Airplay chart, and “Get To You,” the first single from his sophomore album, “Amos,” premiered on the chart. The third song off of “Amos,” “Her World or Mine,” produced a video that has captured more than 26 million YouTube views since its debut less than a year ago. He has garnered over 1 billion global streams, more than 650,000 album equivalents, more than 100 million YouTube views and five Recording Industry Association of America gold-certified singles.

Ray’s current Top 20 lead single, “Whiskey and Rain,” is the first single off of his seven-song collection “Higher Education” produced by Grammy-nominated Ross Copperman. “Whiskey and Rain” has garnered over 8 million streams since its release. His song “Picture” is a tribute to lost loved ones and was inspired by the death of his uncle Terry. Ray is joined on the title track by Kid Rock, Lee Brice, Billy F. Gibbons and Tim Montana, who is one of the writers, along with Derek George, Jeremy Bussey, Monty Criswell and Frank Rogers.

In January, Rose, an Atlanta native, signed with Big Loud Records and Republic Records. Her song “Villain” went viral on TikTok when it was released in December, debuting at No. 1 on iTunes’ all-genre chart and was included in more than 40,000 TikTok videos. The song peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart and reached No. 2 on the Country Digital Song Sales chart and No. 36 on Hot Country Songs.

Meyer said Paxton Swine ‘N’ Dine puts the spotlight on the community. “It brings tourism and Nashville to our small town,” Meyer said. “In a town of approximately 4,500 people you’re not usually visited by someone famous. We get a lot of involvement with our sponsors like Gibson Area Hospital and the City of Paxton. Even the small businesses really help us out. We’re a small town with small-town charm. People really like our downtown area. We’ve got a lot to offer for a small town.”

Meyer said festival organizers’ goals are to be able to continue hosting the event year after year and to add more barbecue vendors each year. “We put on a great show and we try to make it family friendly,” he said.

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