Leo Brooks, a Miami native with country roots, returns to South Florida for new music festival

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Associated Press

FILE - Leo Brooks, left, and Andrew Millsaps of Neon Union arrive at the 58th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, May 11, 2023, at the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas. Neon Union will be performing at the Country Bay Music Festival, which is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 11, and Sunday, Nov. 12, at the historic Miami Marine Stadium, just southeast of downtown on Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter, File)

MIAMI – Growing up in Miami in the '80s and ’90s, Leo Brooks had a secret love that he always was afraid to share with his friends: He was a country music fan.

While hanging out with his friends in high school, Brooks listened to rap, hip-hop, alternative rock and other popular music, but at home with his family, he listened to country. The Miami native's love of country was inherited from his father and grandfather, who didn't come from Nashville, but from Roatán, a small island off the coast of Honduras.

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“The biggest thing there is Reggae music and classic country music,” Brooks said. “So I started learning how to play music to George Jones and Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, all the country classics. It wasn't so popular back then in Miami, so that's something I kept to myself.”

Now Brooks is returning to Miami as half of the country duo Neon Union. They are slated to perform at the Country Bay Music Festival scheduled for Nov. 11-12 at the historic Miami Marine Stadium, just southeast of downtown on Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay.

The headliners scheduled for the event are Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, Lainey Wilson, Lee Brice and Chris Young. Other performers include Chris Lane, Elle King, Randy Houser, LOCASH, Breland, Nate Smith, Travis Dennis, Restless Road, Josh Ross, Blanco Brown, Mackenzie Carpenter, David J, Hailey Whitters, Jordan Oaks and Dee Jay Silver. Local acts performing at the festival include Alexandra Rodriguez and Orlando Mendez, who’s known as “The Cuban Cowboy.”

“This is a big thing for me,” Brooks said. “I never would have thought that I would be performing at a country festival as an artist in Miami, being from Miami. I’m going to feel like I’m floating when I perform that day for sure.”

Brooks said he never really thought about being anything other than a musician, but it took a while to start his country career. The 40-year-old got a gig as Lauryn Hill's bass player shortly after graduating from high school and stayed with the rapper and singer for about a decade. He then joined hip-hop artist Pitbull, also a Miami native, for another decade.

During Brooks' time with Pitbull, they collaborated with Tim McGraw and other country artists. Brooks started sharing some of his country songs with Pitbull, hoping to pass them along to established country acts, but Pitbull encouraged Brooks to perform the songs himself.

“I’m the guy in the background,” Brooks said. “But he kept telling me every day nonstop, ‘You gotta do it.’"

Brooks said Pitbull hooked him up with some promoters, landing Brooks a spot at a country music festival. Brooks eventually met his Neon Union partner, North Carolina native Andrew Millsaps, through mutual friends and recorded a five-song demo the next day.

“While we were recording, our hairs were standing up,” Brooks said. "We’re like, ‘This is a God thing. This is meant to be.’ And that’s just the feeling I still have.”

The duo released their first single, “Bout Damn Time,” in November 2022.

Growing up with country music allowed Brooks to lock into the feel of it, but he can’t ignore the Latin influence of his Miami upbringing, he said.

“That gives it a little flavor in our sound for sure,” Brooks said.

Miami already is considered a hub for Latin, hip-hop and electronic music, but Country Bay organizer Nelson Albareda, the CEO of Loud and Live, said South Florida has no shortage of country fans.

More than a third of all country music fans in the U.S. identified as people of Latin descent and Miami's reputation as a cultural melting pot, as well as an entertainment capital, encouraged promoters to bring a massive country music event to South Florida, Albareda said.

“We believe that this could become a destination festival, where people come for Miami and country music,” Albareda said. “And we’re seeing that in our tickets sales. We are selling an equal amount of tickets in South Florida as we are outside of South Florida.”

Albareda said his company began testing the Country Bay concept in 2017, though plans were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Back on track, Loud and Live is already working on the lineup of performers for next year and Albareda hopes the festival can become a permanent, annual event.

Country Bay is scheduled to be held at the Miami Marine Stadium, taking advantage of the view across Biscayne Bay toward Miami's skyline. City officials and historic preservationists have worked to restore and renovate the structure, and Albareda said his company wants to support those efforts.

"We have a long-term commitment to Country Bay as a festival, and we have a long-term commitment to Miami," Albareda said.

Besides hosting one of the largest country events in Miami's music history, the Country Bay Music Festival will include a country-themed bar, games, food, line dancing, a mechanical bull and a giant Ferris wheel. The festival also has been selling anchorage access passes enabling fans to attend the event by boat or yacht. Organizers expect as many as 20,000 people.

Virginia Key, the site of Miami Marine Stadium, is a small barrier island in Biscayne Bay linked to the mainland by a single causeway. The limited access created transportation problems for the Ultra Music Festival when the electronic music event temporarily moved from Bayfront Park in downtown Miami to the Miami Marine Stadium in 2019.