Late last week, The Love Language’s leader, Stu McLamb, sent me a text to say thanks.
A native of Cary, McLamb has been attending the North Carolina State Fair since he was a child. He’s gone at least 20 times, he thinks, and remembers seeing both concerts and circus acts inside the fall spectacle’s biggest indoor space, Dorton Arena. And now, at the age of 34, McLamb will headline one of those shows come October.
Toward the end of 2014, the INDY published “State Fair Shakedown,” a long and figure-heavy piece about the losses that the N.C. State Fair had accrued during four years by paying too much for underperforming talent at those headlining Dorton Arena shows. The State Fair itself remained incredibly profitable, but the shows—booked by someone with very little talent-handling experience—were, at best, dire loss leaders. In four years, and with 44 shows, they had lost nearly $900,000.
The piece represented the fulfillment of a long fascination of mine with the State Fair’s entertainment choices and budget plans. Being a native of a small North Carolina town myself, I, like McLamb, have attended the fair too many times to recall. I went every year as a kid, and my wife, Tina, and I have made it a point to go at least twice every October since we first met. It’s silly, fun, strange and delightful. I discover something new to love about it (or to laugh about) every time I visit.
But as an adult, I couldn’t help but wonder why the music sucked so much—or, more specifically—why it represented such select subsets of the state’s 10 million citizens. Though the State Fair is ostensibly meant as a showcase for all of North Carolina, the programming hinged almost entirely on country, a little gospel and, sometimes, a touch of rock. If the agricultural competitions followed the same formula, the contests would consist solely of the best ground beef and the biggest potatoes—no tomatoes or crazy gourds, no flowers and definitely no hot peppers.
Not long after the story ran, the Department of Agriculture, which runs the State Fair, announced that it would be overhauling the booking process. The budget would shrink, and the talent-buying would be outsourced to a local company after a request for proposals. In May, Deep South, a 20-year-old Raleigh company responsible for events and a bar in the city, won the bid. On Monday, the State Fair announced the selections for the Dorton Arena shows and the smaller Waterfall stage—in all, more than 60 North Carolina acts (yes, including The Love Language) that will walk away with a gig and a payday from the North Carolina State Fair. It’s a remarkable risk for such a massive institution, and I can’t wait to see if it works.
This year’s Dorton Arena lineup is at least a little obvious. The Love Language, as INDY contributor Breniecia Reuben has hilariously pointed out, is the state’s emissary of feel-good indie rock, and they will dutifully play Oct. 23. Charlie Daniels, who is still alive, will play Oct. 24. There are, at long last, overdue sops to the state’s Indian and Latino populations, plus an honest-to-goodness and humorously old-school hip-hop bill with Black Sheep, the “Flavor of the Month” hitmakers who met in Sanford so long ago. And with two gospel gatherings, a big beach-music show and a few country bills, the State Fair has maintained the core of its decades-long booking approach while expanding the event’s overall aim.
But the brilliance of the programming actually comes outside, at The Waterfall Stage. For years, a small group of bands played and replayed sets there each day. But early into their talks with the State Fair, Deep South had the idea to book a small, local and presumably cheap band for almost every slot. That means the soft-rock weirdos The Wusses get a gig, as do the slashing quartet See Gulls and the arena-rock dudes The Bleeding Hearts. There are local jazz ensembles and relaxed reggae bands, upstart hip-hop acts and strange electronic projects. Hell, even the Chapel Hill doom steamrollers of MAKE get a chance to scare the kids and carnies.
If there’s one aspect of North Carolina music that we should be the proudest of, I think it’s our ability to serve as an incubator for lots of different styles of sound. Deep South’s work at The Waterfall Stage reflects that. It makes me so happy that I can almost avoid ribbing the company for returning to their well of old, familiar acts (including a few featuring company employees!) at the expense of a broader range of Tar Heel bands, but not quite …
There is some worry, of course, that this change is an overcorrection, a break from tradition so radical that many longtime fairgoers may leave this year’s festivities disappointed—or, worse still, not go at all. There is some truth to that, especially if one of your chief magnets toward the midway each year has been some aging or rising country star.
But this, I think, is a worthwhile experiment after a long string of failures that did not routinely fill the intended space, let financial ends meet, or represent the variety of musicians and music fans in the state. Dave Rose, who owns Deep South, and Sarah Ray, a public information officer for the State Fair, agree that this isn’t some immutable path forward. It’s simply an idea worth testing, to see if it works better than what has clearly not worked in the past. Maybe it won’t, and they need to go back to the planning stages.
And what’s more, this year’s talent-and-production budget of $200,000 is less than the State Fair lost in Dorton Arena for each of the last four years. Ray says that those savings will allow them to experiment with several new ticket policies, including discounted family packs and cheap passes that allow fans to ride attractions all day for a steal. They’ll also make some capital improvements with the surplus and lure some new free talent to wander the fairgrounds. These are all things, Ray says, they likely couldn’t have afforded with the old Dorton Arena sinkhole.
I don’t know if McLamb was right to thank me last week. Ray says that these changes were under consideration long before the INDY ever started to dig into the Department of Agriculture’s pockets. But that’s not the point. The takeaway, for me, is that one of the state’s biggest and mightiest traditions has acknowledged that our surroundings are changing—that hip-hop and salsa exist, that young rock bands and pop groups matter somehow to our collective North Carolina identity. Maybe no one goes to see these bands at all come October, and maybe everyone laments the loss of back-to-back Scotty McCreery concerts.
Poor Scotty: I sure hope he’ll be able to find another gig.