Like many North Carolina natives, Raleigh local Tift Merritt has fond memories of the North Carolina State Fair, recalling a trip in grade school when the fair's bright, flashing lights and string of games tempted her to part ways with all of her hard-saved fortune—at least, that is, until her dad began chiming in and discouraging her.
"My father is a man of wonderful principle," she says, "but it really makes me laugh and sad at the same time when I think back about how hard it was for me to spend those $11 with him trying to teach me a lesson at the fair."
This Sunday, Merritt will headline a show at Dorton Arena, the fair's nearly 60-year-old parabolic landmark where she once saw Loretta Lynn and where she opened for North Carolina bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs in 2006. Merritt's performance is part of a State Fair music lineup that remains affordable, yet is as interesting as it has been in years.
Along with the reliable base of rising country stars (Easton Corbin, Craig Campbell, David Nail), reality competition show successes (Kellie Pickler, Steel Magnolia) and contemporary Christian music favorites (Newsboys, Skillet), this year's edition also showcases hometown chanteuse Merritt, classic rock mainstay Kansas and a couple of bona fide legends in George Jones and Dionne Warwick. Sure, it's not a sea change, but the 11 concerts at least seem to show a movement toward more thoughtful programming.
Mike Pleasant spent more than three decades working with the North Carolina State Fair before retiring from his position as assistant fair manager after last year's event. Pleasant has been responsible for booking music at the fair for the last 10 years, and he was brought back again this year as a contract worker to assist entertainment coordinator Sandra Brannen. When booking Dorton, one of Pleasant's primary focuses is affordability. Though this is partly due to budget restrictions—the goal is to spend roughly $400,000 across the 11 shows—Pleasant also wants to keep money in attendees' pockets so they can spend it elsewhere on the fairgrounds, supporting food vendors and other stands. Ticket prices have hardly changed during Pleasant's stint, with all but two of this year's shows costing $5 or $10 per person. (Skillet and Pickler are the exceptions at $15 each.) The prices compare favorably to many other fairs, which sometimes charge more than $50; alternatively, some fairs sacrifice quality to provide free entertainment instead.
Given the budget limits, the lineup—which is assembled after consulting Nashville agents for advice and examining local radio airplay—is fairly impressive. Warwick and Jones are the major names: The former is second only to Aretha Franklin in chart hits by a female artist, with 56 Top 100 singles, while the latter is a country music hall-of-famer credited with 14 No. 1 hits. "I've tried to book George Jones for the last five years and we could never get our timing and his timing to line up," Pleasant says. "So many people in this area would like to see George one more time, or maybe still have seeing him as something on their bucket list."
The Christian acts—which Pleasant says consistently fill at least three-fourths of the venue's approximately 6,000 seats—are both established veterans, including the recently re-formed Newsboys, who added dc Talk singer Michael Tait to become something akin to the religous rock version of Audioslave. Steel Magnolia and Corbin are two of the hotter young country artists around, each with recent debut albums on the country charts. Kansas should at least bring a touch of nostalgia with its handful of rock radio staples, while Merritt's return signals that officials are attempting to look beyond just the typical fair fare.
Another of Pleasant's objectives is to ensure that all performances are family-friendly. He tries to avoid any objectionable material, which often means passing on many popular rock and rap artists and limiting the musical diversity that the fair could achieve. Hipper acts such as The Roots—the crown jewel of this year's entertainment lineup at the South Carolina State Fair—may be a dream for some fairgoers. But Dorton Arena, which turns 70 next year, is prone to leak sound, subjecting many outside the arena to potentially explicit language, regardless of whether they chose to purchase a ticket.
It's important to note that the concerts are not considered stand-alone events; they play a key role in the context of the fair as a whole. The performances help draw people to the fair on weekdays, which traditionally see sparser crowds. "When we had Clay Aiken come and play in 2004, we had him come on a Monday night," Pleasant explains. "We want entertainment that's going to draw people on a night when they normally wouldn't be at the fair." This year, he's scheduled George Jones on the evening of Senior Citizens Day (Tuesday, Oct. 18) in an attempt to get older folks to stick around a bit longer than they might otherwise.
Another way Pleasant ensures his programming is relevant to the fair is to book at least one North Carolina-based act each year. In recent years, they've included Aiken, Pickler, Merritt and Scruggs, as well as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Anoop Desai and Bucky Covington. "There's a lot of talent here, and I feel like we need to showcase that here for folks to see," he says. That sentiment may seem obvious to some, but when taking into account the breadth of State Fair attendees, it's an important consideration.
Merritt's words echo Pleasant's—and the fair's—emphasis on the state itself. "The main thing about being part of the fair is being home in North Carolina," says Merritt, who moved to Manhattan several years ago. "It's so important to me. Nowhere else feels like it. It's how I see everything."