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Saturday, February 16 , 2019, 4:33 am | Fair 50º

 
 
 
 

Mark Brickley: County Fairs Your Ticket to Summer Fun

From the stage to the Midway, adventures await — day and night

County fairs were designed for farm and ranch families to mingle and to learn who raised the fastest horses, grew the sweetest corn or baked the best pies. It’s likely a fair was the first place our kinfolk tried a typewriter, saw an airplane soar or heard a motorcycle’s roar. Today’s fairs work hard to entertain us but still maintain a sense of discovery. Their carefree pace encourages you to experience something new that’s probably old, such as quilting or canning or carving.

While days at the fair bustle with trick roping, 4-H auctions and home arts, after sunset they undergo an enticing transformation. The carnivals’ neon lights begin to glow as cowboys and ranch girls with short sleeves and tight jeans start their stroll down the Midway. The sounds of laughter and music fill the warm evening air.

It’s the Music

I attended my first fair in the mid-1980s with tickets to see Entertainer of the Year Ricky Skaggs. The show’s opening act was a mother-daughter duo whose album, Why Not Me, was climbing the Billboard charts. The Judds’ soaring harmonies reached back to their Morrill, Ky., roots and cast a spell over the audience. That was the night I fell for country music. Music derived from country life, played under the summer stars, has drawn me back year after year.

Most county fairs include “free” concert entertainment with paid admission. Entry at Santa Maria, Ventura and the Paso Robles Mid-State fairs costs $6 or $7. Fairs also hold Dollar Days, when it’s only a buck to get in. You can stay into the evening to hear featured country and rock acts.

I feel lucky to have seen many artists no longer with us, including Johnny Cash playing “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” balladeer Conway Twitty in his glittering rhinestone suit singing songs from Nashville’s vault, such as “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love,” and Johnny Paycheck in his prime, belting out his heartfelt hit “Take This Job and Shove It.” He meant it.

Occasionally, a rarely seen icon such as Florida songwriter John Anderson will venture to a West Coast fair. Hearing Anderson’s hits, such as “Black Sheep” and “Money in the Bank,” sung with that long drawn country twang and unique phrasing is worth the wait.

Country music now shares the fair’s stage with contemporary artists ranging from American Idol winners to classic rock acts. The Doobie Brothers’ triple guitar attack, with two drummers charging through “China Grove” and a dozen more 1970s hits, repeatedly brought the crowd to their feet last year in Ventura’s Concert Stadium.

Each year the fair features promising new acts. The Dixie Chicks played on secondary stages in the mid-1990s. Last year at Ventura, the Doo Wah Riders’ country-influenced, three-part harmonies were exceptional. One of the highlights of the 2009 Mid-State Fair was country music’s hottest new act, Lady Antebellum. With the temperature over the century mark, several thousand fairgoers waited patiently to see the charismatic trio play. After their summer tour, Lady Antebellum’s music was honored for Song and Album of the Year at the Country Music Awards.

Attending a fair usually produces a long list of satisfying adventures. Of course, there are annoyances and crowds can be ridiculous, but because you’re at the fair you laugh and shake them off. Is there anything really ugly? That depends. If you’re a traditional music fan, you may lament that hard rock and country sound more and more alike. It irks purists that modern country has abandoned mandolin solos, banjo fills and petal steel melodies instead using hard-rock covers to rev up the crowd. The ugly part is that sound levels at fair concerts will assault your senses and most likely ruin your hearing.

A mom and her daughters show off their matching hats at the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles.
A mom and her daughters show off their matching hats at the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles. (Mark Brickley photo)

Legendary musicians such as Pete Townshend of The Who suffered such severe tinnitus (ringing ears) that it forced him to abandon amplified rock for years. Perhaps sound engineers have grown deaf after years of triple-digit decibel levels.

If you still enjoy heavy-metal volume, you’re in luck. For the rest of us, bring earplugs, because you won’t be able to hear the lyrics anyway. Also, if you’re seated in the first 30 rows, be prepared to stand for most of the show. This won’t matter, of course, if you want to dance.

Wandering

While county fairs share similarities, it’s what you discover by poking around that makes them unique. Each fair creates its own memories. Some of my favorites include seeing the nightly fireworks from the top of the Ferris wheel, scoring front-row seats at Santa Maria’s Miranda Lambert concert, sipping a cold beverage near the cooling waterfall at Paso Robles or betting on the ponies at the Los Angeles County Fair’s Pomona track.

The Ventura Fair’s most famous livestock exhibit is Uncle Leo’s Barn. Leo is 95 years old and hasn’t missed the fair in 55 years. The scent of the barn’s freshly cut alfalfa greets you just before coming face to face with a 300-pound sow. That’s one enormous pig. Frolicking in the sawdust are her 10 squealing piglets. I decided to enter the 2009 Name That Pig Contest. I choose “Ham-let” but lost to a 5-year-old girl. Her winning name was “Piggy’s in Cream.”

Outside of Italy, the fair may be the only place you’ll see a Sicilian donkey. Its breed is unique for the cross-shaped mark along its back, from the base of the neck to flanks. Legend says Jesus rode a Sicilian donkey and that it might be the reason for its markings.

At every turn there was something new to see. In the next cage, five black ducks curiously pecked at us. To the left was a large incubator filled with yellow down-covered chicks, hatched just that morning. There were more varieties of fowl than I can count. And it did smell a bit — foul, but that went with the territory.

Tempting Proposals

The assortment of fast food offered at the fair is apparently limitless. It seems the “worse” the food is for you, the longer the line. First place: deep-fried funnel cakes. Second: foot-high spiral fries. I’ll admit that I always find room for a fresh-baked pecan cinnamon roll smothered in cream cheese frosting.

Don’t miss tasting the Mackinac Island fudge made from scratch on the fair’s chilled marble tables. Defiantly avoid the Burger Shack advertising its “10-Pound Buns!” That’s how much your rump will weigh after eating there. The Mid-State Fair’s best grub included Big Bubbas Bad BBQ. The sauce is so sweet and satisfying that you shamelessly lick it off your fingers. Ventura’s Southern-style recipes and tangy summer coleslaw would probably get honorable mention in the Zac Brown Band’s hit song “Chicken Fried.”

Closing Time

For the fair’s daredevils, the Midway’s amusement attractions are a neon highway of joy. The Mega Loop spins and swirls, twists and twirls, with its teen riders screaming in terror and delight. The Loops sibling, the Mega Drop, plunges 150 feet in three seconds. The lines for both seemed a mile long. The steep, banked Big Slide gunny sack ride was overrun by 10-year-olds and a few of their parents.

County fair season begins each summer in mid-June and ends in early October. If you miss opening day, there is always more to come. Fairs regularly last 10 days or longer, encouraging you to come back often.

Going to the fair is likely to stimulate all your senses: eyes, ears and stomach. I’ll see you at the cinnamon roll stand!

2010 County Fairs Dates and Web Sites

» Santa Barbara at Santa Maria: July 14-18; open daily; www.santabarbaracountyfair.com

» Orange County at Costa Mesa: July 21 to Aug. 1; check dark days; www.orangecountyfair.com

» Mid-State at Paso Robles: July 21 to Aug. 1; open daily; www.midstatefair.com

» Ventura County: Aug. 4-15; open daily; www.venturacountyfairgrounds.com

» Los Angles at Pomona: Sept. 4 to Oct. 3; check dark days; www.lacountyfair.com

» Kern at Bakersfield: Sept. 22 to Oct. 3; open daily; www.kerncountyfair.com

County Fair Tips

» Plan your fair adventure by accessing information found at each fair’s Web site. Parking information/diagrams and entertainment schedules are outlined. A little planning will save a lot of stress.

» If you’re going to attend a concert, make sure you get to the fair a couple of hours early. Beating the crowds will help with parking and ensure that you get a decent seat.

» If it’s hot out and you plan to stay into the evening, check on the Web site to see if they have lockers for rent. Why carry a coat around all day if you can rent a locker for a couple of bucks? Also, check to make sure backpacks are allowed to avoid walking back to your car.

» Wear a hat and bring sunscreen. Check the Web site to see if you can bring cold water into the fair. It beats paying $4 for it inside the gate. Some fairs allow you to re-enter the same day with a hand stamp. If you forget to bring enough cash, there are money machines, but remember the surcharges.

Noozhawk contributor Mark Brickley is a freelance writer in Carpinteria.

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