On April 19, 2014, the Old 97's were celebrating the release of the band's stellar album Most Messed Up with a show that also featured a number of other acts the group had toured with before. With a sold-out crowd enjoying the gorgeous weather on the lawn of the Annette Strauss Pavilion, lead 97 Rhett Miller let the crowd in on a tasty little nugget of info by declaring, "Sometime soon, we're going to host our own festival here in Dallas." Now we have the answer to the question, "What was he talking about?"
This coming April 16, almost two years to the day after Miller divulged his festival dreams, the Old 97's County Fair will take place in Main Street Garden Park in downtown Dallas. Along with the host band performing as headliners, the alt-country-heavy bill will feature Drive by Truckers, Lucero, Deer Tick, Nikki Lane and local Old 97's faves Brent Best and Madison King, both of whom performed with the 97's on that April night two years ago.
Main Street Garden Park has certainly become a prime festival locale ever since the first Homegrown Festival took place there in 2010. It just so happens that the folks behind Homegrown Fest are the ones teaming with the 97's to put this day-long show on. Joshua Florence, owner of City Tavern, Club Dada and Off the Record, as well as one of the founders of Homegrown Fest, is excited to finally announce the plans for this new festival, as the ball began rolling when the 97's played Homegrown last May.
"I had heard through the grapevine the 97's were looking into planning a festival," says Florence over the phone this morning just as the festival details were being announced. "So, last year, we spoke to Rhett [Miller] backstage at Homegrown Fest about putting something together, and by that following Monday, we had begun making real plans. For me, it was a no-brainer, because we wanted to put on another festival, and I'm a big fan of the Old 97's, and many of the bands we have booked are personal favorites of mine, too."
With Homegrown Fest taking place a month later, on May 14, in the same spot, there might appear to be a risk of cannibalizing or watering down the Homegrown Fest crowd, but the roots rock and Americana focus of the County Fair, which will also feature a 40-foot Ferris wheel, midway games, rides and kids' activities, is enough to set it apart from the multi-genre, well-established Homegrown Fest.
For its part, Homegrown has become arguably the region's most heavily anticipated festival in recent years with many notable big-splash bookings, including Spoon last year and one of the first stops on the Toadies' Rubberneck 20th anniversary tour the year before that. In fact, the Toadies helped inspire the overall framework of this festival: The annual Dia De los Toadies festival, which has been held in Fort Worth the past three years, led Florence and the band to believe a festival using a beloved local band as the cornerstone can work tremendously in this market.
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Ken Bethea, guitarist for the 97's, underlines where he and the rest of his crew came from when looking into which acts they wanted to bring on-board for the first edition of what is likely to become an annual event.
"We wanted to have a festival where our friends played," Bethea says. "That has always been the idea. All the big festivals generally are just who can sell the most tickets. We have toured with four of the artists — Drive By Truckers, Best, Lane and King — and we're fans of all the other people, so this is exciting."
Few people in town better understand the competitive nature of the concert and festival market in North Texas than Florence, Bethea and their respective teams. The planners are hoping the State Fair-style atmosphere, complete with corn dog vendors, will create a unique attraction, but still be a relevant, current choice for music lovers with or without children in tow. Florence, father of two himself, wants this festival to build on the casual vibe of Homegrown, but with some local heroes serving as the musical bat signal for fans.
"We want to entertain families with more than just music on a stage," Florence says. "I'm a father who loves music, and likes a lot of bands that are popular now. So, it was important to us that we create a festival with cool bands that aren't the typical oldies acts you often see at most family-friendly festivals. The Old 97's are one of the pioneers of alt-country, or twang rock or whatever you want to call it, and it's going to be cool to see where we can go with this."