Old 97's County Fair
With Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, Deer Tick, Justin Townes Earle and more
Main St. Garden Park, Dallas
Saturday, April 16, 2016
There were times during the inaugural Old 97's County Fair when you felt certain the looming cloud cover was about to break loose all hell. Like when, a few songs into the set of the festival’s namesake and headliner, down fell a few heavy drops. Rhett Miller had just finished talking about the perfection of the day, weather included, before kicking off his set. And now, were these warning that a storm had arrived?
They were not. The rain held off, and a day that on paper looked every bit like an alt-country fan’s dream became just that.
Miller had first hinted of this festival two years ago at a show at the Annette Strauss Pavilion. With the assistance of the organizers of Homegrown, the established Dallas festival similarly headlined by a Texas band each spring, the Old 97's booked friends and touring mates for a day of music in downtown’s Main Street Garden Park. Those friends just happen to be some of the best acts the genre offers: Drive-by Truckers, Lucero, Deer Tick, Justin Townes Earle and Nikki Lane, as well as local favorites Madison King and Brent Best.
The festival was maybe three parts serious fan of the alt-country genre to one part families searching for Saturday fun, with plenty of middle space in the Venn diagram. To stage right, not 50 yards from the front of the stage, the park’s playground was heavily populated with youngsters. Their parents pushed them on the swings or perched on a nearby hill, able to peek over the fence at the performers while keeping the kids entertained.
The line to the festival’s main non-music attraction, the Ferris wheel, was consistently 100 people deep. Lines to the two stands hawking fair food also were not great – expected at any festival, but next year’s edition could be improved by adding a few more vendors. Beer lines were reasonable. The man running the most popular fair game, one of those horse-race ones where your horse moves as you roll balls up an incline into color-coded holes, was a treat. There was little to find issue with.
As for the music, it delivered. Lucero’s wind-blown set was emblematic of their music — at times bold, at times introspective — and played perfectly in the final daytime slot, as the glow of the cloud cover dulled. At one point, the wind furiously whipped frontman Ben Nichols' patented white T-shirt and bent the trees on either side of the crowd. Something about Nichols’ hard-singing rasp into the frantic gusts made alt-country, for a second, seem like an outdoor sport like golf or tennis, where playing under inclement conditions is considered a special feat.
The Drive-by Truckers came on next and played the festival into darkness with a typically stellar set, and Mother Nature's participation was less dramatic. They perched a “Black Lives Matter” poster on a speaker box and proceeded to rock the festival grounds fully to life, the final warm up before the headliners hit the stage.
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By the time Old 97's went on, you could tell Miller was thrilled at the way the day had turned out. He looked like a man living out a dream: his smile spanned the width of his face, his right arm looped in circles between guitar strums and his hair swung in every direction. The band played a tidy hour and a half, careful not to upset the city (an earlier curfew is the price for playing a venue close to downtown).
After they played their popular song “Question,” Miller said, “That was pretty romantic. We got another one for you that’s equally romantic, though it might not be as obvious.” And then they played “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On.” Murry Hammond, the band’s lively Ira Glass lookalike who plays bass and provides secondary vocals, wore a damn-near perfect Texas flag shirt. “You know, it’s not every day you bust out a shirt like this,” he said.
It was a special night, indeed, and when Miller signed off, he confirmed there would be more special nights like it ahead. “We’ll see you next year,” he said.