For North Texas musicians scheduled to play the State Fair this year, the news of the cancellation is yet another in a string of lost opportunities since public events began to fold in March — albeit a big one. As big as Texas, one might say.
When the State Fair posted an official announcement to their Facebook page last Tuesday, many fans commented to express their disappointment. Some pointed out the hardship that its food vendors would face. Eater Dallas described the cancellation as a “massive blow to its food purveyors, many of whom make most of their yearly income in those three weeks every fall.”
Food vendors aren’t the only ones who will be losing income this fall. The fair also features musical acts across multiple stages every year. For some, this may be the biggest gig of the year canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, if not the first.
Musician and bandleader Rob Holbert was scheduled to play the Texas Monthly stage with his jazz ensemble, the Rob Holbert Group. This would have been the second year in a row the 40+ year music scene veteran was to appear as a featured artist.
Holbert was driving and listening to a local news station when he heard the announcement that the fair would be canceled.
“It was disappointing, but not surprising,” he says. “With the virus, I was really wondering how they were going to pull that off.”
Having recently retired from 35 years in the corporate world, Holbert says he’s able to get by financially. His real concern is providing income to the musicians he employs in his band.
“As a band leader, the majority of the people I play with, music is their vocation," Holbert says. "And they don’t have any work, so I’m trying to do things to find work for the band.”
Composer, musician, voiceover talent and radio host Paul Slavens is well-known around DFW for his “Spontaneous Song Generator” act, in which audience members suggest a song title and he improvises a song on the spot. At last year’s fair, he played a couple such sets at the State Fair Wine Garden. This year, he planned on playing several sets per week for the duration of the fair.
The fair's environment poses a challenge for his unique improvisational act, but Slavens says he looked forward to it nonetheless.
“You’re just one little thing that people can see in a whole world of bright, shiny, loud things,” he says, describing his experience playing last year. “You have every kind of person, every age group, every political, religious, attitude that there is, and everybody’s out there. There’s so much stimulation that you’re competing with ... a few people pay attention, and a lot of people are just there at the fair.”
“It was disappointing, but not surprising...With the virus, I was really wondering how they were going to pull that off.” – Musician Rob Holbert
A seasoned voiceover artist and actor with The Kim Dawson agency, Slavens nearly made it to the final round of auditions to become the new voice of Big Tex a few years ago. This year, a vacancy for the role opened up again.
“I had a lot of people wanting me to audition for the voice of Big Tex," he says. "I didn’t this time; it’s a pretty demanding job, it’s a big time commitment. I knew I was already going to be out there performing, and I thought, ‘Maybe not this time.'"
That’s not to say he won’t ever audition if the spot opened up again.
“It would be just a world-class hoot,” Slavens says, laughing.
While Slavens will miss the income and challenge of playing at the fair this year, he’s at no loss for things to do. He has a new record coming out with local (and coincidentally named) record label State Fair Records, and plans on continuing to play live streamed shows.
“I feel bad about all the dang musicians and vendors and stuff,” he says. “A lot of people are losing their yearly income.”
State Fair Records booked somewhere between 50 and 60 music acts on three stages at the fair this year, said the label's operations manager, Courtney Wright. The planning process started in February, and their work would have continued all the way through the end of the fair.
Wright says that State Fair Records' goal was to spotlight mostly local acts.
“At least 2 or 3 million people come through the State Fair of Texas, and that’s such a huge opportunity for these artists,” Wright says. “And it’s not just, you know, people from Dallas coming, it’s all over the world. Of course it’s like a financial blow, but it’s also just an opportunity blow.”
While the cancellation was disappointing, Wright says she enjoyed working with the State Fair of Texas staff, even as things fell through.
“We’re so honored to work with the fair, and they’ve handled this super well,” she says. “I have nothing but good things to say about how they’ve dealt with the whole pandemic thing and we fully support and are behind their decision.”
For singer-songwriter Kristy Krüger, the cancellation means missing out on an important cultural experience as well as family memories.
“When I was a little girl, we went to the fair every single year," she says. "My dad has never missed a year with the exception of maybe a couple of years here and there. My dad is 78. ... He’s getting up there, and I don’t know how many years we have left, so that’s something I really look forward to, is spending the fair with him.”
The singer says the fair’s legacy goes hand in hand with the rich cultural heritage of Dallas-Fort Worth and the greater state.
“I am very proud to be a Texan,” Krüger says. “I really think that historically speaking, culturally speaking, in the music field we have such a rich community of songwriters and musicians.”
After touring extensively all over the country, Krüger is appreciative of the music scene in Texas.
“I don’t think I would be the musician I am today if it wasn’t for the rich culture in this area,” Krüger says.
For Krüger, and many others, a big part of the Texas music scene blooms under the watch of Big Tex.