Old 97's County Fair Inaugurates a Texas Tradition Worth Driving to Dallas For

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Old 97's County Fair
Main Street Garden Park, Dallas
April 16, 2016

Talking with my fellow Houston music fans this last month, it was apparent many people hadn't heard about last Saturday's Old 97's County Fair in Dallas. Even if they had, the prospect of driving three and a half hours (give or take) and spending all day in unpredictable north Texas weather — never mind securing accommodations for the night — may have seemed needlessly daunting. Also, if the number of formal-clad individuals roaming around downtown Big D were any indication, everyone in the state was getting married this weekend.

Your roaming Houston Press correspondent certainly understands how real life can inconvenience your entertainment plans, but I'm here to tell you you probably should have blown off your cousin's nuptials. The first installment of the County Fair was a big hit. The weather was almost perfect, the crowd (mostly) well-behaved, and every act made the most of their occasionally limited set times.

First up (the Fair opened at 1 p.m.) was Madison King, a Dallas-based singer-songwriter whose clear, piercing vocals contrast pointedly with lyrics about drinking whiskey and smoking weed. 97's front man Rhett Miller — who also introduced each act throughout the day — joined King at the end of her setlist for "Feel Like Falling Love," which was a nice early surprise in a show that would end up being full of them.

I stood next to King's mother during her set. She was predictably elated.

Next up was Brent Best, lead singer for Denton's Slobberbone. If I may be permitted a bit of personal bias,   Slobberbone is/was one of my favorite bands of all time, and Best was one act I absolutely didn't want to miss. His set, consisting of nothing but "sad bastard ballads," didn't disappoint. To this end, he relied on downbeat, dysfunctional family offerings like "Daddy Was a Liar" and Aunt Ramona" from his recent solo album, Your Dog, Champ. Sporting an impressive beard (which occasionally interfered with his harmonica rig), he seemed to confuse some of the early crowd, but won many of them back with a great rendition of "Sister Beams" from Slobberbone's last album, Slippage.

The third act was Nikki Lane, from Memphis. Her smoky, torch-song delivery was a big hit with the assembled beardos (though the saucy sailor outfit probably helped). Lane's sound is Wanda Jackson-esque, and definitely the closest of any of the day's acts to "outlaw country," especially on the searing FU of "Man Up."

Justin Townes Earle — son of Steve Earle, which you're apparently not supposed to bring up — came out next and was...all right. Of all the acts Saturday, he seemed the most uncomfortable onstage, with awkward banter that seemed unprompted by, well, anything. I also never realized how much the guy looks like Michael Bolton from Office Space.

Deer Tick and Lucero, who both occupy the niche "strangled vocals" genre, followed. The first thing you notice about Deer Tick is half of them look like they're 15 years old as they swing between '70s-reminiscent country and neo-punk. "Ashamed" and "Is This It" were particularly welcomed. The second thing you noticed was Houston's own Robert Ellis joining DT on guitar. It would be one of many appearances he made on the day, perhaps indicating a new stab at more mainstream success. Or maybe he owed Rhett Miller money. What am I, Hedda Hopper?

Having seen the two acts I was most jonesed about (Best and Deer Tick), and not having eaten anything since 9 a.m., I ducked out for dinner (sue me: I'm not 19 and able to live solely on beer and beef-jerky samples anymore). What I heard of Lucero was pretty good, though.

As for the fair itself, it was an interesting experiment. There was a Ferris wheel, free to all attendees, and various midway-style games. Kids ten and under were free, and dogs were welcome. But by late afternoon, as the music crowd started really filling in, the youth-friendly "fair" aspect diminished significantly. 

Also, anyone searching for proof of the collapse of society need look no further than the amount of time it takes a 21st-century male to go to the restroom. Tighten up, dudes.

By the time the Drive-By Truckers took the stage, the field was pretty packed. Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and company wasted no time, launching into "The Fourth Night of My Drinking" (from The Big To-Do) and giving forth with one of the tightest sets I've heard from the group. Time constraints certainly played into it, and I've witnessed a few overlong, listless DBT sets, but check this: "The Righteous Path," followed by "A Ghost to Most," "Goode's Field Road," "Women Without Whiskey," Tornadoes," "Let There Be Rock" and several more. What's more, Hood was in a fine mood, praising the Old 97's and the other acts ("Righteous Path" was dedicated to Brent Best).

Also, I've been watching the DBTs for more than a decade, and I've become increasingly convinced Mike Cooley is going to be one of those Camp Freddy guys, unironically wearing his black satin blouse and rocking forever. He adopts the rock god pose better than just about anyone else, and does it in one of the best live rock outfits around.

The weather, which had held off all day, threatened to ruin the Old 97's triumphant closing set. Fortunately, the rain never materialized, and Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples finished the night off with a set of crowd favorites. I've been going to 97's shows since the days they played the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, so it was surprising to see how young much of the crowd was. Older fans remember Miller before his shaggy-haircut heartthrob days (I always dug the Buddy Holly glasses), so standing behind a quartet of coeds lustily singing along to "Doreen" and "Time Bomb" was a little weird.

And while the band pours as much into "Barrier Reef" and "Streets of Where I'm From" as ever, this old dude was happy to see a few change-ups. First, Robert Ellis came back on to pay tribute to the dear, departed Merle Haggard with "Mama Tried." Then Nikki Lane emerged to join in on "Four-Leaf Clover"; appropriately, it was during this punk-adjacent song that a drunken 300-pounder knocked me on my ass as he lurched toward the stage. Finally, and perhaps most gratifying to the old guard, Patterson Hood emerged to join the 97's for a cover of R.E.M.'s "Driver 8." 

It's hard to imagine a lineup like this going off as easily (some minor audio glitches aside) and with such perfect weather again (yours truly barely beat the thunderstorms out of town Sunday morning), but Miller assured us they'll be rolling out the County Fair again. Get your asses up there next time. Dallas isn't *that* bad, y'all.

See the Dallas Observer's slideshow for lots more photos from the Fair.

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