Folk festival an NC State Fair favorite for 65 years

acurliss@newsobserver.comOctober 22, 2013 

  • Today at the fair

    Hours: Gates, 8 a.m.- to 11 p.m. Midway, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Exhibit halls, 9 a.m.-9:45 p.m.

    Tickets: Adults (13-64), $9; children (6-12), $4; military with ID, $5; children 5 and younger and adults 65 and older, free

    Dorton Arena concert: Dailey and Vincent, 7:30 p.m., $5

    Forecast: Mostly sunny, mid-60s

    Monday’s attendance: 67,770

  • See for yourself

    The N.C. State Fair Folk Festival maintains a Facebook page that includes videos, photos and other comments on recent performances. Find it at

— There are some who say the essence of the N.C. State Fair is on display each day in a white tent tucked behind the Kerr Scott Building.

There, up on a stage at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., cloggers, singers, musicians and other dancers perform in an array of delightful bursts, all of it with a nod to old-time, traditional entertainment.

Some who cross the stage are 7 or 8 years old. Others are in their 70s and 80s.

Almost all of them are competing for trophies, plaques, ribbons or cash prizes of no more than $125 in about 20 categories. A few show up and perform just for fun.

It’s been going on for 65 years.

“I love it so much – seeing the little kids get their start and then all the way up with all the entertainment,” said Ron Cook, 70, of Pikeville, who watched a stream of young cloggers as he took a breather between his group’s performances on Sunday. “Everything about this is good. Most of us think of it as the heart and soul of the fair.”

Behind the performers is a mainstay that gives the show its heartbeat: The Folk Festival Band, a group assembled only for the 11-day run of the fair each year. It features veteran fiddle player Curtis Lee, a bluegrass music pioneer who is in the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been playing at the festival for close to 35 years.

Lee, who lives in Johnston County, launches each day’s afternoon show with a stroll into the audience, fiddling away “Orange Blossom Special” as he dodges baby strollers and avoids stepping on thumping feet.

It had become a much-requested highlight in recent years, organizers said, and so they’ve made it permanent.

Each day of the festival is different. The lineups are filled with amateur contestants from across the state who choose the day they will perform, usually based on when they can get there. There is no cost to watch, and many shows are filled to standing room only in the tent that holds 800 seats.

Russ Varnell, a banker from Wilson, is expected to sing Wednesday and, if the past is any indication, he’ll have everyone up on their feet. He has won eight or nine blue ribbons over the years and said he can’t wait to return.

“It’s kind of like a reunion,” said Varnell, who is 38 and has appeared at the festival almost every year of adulthood. “It’s old friends and a lot of fellowship.”

He’s thinking about covering Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner and George Jones this year, assuming there’s time. He gets only six minutes.

Lee and the rest of the bluegrass band will play for him and many others during the fair. The band takes a rest when some performers use a recording, including a wide range of youth dance companies. Weekday shows, which tend to have fewer entrants, also allow time for the band to play some bluegrass favorites.

More than 1,600 performers will have crossed the stage by the time the fair closes Sunday.

“We consider everybody who comes here to be family,” said Ellis Perry of Durham, the show’s superintendent. He has been a part of it for three decades. His wife, Audrey, is the head judge.

Stephanie Lipscomb plans to sing gospel on Thursday, just as she has at the fair since she was 13 years old. She’s now in her 50s.

“I love it, and it’s always such a fun day,” Lipscomb said. “You just watch the expressions on people’s faces, and it’s wonderful.”

Patti Wood Barefoot, 52, of Benson said she has been singing at the fair since she was 9 or 10. Her father, Marcus Wood, is 89.

They sang together Monday, performing a stirring version of “How Great Thou Art,” something they weren’t sure would happen after Wood fell recently. Barefoot rolled him onto the stage in a wheelchair.

It ended with a standing ovation and, soon after, their fiddler, Lee, was off the stage, putting headphones on Wood to play back the performance for him.

“I think this is one of the specialest places I know of,” Wood said. “I like to sing anywhere, even alone. But it sure feels good here.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840; Twitter: @acurliss

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service