This will be the third year of the North Carolina State Fair’s Homegrown Music Festival – 64 acts with North Carolina ties over 11 days and nights.
A few years ago, the fair’s Dorton Arena concert schedule was a lot like other events on the state-fair circuit across America. Every year’s lineup was long on country and Christian music, with the occasional “American Idol” or past-their-prime hitmaker.
Dave Rose, whose Deep South Entertainment produces concerts, among other things, was pretty much the perfect guy to orchestrate the new series.
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If you’ve gone to a festival, fair or some other gathering involving live music around here the past 10 years, chances are good that Deep South had something to do with it. That includes Y’all at Dix Park, Oak City 7, Pickin’ in the Plaza, Raleigh Downtown Live and the past two inaugural balls for Governors Cooper and McCrory – all concert series that emphasize North Carolina musical acts.
“I always like to say we’re the company that does all the potato festivals in North Carolina,” Rose said. “If there’s a small-town potato festival anywhere, we probably have a piece of equipment there.”
Based in Raleigh with a new office in the country-music capital of Nashville, Rose’s Deep South includes artist management and downtown music venue Deep South The Bar. And for all the events the company does, the fair is the biggest with music spread out on three stages.
Country Music Hall of Famer (and Robbinsville native) Ronnie Milsap is this year’s marquee act at 5,100-capacity Dorton Arena, plus beach icons Chairmen of the Board, Eastern North Carolina country hitmakers Parmalee and 1990s-vintage Chapel Hill pop band Dillon Fence.
Outdoors, there’s bluegrass on the Heritage Circle Stage while the Waterfall Stage lineup ranges from G Yamazawa’s hip-hop to the underground pop-rock of Lemon Sparks. Concerts are free with a gate admission, and all the acts are either North Carolina-based or have fairly deep ties here.
“All state fairs have to respond to their mission in the best way they can,” said Marla Calico, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions. “Kudos to North Carolina for identifying something that seems to be working quite well. I’m not aware of any other state fair that does all-local music like that.”
For years, State Fair concerts involved paid tickets then, on top of gate admission, ranging from $5 to $17.
As performer guarantees rose in recent years, the fair had to raise its artist payments to compete with other venues. Its concert budget ballooned to an average of more than $580,000 a year for the years 2012-14 and peaked at more than $690,000 in 2012, according to figures from state fair public information officer Sarah Ray.
While the fair was still quite profitable overall, its concert series featuring the likes of ’90s rapper Vanilla Ice, ’80s rocker Joan Jett and country singer Clay Walker in 2014 weren’t selling enough tickets to break even.
In 2015, Deep South was hired for a three-year contract with instructions to keep it inexpensive, local and diverse. This year’s overall budget for concerts is $220,000, a fraction of years past.
Ray said fair management no longer keeps track of attendance for the Dorton concerts, now that ticket sales aren’t involved anymore. But they seem pleased with the results.
“We look at the state fair as a showcase of all things North Carolina,” said fair spokesman Brian Long. “The diversity of music on the three stages is greater than it’s ever been and we’re pretty happy about that.”
A passion for music
It was probably inevitable that Rose, now 50, would eventually wind up in the role of musical impresario. Born in the Eastern North Carolina town of Washington, he came to Raleigh to get a business degree at NC State University.
But music was Rose’s passion as he played in a series of bands, including the mysteriously named 9811. Rose laughs sheepishly while explaining the band name’s origins: 9811 was the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-code number for musician the year the group formed.
“I’d call that a sign that the musician side was not a road I should continue down,” he said.
Rose made plenty of mistakes along the way, enough to fill a music-business primer he published in 2013, “Everything I Know About the Music Business I Learned From My Cousin Rick.” Still, the business side of music proved fruitful.
In the mid-1990s, Rose co-founded Deep South Records with Andy Martin and Amy Cox and began releasing multi-artist compilation albums. A couple of songs that first appeared on Deep South later became significant hits – most notably “Sex and Candy” by Manhattan rock trio Marcy Playground, which went on to crack Billboard’s Top 10 after the band moved up to Capitol Records.
Marcy Playground and million-selling Christian-rock band Stryper remain longtime clients. And lately, managing the young country singer Kasey Tyndall has kept Rose busy enough in Nashville for him to open a Deep South office there. But it’s just a satellite.
“‘Must be present to win’ is a saying in Nashville,” Rose said. “I’m there pretty regularly, but I don’t foresee ever moving. I love Raleigh too much.”
Looking to the future
Deep South’s deal with the fair ends after this year. As in 2014, fair management will solicit proposals for the music series starting in 2018.
Rose said Deep South will bid on it again, in hopes of continuing to do the fair’s live music. And in the meantime, there’s a new series to build at Dix Park.
After years of presenting free shows at Moore Square and Fayetteville Street’s City Plaza, Deep South started up the Y’all at Dix Park series this summer. There’s no permanent live-entertainment infrastructure at Dix, so the first season’s three-show slate was intended to see how it might work.
Dix Park Conservancy president/CEO Sean Malone is overseeing development of a master plan for how Dix might be transformed in the future. Rose hopes that live entertainment ultimately will be part of the mix.
“We’ve been good as a company at bringing people into places,” Rose said. “When we started Downtown Live at Moore Square in the mid-2000s, the convention center was being built and half of downtown was a construction zone. Then we moved over to Fayetteville Street, did things there for a few years. And now Dix Park is the next place for that.
“I hope Y’all is where the grand idea for that place comes from,” he added. “From someone attending a concert, sitting in the grass with a beer listening to a band. Share that idea and make it happen.”
Dorton Arena concerts
All shows are free with paid fair admission. Fair-goers can begin lining up at 6 p.m. for the night shows. Doors open at 7 p.m. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Every night, 150 commemorative coolers will be given away at Dorton Arena to the first 150 people that line up for the evening shows, to celebrate the fair's 150th anniversary.
Oct. 13 – On The Border (tribute to The Eagles)
Oct. 14 – Parmalee, OSMR (country)
Oct. 15 – Come Together with Bay Leaf Church (worship)
Oct. 16 – Ronnie Milsap (country)
Oct. 17 – Building 429, Branan Murphy (Christian rock)
Oct. 18 – Liquid Pleasure, Sleeping Booty (R&B)
Oct. 19 – Marcy Playground, Athenaeum (alternative)
Oct. 20 – Chairmen of the Board featuring Ken Knox (beach)
Oct. 21 – Dillon Fence, Preeesh! (alternative)
Oct. 22 – Jump, Little Children; She Returns from War