In addition to hit sounds by acts from Vanilla Ice to Parmalee, free music flows from many corners of the State Fair, sometimes in places that take a little discovering.
The centrally located waterfall stage has a wide array of talent, but adventuresome visitors will also want to check out the bluegrass stage, the gospel church setting, the folk festival and some even less formal sites.
As the fair got underway last week, bands such as the Latino/dance act Cristina y Los Artes and soul-rockers the 919 Band took up residency at the waterfall stage, just outside Dorton Arena.
“It gets your blood going and your adrenaline going,” said Patricia Harrington, of Sanford, who was drawn to an early show by Cristina y Los Artes. “I used to do Zumba to this, so I know a lot of these beats.”
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Music has been an attraction of the North Carolina State Fair since its 19th century origins, and continues to take a prominent place. That’s true on the midway grounds where one-man band Marc Dobson attracts passers-by, and in the Village of Yesteryear, where performers on handcrafted banjos, fiddles and hammered dulcimer demonstrate their wares.
The free music selections are like gravy for fair visitors, but can be tough on musicians, who must start getting crowds up and grooving as early as 10 a.m. and give two or three appearances a day.
“There’s a few smiles out there,” said Casey Gallas, who sings lead in the 919 Band along with Toni Wilson, after they ripped through Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” “It’ll take me a few hours to get y’all all smiling.”
Down near the garden area, award-winning singer, mandolinist and producer Don Rigsby is making daily appearances at the bluegrass stage with his band Midnight Call. The all-acoustic quintet offers up well-balanced, powerful version of genre classics such as “Rank Strangers” and “I Wonder Where You are Tonight” as well as original tunes and high-level instrumentals.
“We probably ought to do a good fiddle tune about now,” Rigsby mused at one point, clearly deciding on a set list as the show went on.
As the first full-time director of Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, Rigsby has academic credentials as well as a lifetime around homegrown music to draw on. About a minute’s walk back uphill, with only some gas-powered ice-cream makers separating the sounds, the Robeson County-based gospel group By Faith Alone held forth at a tent next to the fairground’s Old Church.
“That’s beautiful, y’all,” said alto singer Anverdale Locklear as fairgoers seated under a white tent sang along to “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”
As customary in Southern gospel shows, By Faith Alone performed to prerecorded tracks. But youngsters Eliza Meyer, 11, on fiddle, and Liam Purcell, 12, on banjo, stuck to the old-time ways as they appeared at the Folk Festival. The event offers hours of traditional picking, singing and dancing in its location behind the Graham Building.
Eliza, of Raleigh, and Liam, of Deep Gap, started picking old-time music together at a festival and have maintained a friendship. But for the Geerts family of North Durham, participation in the Folk Festival is a family affair.
“It’s a busy life, but they love clogging,” said mom Dana Geerts, after applauding an energetic performance by the Little River Cloggers, of Rougemont, who include Geerts siblings Hannah, 14; Jacob, 11; and Karis, 9.
Audrey Perry, of Durham, and husband Ellis Perry have run the Folk Festival since 1983, taking applications from participants beginning in August each year.
“It’s so much fun, but Ellis and I work really hard,” Audrey Perry said.
The event celebrates its 65th anniversary next year, and the Ellises hope to stay around until the 70th edition, doing their part in the fair’s annual gift of music.