Old 97’s County Fair Found Its Identity In Year Two.

In Its Second Year, The Old 97’s County Fair Did What It Needed To: It Distinguished Itself From The Homegrown Music & Arts Festival And Found Its Own Footing.

Most photos by Cal Quinn. Non-watermarked photos by Pete Freedman.

Last year’s inaugural run of the Old 97’s County Fair was a hit, but it wasn’t without one fairly large, pressing issue: Even though its offerings were distinguished by whittling things down to one stage, and despite the fact that the second half of its Main Street Garden Park home played host to a bevy of midway games and attractions, it still felt a whole lot like the Homegrown Music & Arts Festival that its organizers also throw each spring in this same location.

Granted, there are worse issues a festival could face than being a little too much like another one that people really enjoy and support year after year. But it was still a clear concern in the eyes of the festival’s talent buyers heading into Year Two, and while this year’s offering was not without flaws — twice during Mavis Staples’ set, the main stage’s power generator crapped out, bringing the otherwise pleasant proceedings to rather grinding halts — the festival took a major step forward this year as far as establishing itself as a unique event worth circling on Dallas’ annual concert calendar.

Of course, that much was pretty much known going in. Whereas last year’s affair featured a more wheels-off lineup (Deer Tick, Nikki Lane, Lucero) that seemed built as part of an effort to add some edge to the festival namesake’s relevance, this year’s offering saw the 97’s comfortably accepting its role as elder statesman and booking itself alongside acts that appealed to its suddenly not-so-spry fan base. Who knew that, instead of songs that glorify hard times wrought by over-drinking, Old 97’s fans would prefer hearing, for instance, The Jayhawks’ impeccable songwriting or Lucinda William’s world-weary poetry or Mavis Staples’ iconic and formative rhythm and blues? Well, the 97’s and the rest of the team behind this festival, turns out. And that bookings philosophy indeed proved a shrewd move on Saturday, as the County Fair — abetted by practically pitch-perfect weather — settled nicely into its new role, one that seems less about rabble-rousing and more about honest-to-goodness music appreciation within an every-idyllic setting.

The crowd certainly appreciated what it got: Following early standout sets from local acts The Texas Gentlemen and The Vandoliers, attendees at the Old 97’s County Fair were treated to a tasteful set from The Jayhawks, who noted that this set was a “throw-and-go” one, implying that their prep time wasn’t as lengthy as they might’ve liked, although no one else on the grounds seemed to notice or mind; a stellar offering from Mavis Staples, who had the crowd eating out of her hand in spite of the technical issues, wowing her audience with her still-so-great vocals, her undeniable charm and her stories of traveling the South as a young starlet involved in the Civil Rights Movement; and a compelling penultimate performance from Lucinda Williams, who opened her set up with a cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” and continued to toss the world a side-eye as she brought the proceedings through dusk.

But that all was somewhat to be expected, given the skins each of those performers has on their walls. Bless the Old 97’s, then, for choosing not to rest on their own laurels on this night and instead adding a new trick to their performance — one that, no doubt, many in this crowd had seen before. At this show, for just the second time ever (the first being a warm-up set in Lubbock the night prior), the 97’s added three new members to portions of their performance, with their four-piece core of Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples being joined by Heather Stalling on fiddle, John Pedigo on banjo and Joe Butcher on pedal steel.

Those additions were perhaps an unexpected treat that gave the set a fuller sound, but they were befitting of this Dallas-bred band that’s for so long now continued to figure out ways to continue entertaining its crowds — a fact that the Texas Music Office apparently also finds worthy of applause, as a member of that office joined the band on stage during its set to present its members with an official state flag and proclamation acknowledging the band’s long-tenured greatness in this state.

That moment felt a fitting one, a nice celebratory cap on a day worthy of such a nod. Sometimes, it seems, being exactly who you are is all it takes to win people over.

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