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Friday, 18 July 2014 00:00

Rock County 4-H Fair pulls in popular performers

Written by  Lynn Greene
Country duo The Swon Brothers share the spotlight with Danielle Bradbery on Wednesday, July 23, at the Rock County 4-H Fair. Rock County fair officials have booked a string of crowd-drawing country acts over the last number of years. Country duo The Swon Brothers share the spotlight with Danielle Bradbery on Wednesday, July 23, at the Rock County 4-H Fair. Rock County fair officials have booked a string of crowd-drawing country acts over the last number of years. Rock County 4-H Fair

“Popular music is the soundtrack of our individual lives. Anything that ever happened to you, good or bad, was scored with the music you listened to.”

-- Dick Clark

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- Dick Clark, longtime host of “American Bandstand,” said it best when he referred to music as “the soundtrack of our lives.” Who among us hasn’t flashed back in time when we hear a song that epitomizes a certain time in our life?

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“I know I always watched that show -- it was our MTV before there was such a thing,” said Cindy Halpren of Janesville. “Still those songs come on now and I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. And going to concerts was always a big thing in the summer.”

Halpren, who grew up in Rock County, also remembers going to the Rock County Fair, sitting in the bleachers with her friends and listening to the grandstand entertainment. This year’s fair runs Tuesday, July 22, through Sunday, July 27.

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“I lean toward country and I’ve always looked forward to the fair for that reason,” Halpren said. “Last year they had Florida Georgia Line and that was a great concert.”

The band had a huge hit with “Cruise,” which spent 26 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the best-selling country song in the United States. The band’s success came after the Rock County Fair booked the duo, but before they appeared on the grandstand at last year’s fair.

“They broke all the attendance records,” said Ryan George, a member of the entertainment committee for the fair.

Julie Johnson is going into her third year as chair of the entertainment committee. Neither Johnson nor George claim complete credit for the foresight to book the popular band.

“We work as a group,” Johnson said. “And we take suggestions from people of who they would want to see. We ask our friends, kids, neighbors.

“Then it’s a matter of budget considerations, time restraints, who’s available.”

Booking the entertainment for the fair is a year-round endeavor. If they get it right and the acts draw a big crowd, it can make the whole fair a success.

“For this year, we started in October last year,” Johnson said.

This year’s lineup includes The Swon Brothers, Danielle Bradbery and Scotty McCreery, all popular young country singers and products of reality television. Then there’s Charles Esten and Clare Bowen, the real-life singers in the fictional television show “Nashville.”

Halpren believes that fair organizers got it right.

“I love that show (‘Nashville’) and Scotty McCreery is really good,” Halpren said. “I think the whole list is going to attract a lot of the young people, for sure.”

Tried and true performers include George Thorogood on Tuesday and Lonestar on Friday.

Acts that can attract a big crowd help to pay for all of the entertainment. In 2012, the fair started charging extra for the grandstand seats. It wasn’t a change they took lightly and they weren’t sure how it was going to work.

Josh Turner was the artist that year. Mary Check, fair secretary, said having tickets available online worked well.

“That was new for us, but the tickets sold pretty good right away,” Check said.

The reason for the success was easy to see. By the time the fair rolled around, Turner had the biggest hit of the year in “Time is Love.”

“You can’t start too early,” Johnson said of booking the performers. “They use us to fill in around their tours. First we get a pre-approval, then there’s a waiting time and finally a final commitment.”

“We’re competing with the big acts, like Kenny Chesney -- he’ll go out on tour and pick up two or three of these smaller acts to tour with and then we lose them,” George said.

“We work with Variety Attractions,” Johnson said. “They have the inside information we need to make decisions.”

For example, last year the fair had booked Trace Adkins, knowing that he was scheduled to be on the reality show “The Apprentice.”

By the time the fair came around, Adkins had won the show and was enjoying a renewed popularity, making it easy for the fair to get the $30 ticket price for Adkins’ concert.

It was serendipitous luck that Adkins had won. Still, the committee works hard to ensure a certain amount of that luck.

“Every year it’s stressful,” George said. “One day you can be waiting to get everything finalized and then finally, everything falls into place.”

Even though 2012 was the first time an extra ticket was needed for the grandstand entertainment, it wasn’t the first time the entertainment committee came out winners. Some years, it looked like the committee had a premonition of which entertainers would hit it big. The acts are booked at a price the fair can afford, then they get super popular by fair time.

“Well, in a perfect world that would be how it works,” George said. “We have had some great acts, getting them before they hit it big … Toby Keith was here twice; Garth Brooks was a big hit.”

George grew up at the fair. His dad, Paul, was the Rock County 4-H Fair Board president from 1986 to 1991. As a youngster, George always was involved in the fair.

“There’s a picture of me being held by June Carter and Johnny Cash when they performed here,” George said. The photo has become part of the timeline of George’s life.

The most recent lesser-knowns who became notable entertainers the year they were booked at the fair is impressive, too. It includes Hunter Hayes, Greyson Chance, Julianne Hough, Luke Bryan and Lady Antebellum.

Catching these acts at the beginning of their careers and following them for years as they provide the songs for that music timeline of our lives creates our personal history. This year is another opportunity for fair-goers to create those memories for themselves.

For one entertainer, the memories are bound to be life-changing. Zac Matthews, from Milton, will close out the fair lineup with a free show at 7 p.m. Sunday, July 27. Matthews won the Midwest regional competition of the Texaco Country Music Showdown last year, becoming a national finalist. In January, he performed in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, and even though he didn’t win the entire showdown, he came away with a recording contract. 

“If I could fill a stadium some day, that would be my all-time goal,” Matthews said. “I would be happy having a comfortable living making music, but obviously the all-time goal is being a country music star.”

But first, he’ll have a chance to fill the grandstand at the Rock County 4-H Fair. And the rest of us will be able to say we heard him before he was a famous country music star.

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