Fair history replete with lucky entertainer picks

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008
— Heartthrobs, rising stars, mega stars and golden oldies. That’s American pop culture in a nutshell.

It’s also a fair description of the famous and nearly famous who have appeared at the Rock County 4-H Fair through the years.

The fair has been a magnet for acts that were huge in their time, such as Kenny Rogers in 1978 or comedian Bill Engvall in 2005.

And the fair has a record of introducing rising stars, such as Garth Brooks, who conquered both the country and pop worlds in spectacular fashion soon after his 1991 appearance at the fair.

Or ’N Sync, the pop group that was big when it performed here in 1998 but reached super-stardom a short time after.

Faith Hill was another star that shone even brighter after her appearance here in 1995.

Is there some special magic in the fairgrounds?

If so, then the magic has gotten some help through the years from a variety of booking agents who keep their fingers on the pulse of who’s up-and-coming, said longtime fair board members Karen O’Leary and Wayne Flury.

Each year, the board sits down with its agent, each person bringing a list of who they’d like to see at the next fair, O’Leary said.

Often, acts are touring in a different part of the country during fair week, or they’re already booked at a nearby venue.

“We wouldn’t want an act that the Walworth County Fair would have in another month, or they wouldn’t want an act that we just had,” O’Leary said.

Price is always a factor in the decision, O’Leary said.

There’s no rock group at the fair this year for those reasons, O’Leary said.

“There wasn’t a rock group available that would be going through this area this summer that wasn’t already committed someplace else, like (Beloit’s) Riverfest,” she said. “… We try to avoid conflicts with anybody.”

And then there’s the wholesomeness factor. The fair is looking for “family entertainment.”

For example, O’Leary said, the fair had a chance to get Larry the Cable Guy, but they heard that Larry’s comedy could be vulgar.

With all those considerations, “sometimes we just get lucky,” O’Leary said.

More than sometimes. A list of fair entertainers through the years looks like a list of the cream of country music, and a few stars of the rock/pop scene, albeit well after their chart-topping years, such as Chuck Berry (1977), Chubby Checker (’81) and Cheap Trick (’89 and ’93).

So who’s the up-and-comer this year?

O’Leary and fair board President Wayne Flury both point to teen heartthrob Corbin Bleu, who performs Saturday, and Lady Antebellum, a pop/country trio that performs Sunday.

Bleu, as anyone younger than 20 knows, is a star of Disney’s outrageously popular “High School Musical.”

Flury expects a huge crowd, with kids from 9 to 19, along with their parents.

But teen heartthrobs have a mixed record at the fair. Anyone remember Jimmy Ray, who opened for N Sync? How about Michael Damian in 1990 or The Jets in 1987?

Lady Antebellum was an unknown when the board booked them, O’Leary said. Since then, the group has garnered rave reviews for its debut album and was named the top new vocal group at the Academy of Country Music Awards in May.

And for another chance at seeing a future superstar, fairgoers also might check out tonight’s Rock County 4-H Star Contest.

The contest features local vocal talent, and who knows? Maybe someday one of those young performers will return in triumph, maybe even becoming the next Faith Hill, Garth Brooks or Johnny Cash.

Yes, the man in black, a treasure at any stage of his career, played the fair twice, in ’85 and ’93.

Milsap's performance

Ronnie Milsap will set a record when he performs Thursday at the Rock County 4-H Fair: He will have performed at the fair four times.

Milsap performed at the fair in 1979, 1986 and 1994, according to Gazette records.

No other national act has performed at the fair more than three times over the past 30 years.

Three-timers include the Oak Ridge Boys, in 1979, 1994 and 2006, and comedians Williams & Ree, in 1993, 1994 and 1997.

Partial records going farther back in time show that Loretta Lynn of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” fame performed here in 1974, 1979 and 1987.

And Conway Twitty was here in 1969, 1980 and 1985.

Milsap also performed in Janesville at a non-fair event. That was in April 2000 at Craig High School as part of the sesquicentennial celebration for the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped.

Randy Travis, by the way, will have performed here twice when he completes his show Friday night. He was here in 1987, when he was one of the top stars in country music.

Entertainers draw crowds

It’s impossible to tell how many people saw individual acts at the Rock County 4-H Fair, because admission to the fair means admission to the entertainment, and not everyone who enters the fair on a given day will see the grandstand act. But those entertainers have a lot to do with the final gate tally. Here are—to the best of our knowledge—the top-drawing fair acts of all time:

Entertainer -- Year -- Attendance

Trisha Yearwood -- 1995 -- 28,395

’N Sync -- 1998 -- 25,226

Confederate Railroad -- 2003 -- 24,790

Lorrie Morgan -- 1998 -- 24,748

Michael Peterson & Bill Engvall -- 1998 -- 24,558

Tiffany -- 1988 -- 24,280

Lee Ann Womack -- 2001 -- 23,798

Kenny Rogers -- 1978 -- 23,163

Bill Engvall -- 2005 -- 22,686

Blackhawk -- 1996 -- 22,617

Last updated: 9:45 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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