Delaware State Fair entertainment has run gamut through the years

Crystal Gayle performs “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” during the Delaware State Fair in 1978. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Ever since 1955 when the gospel and pop quartet The Mariners became the first act to perform a headlining concert, stage shows of all sorts have been a key part of the 100-year history of the Delaware State Fair.

According to the book “Treasured Tradition,” which chronicles the history of the fair, until then, the grounds featured vaudeville-type acts and musical revues. The decision was made that year to bring in a national act and the racially integrated vocal group, primarily known for its work with TV host Arthur Godfrey, was chosen.

In the ensuing years, the fair has welcomed a virtual cavalcade of stars covering many genres of music, comedy and everything in between.

Country is king

Country music is by far the most popular type of headlining entertainment that has been offered at the Delaware State Fair throughout the fair.

Jimmy Dean was the first big-name country star to appear and the list has grown exponentially since.

Roy Acuff, Glen Campbell, George Jones (twice), Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Alabama (four times), Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean are just some of the names.

Last year, Toby Keith became the artist with the most appearances at the Delaware State Fair with six. Brooks and Dunn and Brad Paisley each have been there five times.

Keith Urban performs in 2014. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

This year’s appearance by Reba McEntire will be her fourth and Brantley Gilbert will make his third trip in 2019.

The Charlies Daniels Band performed its fourth concert last year as part of the Southern Uprising Tour with Travis Tritt, The Marshall Tucker Band and The Outlaws.

But one of those appearances didn’t go so well. In 2004, the band got through two songs before a vicious thunderstorm forced them to shut it down.

As a story in the Delaware State News reported, “With dark gray storm clouds hovering overhead and a blustery wind whipping through the air, the Charlie Daniels Band tore into the opening chords of ‘Drinking My Baby Goodbye.’”

It was the first song in what was supposed to be an hour-long set as they opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd in a sold-out show.

But before the band could finish its second song, the skies opened and unleashed a heavy downpour on the fairgrounds, saturating fans as they frantically ran for cover.

With lightning bolts piercing the sky and thunder roaring in the distance, The Charlie Daniels Band left the stage, never to return.

“The people here tell me that for your safety and ours, we need to get off the stage and you all need to take shelter,” Mr. Daniels told the crowd.

Around 9:30 p.m., after waiting more than an hour in the rain for the band’s return, fans were told that Lynyrd Skynyrd would soon perform. But fans who came to see the Daniels band were none too happy. A fair spokeswoman said it was the band’s decision not to continue.

That fall, Mr. Daniels came back to the area to perform at Punkin Chunkin in Millsboro and talked about his regret over the canceled show.

“We were very disappointed. We don’t like to go somewhere and not get the job done,” he said.

Country rapper Colt Ford performed with Justin Moore back in 2012.

In a State News story, he talked about how people didn’t perceive what he did as country music and compared himself to Mr. Daniels.

“There are people who say that what I do isn’t country. But I just have to ask them ‘What country are you from?’” he said of his records, which have debuted in the top 10 in the Country charts.

Mr. Ford, whose real name is Jason Brown, was quick to point out that his sing-speak style is a time-honored tradition in country music.

“That’s what’s funny. I ain’t created nothing new. Talking records have been around forever,” he said. “There were guys like Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash doing it before me. Do I have my own twist on it? Sure, that’s what an artist is supposed to do. I think it’s boring when you can’t tell one guy apart from another guy.”

Mr. Gilbert has been a popular draw at the fair. He told the Delaware State News prior to his last performance in 2017 how much he likes the setting that a state fair can provide.

“It’s been hard to put a finger on it exactly. The environment of an arena has its benefits since you can control the weather. But being outside, I think people can let their hair down a little more and things become a little bit more organic,” he said.

The Judds, mother and daughter Naomi and Wynonna, perform in Harrington (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

His fans, known as BG Nation, are consistently voted the most devoted group in country music.

“I try to wrap my mind around that. And all I can tell you is God’s been good to me. I think part of that is the fact I try to be as open and honest in my music as I can. People grab onto that and that’s pretty cool,” he said.

On the way up

The fair has also seen its share of rising country stars who have gone on to have blockbuster careers.

Most notably, in 2007, Taylor Swift, along with Kellie Pickler, opened for Mr. Paisley.

Back in December of 2012, the Delaware State Fair announced that Florida Georgia Line would open for country superstar Luke Bryan on the fair’s first night. At that point, the duo’s first studio album “Here’s to the Good Times” had just barely been released and their eventual mega-hit single “Cruise” was still climbing the charts.

By the time they got to the fair, on a July night in 2013, “Here’s to the Good Times” had gone gold, earning the highest debut album sales of 2012 for a new country artist.

Since then, millions have records have been sold and the awards have piled up.

Later in that year, the band embarked on its first headlining tour.

“We are real excited about taking the next step,” said Tyler Hubbard, the Monroe, Georgia, half of Florida Georgia Line, at the time. “It really can’t get here fast enough.

“We don’t take too many breaks. We like to stay busy. That’s what it’s all about — taking advantage of a situation that’s out there for us and just trying to hit a home run every night.”

Country singer Jon Pardi performed at the Delaware State Fair in 2017. (Submitted photo)

Country star Jon Pardi rolled into Harrington in 2017 fresh off of an Academy of County Music award for Best New Artist. He headlined a Delaware State Fair concert with Chris Lane that year.

His fans, the Pardi Animals, were out in force for him that night.

“We’ve been playing the clubs since 2011 and it’s been great. We’re getting more and more people on board and I’m really happy that the fans are with us and more people are noticing. It really gives you the drive to keep going,” he told the Delaware State News.

Hometown heroes

There have been a few Delaware natives who have taken the big stage at the fair.

Country singer Chuck Wicks of Smyrna played the fair in 2009 with his then-girlfriend Julianne Hough and Darius Rucker.

More than 200 family members and friends were in the audience courtesy of tickets bought by former Smyrna School District superintendent and Mr. Wicks’ aunt Debbie Wicks

Mr. Wicks was pumped to play for them on a night that saw showers roll in and out.

“There’s definitely a different kind of energy (playing in Delaware). You want to make everyone proud,” he said.

Milton native and Cape Henlopen High graduate Jimmie Allen opened for Mr. Keith during last year’s record-breaking show.

George Thorogood performs on the main stage at the Delaware State Fair in 2016. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Local fans were excited to see him and he was happy to see them as well.

“I remember going to the state fair a lot as a kid. It was the thing to do in the summer,” he told the Delaware State News later in the year.

“The good thing about the fair is that it’s not super expensive and it’s all about the family. You got to play games and you just had to eat funnel cake. It was a fair staple.”

He said he discovered late in 2017 that the tour would take him to Harrington.

“I was super excited when I found out. To play in Delaware with a guy that I used to listen to while growing up in Delaware was pretty crazy,” he said.

The night before the fair show, he joined country star Jake Owen for a song during Mr. Owen’s concert at Hudson Fields in his hometown of Milton.

But the biggest Delawarean to play a show at the Delaware State Fair was blues legend George Thorogood in 2016.

He had only one request prior to his first show in Harrington.

Keep those mosquitoes away.

“Delaware mosquitoes are the worst. They are deadlier than the cobras in India,” he told the Delaware State News in the days leading up to the show.

It was only his second time playing in Kent County. The first was at the Dover Air Force Base when he was in high school.

“The lead singer from another band copped out of a show for the servicemen down there. So they asked me to fill in,” he said.

“It was a strange thing. The Vietnam War was raging at the time and soldiers’ bodies were coming out of the Air Force base every day. The whole world was watching. And maybe that’s why the lead singer copped out.

“But the show went rather well. The servicemen were just like a regular crowd so it went pretty smoothly. But it was a strange experience to be down there at the time. Something I’ll never forget.”

His state fair concert, which was preceded by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, was also unforgettable for his legions of Downstate fans.

Mr. Thorogood improvised a little during his song “One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer,” saying he was on his way to the “Friday night rock party in Delaware … Delaware, the world’s best kept secret … yeah, the First State” as the crowd roared.

He seemed to enjoy being back in his home state.

“We have never had the pleasure of playing the Delaware State Fair,” he said late in the show that night. “We hope this is the start of a beautiful relationship. … It took us 40 years to get here and we’re going to enjoy every sweet second of it.”

Pop goes the fair

Pop music of the day, whatever era the fair was in, has always been, well, popular.

From big bands and singer/TV talk show host Mike Douglas to Gloria Estefan and Milli Vanilli, to Color Me Badd and Gin Blossooms to Meghan Trainor and Kesha, the fair has tried to cater to the prevailing taste of the day.

None was bigger than in 1989 when New Kids on the Block and Tiffany broke a fair record by selling out two nights at the Delaware State Fair.

Later years have seen “American Idol” finalists such as Kelly Clarkson, David Cook and Clay Aiken take the stage.

In 2004, Mr. Aiken’s concert in Harrington marked his first performance at a state fair and his second show in Delaware.

In June of that year, he performed a benefit concert at Dover Downs, and also sang the national anthem at the then-Nextel Cup NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway.

He said at the time he had a great time in Delaware, and looked forward to returning to the First State.

“When I was here before, it was jam packed with people,” he said, referring to all the race fans. “But it’s a very pretty, very nice state.”

Memories made

While catering to the youngsters of the day, the fair has welcomed older acts for those who wanted to groove to tunes of their childhood.

Chubby Checker twisted the night away while Styx and Cheap Trick paid a visit, as well as three concerts over the years with the Beach Boys. New Kids on the Block returned in 2015 to sing their familiar tunes to folks who also presumably saw them 16 years prior.

Grand Funk Railroad, with songs such as “We’re An American Band,” “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home,” “Locomotion” and “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” headlined the fair’s 2015 craft beer festival.

Founding member and drummer Don Brewer told the Delaware State News that year that he was happy to keep rocking in places like Harrington.

“You never really think about it until it’s staring you straight in the face,” he said.

“But you look out and see three or four generations. You get a grandfather with his grandson on his shoulders and they are both singing along to the music. It’s an incredible feeling and one that I never would have envisioned all those years ago.”

Giving hope

For about the last decade, the Delaware State Fair has catered to the faith-based community by offering concerts by top-selling Christian artists.

Performers have included Casting Crowns and For King and Country, each twice; Lauren Daigle; and Jeremy Camp.

Bill Sammons, general manager of 88.7 The Bridge radio station out of Milford, whose station sponsors many of the shows, told the Delaware State News in 2016 that it is simply the positive messages the songs provide that attract such a crowd.

“In one word— hope,” Mr. Sammons said. “It’s a positive style of music and it gives people hope.

“There’s a lot of really negative stuff going on in our world and people want a respite from that sometimes and they want something they can find some peace and some hope in and Christian music offers that.”

The brotherly duo of For King & Country headlined a contemporary Christian concert that year that also featured Sidewalk Prophets and Jordan Feliz.

Fireworks have been a big part of the entertainment at the Delaware State Fair.

“Christian is the only genre of music that is defined by its lyrical content,” said Luke Smallbone, who fronts For King and Country with his brother Joel, in an interview with the Delaware State News.

“Within Christian music you have heavy metal, you have hip-hop, you have lots of different types of music. When I’m listening to the radio what keeps me listening to the station is the words of the song, no matter what type of music it is, and the song’s message.”

Christian music collective Bethel Music plays this year.

Just for laughs

Comedy also has been featured on the main stage over the years.

Bill Cosby appeared in Harrington twice, while the fair has also welcomed Carrot Top, Larry the Cable Guy and Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias.

But ventriloquist Jeff Dunham has been the king of comedy at the Delaware State Fair, having brought his cast of characters to town four times, the latest appearance being last year.

He previously played the fair in 2009, 2013 and 2016.

Mr. Dunham told the State News that for state fair shows, he always mindful that he’s performing in front of a family audience where he keeps things G-rated.

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham has entertained crowds at the Delaware State Fair four times. (Submitted photo)

With politics being as polarizing as it’s ever been, Mr. Dunham said a good comedian needs to learn the “Johnny Carson or Jay Leno tap dance routine. Politics is so difficult to joke about these days,” he said.

However, he doesn’t shy away from the subject as last year’s tour introduced Larry, an exasperated personal adviser to Donald Trump.

“Now that can be a great job or a horrible job depending on how you look at it. I’ve been having fun with him,” said Mr. Dunham.

This year, the fair will keep the ventriloquism coming with young Darci Lynn Farmer, who shined on the hit show “America’s Got Talent.”

Mr. Dunham said he’s amazed that his line of work still has artists who want to follow in his footsteps.

“I do scratch my head a little bit and wonder how this tired old art has been made fresh again. I think it’s great. It all comes down to the entertainment value. If the audiences applauds and laughs, that’s all that’s important. I’m waiting for a really good dog act to come on the scene. When’s a juggler going to start playing arenas?” he joked.

And then there’s …

Finally, the Delaware State Fair has welcomed acts that don’t quite fall into any of the preceding categories.

Those include Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob, Huckleberry Hound, The Banana Splits, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Wallenda tightrope walking duo, the stars of the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” and TV cook Paula Deen.

Ms. Deen’s 2010 show was billed as “Cookin’, Comedy and Conversation.”

When asked by the Delaware State News in 2010 if she had ever heard of Tastykakes, she responded “No, I have not, but you track my butt down. That’s one thing I love about state fairs is the different and outrageous foods that you don’t eat on a daily basis, nor should you.”

Playing the same year as Lynyrd Skynyrd, she shared some cooking tips while taking questions from the audience.

“It’s my goal when I do live events that people just kinda sit back and forget about everything that (ticks) them off and just have a good time, she said.”

And for 100 years, the Delaware State Fair has done just that.

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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