Fair (end-of-) summer nights

For my money, nothing eases the shock of summer’s demise more sweetly than a scalding funnel cake consumed in the September twilight. Like the need for new shoes and virgin notebooks for the looming school year, scarfing down deep-fried dough in the open air is a venerable annual urge.

Then there’s the ominous creak of the Ferris wheel as it strains to propel you skyward; the brash entreaties of the carnie in the dunking booth; the pungent scent of livestock — really, who could be immune to the sounds, sights and smells of a county fair?

“The Mountain State Fair offers something for everyone,” promises Andrea Ashby, assistant director of public affairs for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (which sponsors the event). Given last year’s record crowds (115,000 in all) and a newly extended 10-day run, it’s hard to remember that this enormously successful fair is only 5 years old.

“It was started as a small county fair and has grown into a regional fair,” she explains. “With the big state fair being in Raleigh, we felt strongly that the western part of the state needed its own fair, one that was closer. We go out of our way to make it affordable. … And now the Mountain State Fair lasts the same amount of days as the state fair.”

Event coordinators, though, are proud to point out that the newer fair has yet to outgrow its regional flavor.

“It’s very laid-back and still real rooted in western North Carolina,” notes Ashby, “with good, quality country and bluegrass acts and unbelievably fantastic clogging.”

New this year is a Folk Festival competition featuring seven categories of traditional music — including individual performances on fiddle, banjo and dulcimer — that has already drawn more than 100 entrants. Several new rides have also been added (Ashby stresses the fair’s “excellent safety standards”), plus a variety of indescribable stunt acts like the Natasha Duo and the Invisible Nocks.

Then there’s the pig racing.

The Webbers of Shelby, N.C., have exhibited their Triple W Racing Pigs all over the East Coast and even in the Houston Astrodome. Founders Gene and Rachel Webber and their daughter Wanda got into the business after a less-lucrative stint in farming. The trio, busy working a fair in New York state, were unavailable for comment. Back home in Shelby, though, the Webbers’ other daughter, Staci, reflected on the amazing cast of characters (including some non-porcine ones) that has propelled their act to success.

“We are the only people racing farm pigs, potbelly pigs, goats, ducks and miniature greyhounds,” she declares. And goading animals toward the winner’s circle, Staci insists, is neither mean nor difficult: “We don’t cuss them or anything. We just sort of get behind them and cheer them on. After a few times, it’s easy.”

Some champions need more prodding than others, though. “The potbelly pigs tend to be a little lazier,” she admits. Winners, says Webber, are rewarded for their efforts with Cheeze Doodles.

The challenge of the sport, she continues, lies more in the humans than the animals. “Everybody who sees the show loves it, but it’s Wanda who makes the show,” notes Staci. “She’s funny, she makes jokes. … Anybody that’s been to [any] pig-racing show knows that if the announcer isn’t funny, it’s not fun.”

Family acts are a natural fit with any fair — and, besides the Webbers, this year’s Mountain State Fair outdoes itself by also sponsoring Georgia’s inimitable Lewis Family as the headlining act (replacing “hillbilly comedian” Jerry Clower, who died unexpectedly two weeks ago). Often called “The First Family of Bluegrass Gospel,” the Lewises have been playing for more than half a century. Even more remarkable is the group’s exclusive, three-generation family lineup, which includes Roy “Pop” Lewis (now 93), Pauline “Mom” Lewis, their five children and two grandchildren.

From bluegrass festivals to The Grand Ole Opry, the Lewises have played just about everywhere there is to play, including New York City’s Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian Institution. They’ve appeared on television programs like TNN’s Nashville Now and NBC’s Weekend Special — but in a recent phone interview, daughter Polly Lewis admitted to having a soft spot for more informal venues.

“I really do like fairs, because … some people [haven’t] seen or heard the type of music we play, and they [come] by just for curiosity.” And that, says Lewis, is one of the group’s favorite ways of winning new fans: “I call them friends,” she says, adding, “We pick up new friends every week.”

The group’s remarkable longevity, she believes, has to do with the simple beauty of gospel tunes. “When bluegrass first came out, people like Bill Monroe would always include gospel songs [in their act], and that has stood true for [almost] every bluegrass musician; sometimes, people like the gospel songs better than the other songs.”

The family’s warm stage presence hasn’t hurt matters either. “We’re always nice to our fans,” Lewis relates. “So many people tell us that when we’re onstage, they feel like part of our family. They relate to us and feel that we relate to them.”

Her one regret, Lewis says, is that she hasn’t dated the photos and other promotional materials that might have served as nostalgic reminders of a successful lifetime in the music business. But then again, no one ever expected it would last this long.

“We’ve never fallen back,” she notes, with wonder in her voice. “Each year we just shuttle out a little further.”

And if you’re looking for a chance to pay homage to departing summer, “shuttle out” to this year’s Mountain State Fair.

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