“Honesty is always my best policy,” South Carolina State Fair General Manager Nancy Smith tells Free Times brightly. The proclamation comes in response to questions about the budget for the now-shelved Pepsi Grandstand, the main stage that hosted the event’s headlining musical acts.
“I know that we have never gotten really good reviews from Free Times from our grandstand shows. I’m going to say that because it’s true.”
She’s not wrong. Free Times has published some pointed criticisms of the fair’s concert lineups in recent years. We’ve also tried to explain why the fair booked the stage the way it did. In the early 2010s, the fair managed a string of impressive gets — The Avett Brothers, The Roots, Darius Rucker, and Shovels & Rope, among others — but in the back half of the decade, pushing past waning stars from the past, middling mainstream country artists and predictable Christian/gospel offerings became increasingly difficult for the event to pull off.
Smith says that the budget for the grandstand still landed somewhere between $450,000 and $500,000 through last year. It’s a number that Smith’s predecessor, Gary Goodman, previously told the paper had remained static since at least the early 2000s. But the fees asked by artists and their booking agents continued to escalate. Tasked with grabbing known names to please the wide variety of tastes represented by fairgoers, accomplishing that goal got harder with each passing year.
“It’s really hard to bring something for everyone to the fair,” Smith offers. “I think we really strive very hard to do that, and we only have 12 days. It’s just really hard. People like different kinds of music. And we get suggestions for music. But they’re like a million dollars, there’s no way we can do that. And our grandstand would only seat 5,000. That was max. The fairs are a different scenario, and a lot of the artists are not coming to a fairgrounds.”
This year, the fair replaces its grandstand concerts with a big-top circus. But while she acknowledges that the event’s difficulty in building excitement with its musical acts — only American Idol alum Fantasia sold out last year — Smith is emphatic that it wasn’t the driving factor for this year’s overhaul of the event’s entertainment offerings.
“I think the real push was for our 150th. We wanted to do something different for our 150th,” she says of this year’s big anniversary. “It has changed, the concerts have changed, and it’s actually harder. And this is not just the South Carolina State Fair. This is a fair industry thing, overall. The big-name grandstand artists go up and up and up and up, and we don’t have an endless budget for things like that.”
The circus — which will take place in an Italian-made tent in front of up to 1,300 people for three shows during each of the fair’s 12 days — costs less to put on, but Smith says the move isn’t about saving money. The show — which will include motorcycles in the “Globe of Death,” trapeze artists and more — simply seems like a good fit. Especially given this year’s theme, “Prize-Winning Memories.”
“We wanted to bring back some of the nostalgia and then keep the fair new and fresh,” the general manager says of the thought process when her team was alerted to a successful circus at another fair. Since state fairs don’t really compete against each other, Smith explains, it’s not a very competitive industry, with various organizers sharing ideas and borrowing proven concepts.
“When we saw the circus, we thought, ‘This would be perfect.’ Because we are tradition, but not only a tradition, we’re family-oriented, family-friendly. So we thought, ‘We’re going to have a circus this year.’ That will be one of our big things for us. So the circus is going to be where the grandstand acts were in the past.”
“It’s family-oriented and really brings something for everyone,” she adds. “If you don’t like a particular genre of music, then, you know, most everyone likes a circus.”
This year, the fair’s marquee musical stage will require no additional tickets and be within the concourse rather than gated-off from it. At the new Pepsi Place stage local and regional acts will play multiple sets — jazz/rock polymorph The Reggie Sullivan Band, concept-heavy folk-rock act The Restoration, restless pop/Americana outfit Brother Oliver, and country artist Warrick McZeke (touted as “college roommates with Lee Brice”), among others. Two other new entertainment stages will also look to freshen up the feel of the fair.
“Over the years, we’ve been hearing, ‘Well, you’re the South Carolina State Fair. Can we get some more regional and local acts there?’ Smith offers. “So this was a good time for us to try our little flight into another new direction.”
Columbia’s Restoration has a longstanding affection for the State Fair. Its 2013 EP New South Blues features field recordings from the event, and it filmed an upcoming music video during last year’s festivities. The band has played on both the grandstand (opening for Shovels & Rope) and a smaller stage at the fair. Leader Daniel Machado praises both experiences, and says the group is happy to play at the new Pepsi Place.
“We’re tailoring our setlist to do that,” he says of playing a free stage embedded within the fair’s concourse. “Not covers or anything, but responding to the energy of people coming in and out as opposed to the arc of a start-to-finish, 45-minute performance.”
Expanding diversity within the entertainment offerings is also a point of emphasis. There will be a Latino Day on Oct. 13, with a full day of accompanying musical acts planned for the Pepsi Place. And for the third year, FOLKfabulous, the folklife festival that the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum used to host on-campus at the Horseshoe, will bring 12 days of varied cultural arts — centering around displays at the Rosewoods Building celebrating South Carolina’s textile arts heritage, but also including South Carolina bluegrass band Carolina Rebels, and Gullah storytelling, among other offerings.
“It makes us more culturally diverse. It introduces our patrons to some things that they didn’t know,” Smith says of FOLKfabulous’ programming. “It’s an educational aspect as well, which we should never lose sight of that. We’re entertaining. We’re tradition. We’re fun. We’re exciting. But we should also never lose our educational aspect.”
Amanda Belue, communications manager for McKissick, is excited to see how the museum’s offerings fit in amid this year’s changes.
“By changing kind of what’s in the concourse, people are expecting things,” she reasons. “And then they walk into something that’s completely different, and then they start looking around and going, ‘OK, well, what’s new.’ Even though we had 27,000 people over the last two years that have involved themselves in FOLKfabulous, we’re still going to have people that show up and be like, ‘Well, we’ve been here for five years, and we never knew you were here.’ I think if you throw new things at people, they get a chance to start looking around and seeing what’s around them. People get a lot more observant when there’s new things around.”
Smith isn’t sure what will happen with the fair’s marquee entertainment moving forward— asked if the circus would remain or if big concerts might make a return, she says, “Your guess right now is probably as good as mine” — but she’s enthusiastic about the various options fairgoers can flit in and out of this year.
“Other than rides and food, there are just so many, many things to see and entertain yourself with once you get onto the grounds of the fair,” Smith says. “That was our mindset.”