Dallas has never had the biggest reputation as a music town, at least not compared to other Texas cities. But when it comes to supporting its hometown heroes, the city really invests in them. That’s how a band like the Old 97’s—who over the past two decades years have refined and perfected a radio friendly alt-country sound that never actually gets played on the radio—can successfully put together an all-day music festival. In the heart of an otherwise-dead Dallas downtown on Saturday afternoon, the band packed a square block full of people who all turned out for a band that has never had an album spend more than a week on a Billboard chart. The Old 97’s sound great in any city, but they matter in Dallas.
That’s one of the takeaways from the Old 97’s County Fair, which the band hosted at Main Street Garden. The bill featured the band in the headlining slot, naturally, with a full day of music from other acts in their ilk: Lucero, the Drive-By Truckers, Deer Tick, and Justin Townes Earle, as well as an undercard that included Brent Best, Nikki Lane, and Madison King. And characteristic of the band’s mix of wholesome and weird, the entire thing was gussied up like a small-town county fair—funnel cakes and corn dogs; midway and carny games; a big, rickety ferris wheel, etc.
All of which gave the event a broad appeal. Come for the sad, quirky songs about growing up listening to AC/DC—but stay because, even if you’re not into one of the bands, you can see them from 40 feet up on the ferris wheel! Every music festival, when you think about it, should offer the opportunity to win a three-foot-tall stuffed Bart Simpson doll for knocking over four tin cans with a bean bag.
Still, the music was the real draw. You can get into a small-town fair for less than $35, anyway, but you won’t hear “Streets Of Where I’m From” or “Lonely Holiday” at one of those. (You might hear a band cover R.E.M., which the Old 97’s did during their set, but your local county fair cover band probably wouldn’t pick “Driver 8.”) And though the bill was fairly homogenous—at the very least, there were an awful lot of dude bands for the festival’s last, oh, seven hours—it was thematically consistent. (It would have been nice to break that up with more women—even if, say, Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams already had plans, maybe occasional Old 97’s tour mates the Heartless Bastards could have made the trip up from Austin. But throughout the festival, the word “inaugural” was stressed, so hopefully that’s something that can be fixed next time out.)
There were slower, quieter acts like Justin Townes Earle, and raucous, high-intensity bands like Deer Tick (whose alt-country-by-way-of-Nirvana approach to music was heavier on the Nirvana on Saturday). Lucero maintained their chill, twangy take on Springsteen-ian rock, and the Drive-By Truckers brought gritty, literate Southern rock to the proceedings at dusk. When it came time for the Old 97’s to headline their own festival, though, it became clear who people had showed up for. In Athens, perhaps the Drive-By Truckers could top a festival with the same bill, and maybe in Providence, Deer Tick would be able to do the same thing; but in Dallas, all of the other bands—big names in their own right—felt very much like openers. You could squeeze your way to the front of the stage pretty easily if you were desperate to see Lucero, but the lines for the midway games and the ferris wheel shrank considerably when it came time for the headliners.
Instead, the crowded park suddenly morphed into a crowded festival as the band opened with “St. Ignatius,” the very first song on their 1994 debut album. The set that followed was a career-spanner—even though the band was in the studio in March prepping a new album, they opted to focus on songs from either their late-nineties/early-aughts stretch, or dip from 2014’s Most Messed Up, which was well-represented. (Even the band’s 2010 covers EP, Mimeograph, got some play with the aforementioned “Driver 8.”) It was the sort of set that earns the descriptor “crowd-pleaser,” which makes an awful lot of sense given who that crowd was: a hometown audience that spent a whole day in a park in the middle of downtown Dallas because the Old 97’s built them a festival.