For all its LED-emblazoned Ferris wheel and high-anxiety ride spectacle, the North Carolina State Fair is nothing if not a cobweb of nostalgia. For hours on end, and for a lowly few dollars, one can wander halls of produce never to be found in a supermarket and gaze into pens of livestock so well groomed one can imagine keeping such a heifer as a childhood pet.
One can stand in line for hand-churned ice cream or old-fashioned root beer (or both!) while holding the various deep-fried sundries a great-grandmother might have made, back before scientists knew exactly how cholesterol worked. One can inhale known carcinogens from the fumes of the tractors pulling weights just to prove they can, or stare at the clearly over-it Smallest Woman in the World as if there aren't stranger things on the Internet every five minutes. A state fair ticket is the license to pursue pure nostalgia—a complex, crowded atmosphere meant for the rediscovery of ostensibly simpler times.
Beneath the slalomed roof of the Dorton Arena, a building so modernist that it was dubbed the Paraboleum after being built in 1952, a week's worth of musical headliners mostly confirms the retrospection just outside. This year, for instance, the rock 'n' roll is of the religious variety, the soul comes from a once-prolific hitmaker who hasn't charted in a quarter-century and the headlining appearance comes from a young country singer whose sleek debut, Small Town Girl, aims without shame for those past eras, if only with its title. The fair did land octogenarian George Jones—a patriarch of country music and, in his prime, one of the genre's most wrenching singers—for its senior citizens' day, a redundant reassurance that the kids just don't do it right anymore.
Entertainment programming at state fairs inevitably becomes a punch line, as the lineup results from the affordability of artists far removed from the peaks of their popularity. But really, such fairs only represent a multiday manifestation of a long-running, industry-wide maxim: Giving someone the opportunity to indulge in nostalgia means giving yourself the chance to take their money.
During the last half-decade, this tide of nostalgia has seeped into (and now sometimes attempts to overrun) independent music, a subset that, at least by name, has always hoped to build itself apart from the conventions and problems of the mainstream. But indie rock reunions are now a big-ticket item, from The Pixies admitting that they're only doing it for the money to Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum returning to the comeback stages just in time to sing for the occupiers on Wall Street (and get a lot of notice on a lot of websites). In October alone, Mazzy Star and The Stone Roses have announced their plans to go see the old fans on the road.
This week, for instance, just under a dozen acts safely confined to the nostalgia category will play this particular region of North Carolina alone, in venues with a combined capacity of about 30,000. Such legacy acts depend more on their back catalog sales and concerts in front of long-faithful audiences than their new music for currency. In Raleigh, Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil will mercifully close the abysmal inaugural season of Bud Light CityFest in an amphitheater that holds more than 5,000. A few miles away, at the State Fair, Kansas plays Dorton Arena, which officially holds just under 8,000 wayward fair attendees, two nights after Dionne Warwick's appearance. Kansas hasn't released a new studio album since 2000 and hasn't charted a single since Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office. John Hiatt and the original lineup of The Jayhawks headline separate shows at the Carolina Theatre in Durham; those shows don't conflict with appearances by Joe Walsh, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson only a few blocks away at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
Nelson might be one of music's most poignant examples of commercial nostalgia. Sure, during the last decade he's conjured an interesting on-album performance or two, though his last essential batch of new material came with 1998's Teatro, an astounding and spectral collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois. But Nelson is the rare celebrity who seems legitimately dumbstruck by his continued fame, a quality that's kept him both candid and charming. The 78-year-old great-grandfather has been a movie star and biodiesel advocate, and in 2006 he was ticketed for possession of more than a pound of marijuana and mushrooms—only to be arrested again for the same thing four years later. Nelson has coupled his mistakes (see that recent Coldplay cover or his tax returns) with persevering philanthropic ideas (FarmAid, for instance). He's paired a decades-long string of hits with decades spent in service of them, constantly performing in front of new audiences. He's an American icon and iconoclast, the sort of person who belongs on most any music fan's bucket list.
But to see Nelson perform now is to watch him wind through a shambolic medley of the hits, as he throws out trinkets and tosses off smiles to the crowd between strings of notes on Trigger and bits of songs you've somehow known forever. The perfect refinement of his early tapes, the outlaw anecdotes of his subsequent releases and the romantic gleam that followed have now been sublimated into a safely even keel—gracious and grateful, but as predictable and safe as you can imagine. If it's the songs and the spirit you came to hear, they're better found at home, on vinyl and CD, rather than in an audience where Nelson is performing.
But that's not why we spend a few hours of pay to see Willie Nelson, Leonard Cohen or B.B. King at DPAC, or why those nostalgic for an entirely different era will pay to see Scratch Acid play the old songs at Cat's Cradle in a few weeks. We go because we want to see them before they or we die; tied to this mortality, of course, is the fact that these songs and these people are triggers for memories of times that will never return—that is, unless a state fair one day introduces a ride so fast that it makes an exception to special relativity.