Ah, the county fair! What’s more American than a county fair, brimming with local color, down-home entertainment and unsettling odors? The county fair — poor white-trash cousin to the state fair — has been at the forefront of my mind recently as I found it necessary to visit five different ones within the space of nine days. Please note that I do not recommend this, no matter how much you like corndogs.
I wasn’t there for the love of corndogs — though heaven help me, I do love corndogs — but because I was playing piano with a band called The Quinn Brothers. This band consists of two (2) Quinn brothers and me and occasionally a drummer, though we have learned not to rely on that. We play upbeat rock-ish sort of songs, comparable maybe to the Barenaked Ladies in terms of style and tone and physical unattractiveness.
The Quinn who gets things done, Ben, decided that he and his brother who just likes to have fun, Tom, should take their guitars and their songs and form a band around them. Many of their songs are indeed clever and/or catchy; certainly the public has embraced much worse music than theirs, probably even in the last 24 hours. And so Ben and Tom recruited me to play piano, thus both creating and fulfilling my dream of being a rock star.
In an attempt to rock as much of the free world as possible while retaining as little of our dignity as possible, Ben booked us “gigs” (that’s what rock stars call them, “gigs”) at five county fairs all over Utah. Now, we didn’t get any of the good counties, like Salt Lake County or Utah County, but B-list districts such as Tooele, Morgan, Sevier, Summit and San Juan. In every instance, I visited a town I’d never been to before and traveled to parts of the state I’d only seen on maps or sped past on the interstate. Having seen them up close, I now feel a little differently toward these small towns that I once looked down on. Now, I don’t even want to pass them on the interstate. I want to stay as far from them as possible. We’re talking about towns where the leading causes of death are getting gored by rodeo bulls, and rickets.
But I kid the tiny villages! There’s something charming about rural counties and their old-fashioned, everybody-having-a-good-time, let’s-have-some-ice-cream-and-look-at-the-hogs fairs. The folks who go seem to be simple, decent people who don’t let society tell them how to dress or cut their hair or pronounce words. At each fair, I noticed at least one person with a limb missing, and I have to assume those limbs were lost not due to carelessness, the way big-city folk lose their limbs, but in the process of doing humble, extremely dangerous labor somewhere.
Each of the fairs we visited was different, but only slightly, and the entertainment was all about the same. We even noticed some of the same names on the schedule from place to place, indicating we were not alone in our attempt to find fame via the county-fair circuit. The thing is, a county fair is not conducive to demonstrating any type of real talent. People who can really sing or really play an instrument probably need to be in an auditorium, not on a rickety makeshift stage under a tent in front of audiences who are only vaguely interested in you and who are, if you’ll pardon the generalization, well over 1,000 years old.
There are sometimes non-senior citizens watching the fairs’ entertainment, but our experience was that they were always there to see the next act, not us. The next act was usually one of those show choir ensembles where 14-year-old girls in tight-fitting spangly outfits dance cheesily while belting out medleys of showtunes. To me, there is almost nothing funnier in all the world than these groups. I kid you not, I could watch them all day. There are always two or three girls who can sing and dance very well, but they are surrounded by girls who can do neither but who are still young enough to be permitted to indulge in fantasies that are destined not to come true. You can’t tell a 14-year-old girl that she’s too chubby to be a dancer and too nasal to be a singer. You let her try anyway, and let her perform at the county fair in front of her parents and all the other girls’ parents, and hope she loses interest before she gets to the age where she would NEED to be told to knock it off.
Something we saw only at the San Juan County Fair (in Monticello, in the far southeastern corner of the state) was a man called Toot Toot the Karaoke Clown. Toot Toot is a portly gentleman who is also a clown who sets up a karaoke system at a booth so fair-goers can croon between mouthfuls of churros. Toot Toot himself does no actual performing; he merely aids and abets those who wish to.
I am not certain what drives a man to become a karaoke clown, given that everyone hates karaoke and everyone also hates clowns. Did Toot Toot sit in his mobile home thinking, “I don’t just want to be something people hate; I want to be TWO things people hate”? What other combinations did he consider before arriving at karaoke clown? Tax-collector mime? Redheaded Nazi? Telemarketer John Mayer? The mind reels at the possibilities.
As for us, we were received by our audiences with only mild hostility. Many audience members seemed to be old and angry, and we did our part to advance both conditions. Whether we embark next year on another county fair tour depends on how famous we get between now and then, and whether the fairs consent to our demand for free corndogs. What’s rock stardom without perks?
Once I moved to The SLC, it was no longer practical to be part of The Quinn Brothers organization, and we sort of went our separate ways. We'll always have the memories, though.
When I saw the show choirs performing at West Valley City's "WestFest" in June, just prior to a Quinn Brothers gig, I tried calling every person I knew who I thought would appreciate the humor of it so I could describe to them what was happening. I was in tears, I was laughing so hard. What's funnier than 14-year-old girls in spangly outfits singing a medley of "Willkomen" from "Cabaret," followed by "Give My Regards to Broadway"? I mean, honestly. But maybe you had to be there.