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Small-town Great Jones County Fair fair draws big-name musical acts

Carrie Underwood, Florida Georgia Line set to play Great Jones County Fair

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MONTICELLO — County music superstar Carrie Underwood’s 2016 Storyteller Tour has taken her to Jacksonville, Boston, Stockholm, London, Denver, Las Vegas and Nashville.

Supergroup Florida Georgia Line’s Dig Your Roots tour has made stops in Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.

This week, both tours arrive in what some might consider an unlikely place: Monticello, Iowa, home to the annual Great Jones County Fair.

But make no mistake, this small-town fair has earned a reputation for drawing big-name acts through hard work, exceeding the expectations of musicians and steady corporate backing.

Around 100,000 people are expected to descend on Monticello — population 4,000 — this week as the fair continues its annual run through Sunday.

The event draws people “from far and wide,” Mayor Dena Himes said. “We love to showcase Monticello during the (fair) and we always hope they enjoy our town and come back often.”

Fairgoers come for the exhibits, animals, food and midway rides — but mostly for the music, which in recent years has included performances by Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley.

This year’s lineup also includes a Thursday night show featuring Boston, .38 Special and former Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung, and a Sunday show featuring popular Christian group For King & Country.

Underwood takes the stage Friday and Florida Georgia Line on Saturday.

BIG CROWDS EXPECTED

The fair has been building a reputation for more than 40 years as a place where fans pack the track, stands and hillsides to see them.

John Harms, the fair’s general manager said he’s expecting more of the same this year, especially for the sold-out Florida Georgia Line show. “I anticipate that night, if it’s a nice night, will be the most heavily attended concert in our 164-year history,” he said. “There will be people just all over the place.”

It’s no surprise that all 12,000-plus tickets have been snapped up for that concert, as well as Underwood’s Friday night show. But what sends the numbers soaring is the tradition of offering free seating on the hillsides flanking the grandstand.

For just the $10 gate fee, more than 12,000 additional audience members can stake their claim with chairs and blankets, and still see the stars close-up via big screens. Lines form early each day, so when the gates open at 8 a.m., the mad dash begins. Fourteen video monitors placed around the fairgrounds let those who prefer to wander stop and see the action, too.

“On these bigger shows, there will be more people here watching the concert (who) don’t have a ticket than do have a ticket,” Harms said.

Coming early and staying late is a snap.

Fairgoers can make a day of it by strolling livestock and arts and crafts exhibits and shows, and eating fair food from vendor carts and service organizations, then trying to keep it all down as the midway rides try to bring it back up. Smaller stages offer everything from reptile and magic shows to martial arts theatrics and local dancers and musicians.

If you look closely, you might even spot a star. Harms said the tall Trace Adkins stood out when he took his wife, an Iowa State University grad, to the fair barns in 2007, but Martina McBride blended in when she took her kids to the midway in 1999.

‘THESE GUYS ARE COOL’

It takes “hundreds” of volunteers to keep the fair running, Harms said, and their willingness to go the extra mile keeps the stars coming.

“One of the largest and most unique things that we’ve ever done for an artist — that paid sizable dividends for us — was Rascal Flatts,” he said. “They wanted an air-conditioned tent, so not only did we air-condition it, we put in geothermal air conditioning.” Organizers also added furniture and carpeting for the 2005 gig.

“They’d never had that experience before. I don’t know if it would have made a difference to them whether it was done or not, but it was there, and we made the effort,” he said. “We got a call from the William Morris Agency the next day, complimenting us because the band complimented us to them, saying, ‘Man, these guys are cool up here.’ ” Fair officials upped the cool factor in letting the band shoot off “a belly-full of fireworks” around 2 a.m. That gained the fair “a lot of Brownie points in Nashville,” Harms said, which translated to more high-profile bookings, but “we lost Brownie points from neighbors,” he added.

Bill Magann, senior talent broker for Variety Attractions Inc. in Zanesville, Ohio, has been booking artists for the Great Jones County Fair since 1975.

He said Jones County Fair officials have done a lot to make Monticello a desired tour stop.

Notably, they “stepped up to the plate” to accommodate the big shows, building a stage 100 feet wide, 75 feet deep and 55 feet high from steel to floor, with a roof than can hold 60 tons of gear. It’s also 6 feet off the ground, which easily accommodates standing-room-only in front of the stage.

Blake Shelton was so impressed in 2012 that when he arrived at the North Dakota State Fair the next day, he said to a fair official, “You need to go to Monticello, Iowa. They’ve got a great facility there,” Magann noted.

BACKED BY SPONSORS

Harms, 61, of rural Monticello, joined the fair’s governing board in 1986 and assumed the part-time management duties in 1994. He said growing the fair into an operation with a $3.5 million budget is all about building relationships.

This year’s major fair sponsors are Wellmark, Farm Bureau Financial Services, Destination Country, Unity Point Health/Jones Regional Medical Center, Fleck Sales, 7G Distributing and the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Bob Hatcher, executive director of Jones County Tourism, said the fair — along with the National Motorcycle Museum in nearby Anamosa — helps generate upward of $23 million in spending each year, a number that has been consistently growing for the last six or seven years.

“The Jones County Fair is one of those unique places that just draws a lot of people, has some good entertainment and is very good for Jones County,” Hatcher said.

As for this year’s shows, Magann, of Variety Attractions, said Underwood and Florida Georgia Line are on top of their game.

“Right now, the No. 1 (country) song in America in Billboard magazine is Carrie Underwood’s new single, and the No. 2 song is Florida Georgia Line’s new single,” he said. “We booked these acts a year ago, and announced them at last year’s fair. The week that they play this fair, Carrie’s got No. 1, FGL’s got No. 2.

“How much better can that get?”

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