My favorite Kentucky State Fair memory was forged a decade ago. That's when Merle Haggard asked this of a crowd of about 13,000 during a free concert at Cardinal Stadium: "How many former convicts do we have out there tonight?"
It's hard to say which was wilder, that the country legend (who has clocked a little time behind bars himself) would pose the question or that such a plentiful number of patrons enthusiastically raised their hands in solidarity.
Granted, that's an extreme example of fair involvement. But it most definitely befits the level of unexpected entertainment the event provides. What other gathering encompasses racing pigs, an 18-foot-tall gate greeter by the name of Freddy Farm Bureau and some of the most beastly corn dogs known to man?
Oh, yes — and music. Lots of it. Over its 11-night run, the Kentucky State Fair will stage 14 major concerts, many of them free. It will be the biggest run of performance fun that Louisville stages all year, including the fanfare last spring that led up to the Kentucky Derby.
Country, as always, dominates the roster of acts. But just as faithfully, the lineup will cover classic rock, pop metal, R&B, indie rock, contemporary Christian and more.
As usual, taking in these shows, even the free ones, requires paid admission to the fair. But remember: This admission lets you experience all the homespun glory — the rooster-crowing contests, the border collie patrols, the Krispy Kreme burgers, the dolled-up livestock — that make up the Kentucky State Fair.Here are the sounds that will surround the fair this summer. Tickets to paid concerts available through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com, but fair admission is not included in those prices.
Aug. 16: Hank Williams Jr., George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Thorogood is the act to catch on opening night. Aside from releasing a killer album of Chess Records tunes last year titled 2120 South Michigan Ave., one of his signature tunes remains a 1978 cover of the 1947 Hank Williams Sr. hit Move It On Over. (8 p.m. Freedom Hall. $39, $49.)
Aug. 16: Cinderella, Sebastian Bach. Call this the Night of the Living Hair Bands — or at least ones that were alive in 1987. Cinderella was already pop-metal royalty thanks to the MTV-savvy single Nobody's Fool, when Skid Row, with Bach as frontman, hit big with 18 and Life. (8 p.m. Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 17: Journey, Pat Benatar, Loverboy. We're already stuck in the '80s, so why not stay another night and party with Journey (still with Neil Schon, Jonathan Cain and Ross Valory on board), Benatar (still with husband and longtime guitarist Neal Giraldo) and Loverboy (still with nearly all its original lineup)? (8 p.m. Freedom Hall. $42, $52.)
Aug. 17: Keith Sweat, Robbie Bartlett. R&B hit man Sweat maintained a high commercial profile throughout the '90s. But when did his initial hits (I Want Her, Make It Last Forever and Something Just Ain't Right) top the charts? You guessed it: the '80s. Louisville blues/soul queen Bartlett opens. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 18: Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town, Eli Young Band, Edens Edge. We knew the hit country-pop band Rascal Flatts all but lived on the road. But its devotion to touring duties was underscored last month, when Flatts member Jay DeMarcus flew home to witness the birth of his son Dylan before immediately journeying on to perform in Detroit. (7:30 p.m. Freedom Hall. $49, $60.)
Aug. 18: Hot Chelle Rae, Neon Hitch. The state fair briefly moves out of the past with a performance by the Nashville pop quartet Hot Chelle Rae. Although formed in 2005, Hot Chelle Rae didn't hit its commercial stride until last year, when Tonight Tonight became a double-platinum summertime smash. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 19: The Oak Ridge Boys, Jimmy Fortune. Here we have one longstanding gospel-reared country music quartet teaming with an alumnus from another. The Oaks, despite its '80s pop hits, began as a gospel troupe in the 1940s. Fortune spent two decades performing country, comedy and gospel with the Statler Brothers. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 20: Newsboys, Sanctus Real. The state fair's contemporary Christian entry brings together pop from two hemispheres. Newsboys — which has produced a half-dozen gold albums and its own reality show — hails from Australia. Sanctus Real, whose hits include a cover of U2's Beautiful Day, comes from slightly less exotic Toledo, Ohio. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 21: Ronnie Milsap, B.J. Thomas. During the '70s and '80s, the multi-Grammy-winning Milsap was a staple on country radio with hits including Any Day Now and Smoky Mountain Rain. Thomas also has dabbled in country, but he will forever be known as the voice behind Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 22: Jake Owen, Florida Georgia Line. What a surprise: more country music. Owen is a somewhat recent hitmaker from Vero Beach, Fla. He took Alone With You and Barefoot Blue Jean Night to No. 1 last year. Florida Georgia Line is a duo with singers reared in different states. Guess which ones. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 23: The Turtles, The Grass Roots, Gary Puckett, The Buckinghams, Micky Dolenz. It's '60s pop night, complete with a Monkee. But the act to catch is The Turtles, still led by clown princes Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who later toured with Frank Zappa and on their own as Flo and Eddie. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 24: Young the Giant, We Barbarians. Rock returns to the fair by way of these two indie-esque troupes. Young the Giant began life as The Jakes and toured extensively with acts like Minus the Bear. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based We Barbarians sport a leaner, blues-savvy sound. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug 25: Justin Moore, Colt Ford. Moore adds another high-profile Kentucky gig to his dossier. He has played Lexington at 2009's Red, White and Boom with Hank Williams Jr., and at Rupp Arena with Miranda Lambert. Colt Ford (of Chicken & Biscuits fame) will open. (8 p.m. Cardinal Stadium. Free.)
Aug. 26: The Band Perry, Needtobreathe. A mere five months ago, the sibling trio from Mississippi known as The Band Perry was playing second fiddle to Brad Paisley at Rupp Arena. This summer, the group returns to close the fair, with South Carolina Christian rockers Needtobreathe opening. (7:30 p.m. Freedom Hall. $35, 45.)
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.