Neshoba County Fair
“Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty,” the Neshoba County Fair was founded in 1889 as a stock and agricultural exhibition and soon expanded to include horse racing, carnival rides, political speeches and musical entertainment. In the late 1940s, the fair began regularly featuring stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and Mississippians who have appeared here include Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Moe Bandy, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Steve Azar, and Philadelphia’s Marty Stuart.
The Neshoba County Fair was first staged on this site in 1890 as a picnic, and visitors who arrived in ox-drawn wagons gathered at a brush arbor. Following formal acquisition of the property in 1893, the Fair quickly grew in size and length, with the building of a pavilion, an exhibit hall, private homes, hotels, a racetrack and a midway with tent shows. During the Fair’s first half-century, newspaper accounts reported the presence of an “old fiddlers contest” and occasional shows by country string bands. Promoted more prominently, though, were brass bands, minstrel shows, comical “rube” bands adorned in stereotypical country outfits, “stage players” and musical comedies from local school groups, “literary exercises,” trapeze artists, acrobats and demonstrations of new technologies including silent films and “aerial stunts.”
The Fair was canceled between 1942 and 1945 because of WWII, and upon resumption in 1946 many deteriorating buildings were replaced and programming was reorganized to appeal to a modern audience. One major change was featuring stars of the Grand Ole Opry, which was broadcast over the powerful WSM out of Nashville. In 1946 the Fair featured Opry stars Pee Wee King, Cowboy Copas, and Cousin Minnie Pearl with Smithville, Mississippi, native Rod Brasfield, who all returned the following year. The festival would continue as an important outpost for the Nashville-based country music industry, with guest stars over the years including Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Jim & Jesse, Mel Tillis, Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass (including a young Marty Stuart), Marty Robbins, June Carter, Tammy Wynette, Tom T. Hall, Lynn Anderson, B.J. Thomas, Barbara Mandrell, T.G. Sheppard, Lee Greenwood, George Strait, Tanya Tucker, Ray Stevens, Conway Twitty, Sawyer Brown, Steve Azar, Ronnie Milsap, Charlie Daniels Band, Jerry Reed, Ricky Skaggs, Marshall Tucker Band, Rascal Flatts, Trace Adkins, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.
The Fair also featured local country favorites including Carl Sauceman & The Green Valley Boys, who performed on Meridian TV station WTOK, the Mississippi State (Parchman) Penitentiary Band, and the Vernon Brothers Bluegrass Band. Future country star Carl Jackson, who grew up in nearby Louisville, played here with the Country Partners that included his father and two uncles, and Marty Stuart played at the Fair’s Grandstand with his group the Musical Rangers when he was only eleven. While country music dominated the main musical acts, the Fair also expanded its fare with the “rock ’n’ roll rhythms” of Jerry Lee Lewis in 1957, followed by popular local rock and soul groups including Andy Anderson and the Rolling Stones and Tim Whitsett & The Imperial Show Band, a disco band in 1979, blues by artists including Jackson’s King Edward, and the Oxford-based musical and literary show “Thacker Mountain Radio.”
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