OREGON COUNTRY FAIR: ART, MUSIC, COMMUNITY

Describing the Oregon Country Fair in words is a little like trying to describe the ocean, or the Milky Way… there's just too much going on to say it all! The Country Fair (OCF) is so dynamic and multi-layered, that you truly have to go and see for yourself to fully understand the Magic and Wonderment that is created in Venita, Oregon on the second weekend of July each year. The folks who work year after year to bring the OCF to life have discovered a perfect recipe that blends a great variety of music, the best collection of arts and craftwork I've seen at any single event in the United States. OCF boasts an amazing array of foods from around the world, a brilliant collage of community and environmental activities, and a festival setting that inspires magic like nowhere on Earth. And it takes a HUGE amount of work… I tip my hat to these dedicated souls. This year's Country Fair was more of the same sweetness I've grown to expect at the annual event, only better, sweeter, and way more fun!

Imagine that you have been transported to another world - a world that appears to exist mainly in the shape of a figure eight of tree-lined trails alongside a winding river through the temperate Oregon countryside. Envision that the trails are filled with art vendors, food vendors, some of the best hand-made craftwork you've ever seen… And interspersed among the vendors are music stages, musicians, and about 15,000 shiny, happy people… Well, make that shiny, happy, and DIRTY people. Leave your cleanest silk threads at home, cuz the Country Fair is all about down home, dirty happy fun. What makes the OCF so great is definitely the collection of people that it brings together… most of whom come year after year, without fail. The main figure eight of the fair footprint would take about two hours to walk, and that's without stopping to peruse the art, paintings, sculptures, musical instruments, parades, clothes, kaleidoscopes, jewelry, ceramics, face painters, masks, novelty items, or anything other than walking the trails. There's Energy Park, Community Village, Shady Grove, Chela Mela Meadow, the Main Stage Meadow, Drum Tower, the Ritz (probably the world's largest outdoor wood-fired shower and sauna facility, complete with an outdoor fire pit and a grand piano for musicians to serenade drying guests), the Gypsy Caravan Stage, the Youth Stage and more to distract you from your wandering. This is all waiting with hundreds of beautiful people for you to meet and befriend. OCF is truly one of the finest events I've ever been a part of, and I encourage all who live with a curiosity to discover the Country Fair to go out and DO IT!


The figure eight of the OCF Trail

THE SETTING
The Oregon Country Fair is located 11 miles outside of Eugene, Oregon. The grounds are constructed in a flood plain alongside the Long Tom River. Mid July in Oregon can bring some high temperatures during the day, but the evenings are cool and comfortable. The Fair is shaded by riparian trees and often cooled by a soft summer breeze. There are pockets of activities all over the grounds, and it is easy to get lost in one area of the Fair for an entire day. The only real complaint I have about the Country Fair is that they haven't figured out how to get the mosquitoes to take a vacation. With 15,000 sweaty bodies rushing here and there each day, those bugs call in re-enforcements to make sure there's enough blood suckers to cover us all. And yes, there can be DUST, lots of it. Oh well. Well worth it for the magic you will find. The Fair is accessible to people of all ages and abilities, and offers quiet activities as well as wild ones depending on your mood.

THE MUSIC


Main Stage Music Meadow
One of the greatest elements of the OCF is the variety of music that is brought together. There is a sizeable folk/folk-rock contingency among the artists the Fair attracts (artists like Jim Page, Shelley Doty, Melissa Crabtree, Libby Kirkpatrick, Jeremy Fisher, and many more). AND, the Fair invites a great mosaic of musicians in the non-folk genres. Hamsa Lila, Wake the Dead (Celtic-Grateful Dead music), the Laura Love Band, Jambay (re-united for a special appearance Saturday on the Main Stage), Taarka, Higher Ground, Hot Club Sandwich and dozens of other non-folk bands to rock us out, funk us up, and take us on a magical mysterious tour through their library of hand-picked songs. There's also an entire stage dedicated to the Gypsy music and dance contingency, as well as the Shady Grove stage that is primarily set up for acoustic solo artists and small groups to "wow" their audiences one act after another. Fair favorites like Baby Gramps and Artis the Spoonman were of course on the scene to impress new and seasoned fans throughout the weekend.


Jambay reunion concert on the main stage
Music at the Fair is EVERYWHERE: on stages, inside vendors' booths, in front of vendors' booths, along the trails as people walk by, in the camps, in front of the Fair, backstage in the Entertainment and Staff Camps, inside the Ritz next to the fire pit… everywhere. The Country Fair is where I first met Joules Graves singing her magic along the trails in 1995, and now she has become one of the premier female singers in her genre. It's a place, not "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," like at Cheers, but rather, "Where Everybody Wants to Hear You Play!" There's a special kind of support for the professional and amateur artist alike, where masters are teaching newcomers, and audiences of all kinds will stop, listen and encourage folks to keep on doing their thing.

ART AND CRAFT VENDORS


One of the 700 exceptional craft vendors
All in all, I have to say that the Country Fair brings together the best collection of vendors of any other festival I've ever attended. I would guess that there were at least 700 vendors in all; each offering something equally or even more amazing and unique as the last vendor you saw. The artists represented use a multitude of different media, including: canvas, clay, wood, metal, fabric, paper, clothing, and more to bring the creative ideas from their mind into the physical world for all of us to appreciate. Many of the folks I spoke with put off buying art, clothes, furniture, or anything for their home all year, so they can buy the best of the best from their friendly OCF vendors. Anything from pottery to paintings, fun wears to formal-wear… the vendors at the Country Fair are ready and waiting for you to beautify your home, your self, or your friend's home. It is a real treat to wander the Country Fair trails looking for treats to buy for yourself or your friends… or even just to look and appreciate the fine work of the many vendors. All vendors at the Country Fair are required to make their goods themselves, and rarely (if ever) are there duplicate products. I tip my hat to the team in charge of coordinating the amazing vendors at the OCF. Save your money before you go to the Fair, cuz you'll want to buy more than you ever imagined by the time you get there!

FOOD VENDORS


One of the many favorite food vendors
All I can say about the Fair Food is that I waited with intense enthusiasm from the moment I finished each meal until the time I was hungry again, because the options for Indian, Mexican, Mediterranean, Italian, Greek, Thai, Desserts, Organic fruit, American, and more were extraordinary. Breakfast foods were vast and voluminous. Lunches and Dinners were served around the clock. Desserts could be found around every turn. The people working at the 70 food booths were always fun and friendly, and ready to serve up another plate of their yummy-ness. There was never a short line (when I walked by) at Dana's Cheesecake, where they refused to tell me how many cheesecakes they sold each year at the Fair (because I don't think I could count that high)! I brought my own food to cook back at camp, but ate at camp ZERO times over the course of the three-day Fair. Need I say more?

SPOKEN WORD ARTIST FOCUS: LAURA "PIECE" KELLY
One of the extra treats added to the Fair this year was a dynamic group of spoken words artists who performed throughout the weekend. The amazing talent of Laura "Piece" Kelly, spoke lyrically, poetically, politically, and without fear twisted words and syllables into tales that made her audiences both think and cheer with equal fervor. She spoke of governmental injustices, problems involving class issues, and stories from her experiences as a young multi-racial woman artist making her way in a world that is largely dominated by patriarchal white folks. She told her "Piece" in a way that dazzled and inspired crowds again and again to applause and cheer her on to her next story.

MUSICIANS ON THE TRAILS ARE EVERYWHERE
Besides the many stage performances to be found at the OCF, there are a tremendous amount of "trail" musicians and performers who entertain all day long. In fact, some of the best performances were presented right out in front of your best friends' booth. Baby Gramps, ALO, Jeremy Fisher, David Kelly and other youth performers could often be found hour after hour playing songs, juggling knives, telling jokes or whatever it is that they're talented at for all of our ring-side enjoyment. My favorite "trail" moment was David Kelly (I imagine he's about 16 or 17 years old by now) juggling three machetes while holding a foot-long dowel in his mouth, which had a spinning top spinning at the end of it, all while balancing on a three-tier tower of planks. Wish I had my camera for that one!

A few of the Trail shows:

Young entertainers along the river

Baby Gramps

ALO

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM AT ENERGY PARK
Energy Park is an area of the Fair dedicated to raising environmental awareness. There are solar cooking workshops, booths with information on bio-diesel fuel, sustainable agriculture, waste reduction, eco-friendly building, and many types of alternative energy including solar power, wind power, geo-thermal and other emerging technologies.



Tibetian Monk ceremony consecrating the new OCF Bridge

A SPECIAL BRIDGE DEDICATION
This year, a new footbridge was built at the Fair to accommodate the many Fair-goers. Friday morning, to commemorate the new bridge, there was a special Tibetan ceremony with three distinguished monks. A prayer was spoken, a song was sung, and blessings were chanted to welcome this new structure into the Fair Family. About a hundred of us were on hand to witness this special ceremony as the main gates opened and the Fair began.

FOR THE KIDS
One of the great qualities of the Country Fair is how well it caters to children. The Fair offers play structures for kids, face painting, kid arts and crafts, kids' theater, kid music, kid foods, and tons of kid fun to keep kids amused all weekend long while the Big Kids run around and play themselves. The entire weekend you will see kids of all ages running rampant throughout the Fair doing what they do best: Playing!

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
Instruments from around the world were on display, being played, and for sale throughout the Fair. Guitars, flutes, sitars, banjos, dulcimers, hand-drums, bells, marimbas, and more, all hand crafted and beautifully designed, were available for purchase at a variety of vendors' booths.

SIGNAGE
Another exceptional quality of the OCF is the Signage. Sign makers make great efforts to paint and post fun signs all over the Fair. Some signs read "Yes! Yes! Yes!" simply to affirm the positive. Some signs helped people remember to recycle. Other signs simply point you in the right direction, but do so with such fun and abandonment, you forget where you were headed on the first place. Don't worry, just follow your nose and you'll end up in the right place!

IN THE END, IT'S ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY


These happy fair-goers worked and played all weekend long.

Perhaps the most special element of the Country Fair is the kind of people that it gathers together. Coming from all over the world, the people who come to the Fair come to share an experience that can be duplicated nowhere, and by no one. The Fair brings over 40,000 people together over the course of its three-day run, people of every age from many different walks of life, but with one thing in common: a love for each other. There are no fights, no grave acts of thievery or aggression (that I've heard of), and no drunken warriors that go around harassing sweet fairy folk who are bounding around the Fair being as free and natural as they can be. I'm sure there are isolated events that scar the Fair's near perfect record, but for the most part, the shiny happy people that show up for Fair each year get to gallivant around the fair, sometimes naked, sometimes painted, usually smiling, and always full of spirit and sparkles whether it be the glitter on their faces, or the shimmer in their eyes. It is a beautiful quality of community spirit that is replicated in few other places I've ever been to. When you get to the Fair, be prepared to meet incredible people, and know that you'll only meet the ones you're supposed to meet, cuz another amazing quality of the Country Fair is that there is only enough time to meet so many people, and the Magical Spirits who watch over the Fair usually put you in front of exactly who you need to meet at exactly the right time. For me it was a vortex of synchronicity filled with fun and fantasy around every corner.

See you next year at the Fair!
Jeremy Pearl
JamBase | On the Road
Go See Live Music!
[Published on: 8/14/03]

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