Amidst the smells of cotton candy, hay bales and steaming hot dogs, the sounds of thrilled carnival riders, preening horses, goats and chickens, the strains of music will serenade fairgoers in Cornish this weekend. There’s a wide range of choices packed into the three-day event, everything from jam-infused rock to gospel, with a healthy dose of country prevalent throughout.
Yer Mother’s Onion, a percussion-rich, jazz-inflected rock quintet, opens the fair’s music Friday, with performances at 4 and 9 PM. The band’s members are all seasoned veterans of the cross-pollinating local scene, having played in many different area bands.
They’ve found their groove as Yer Mother’s Onion, winning battle of the bands contests and becoming a popular return attraction at places like the Anchorage, Seven Barrels Brewery and the now-defunct Eagle Tavern. They play mix of covers from bands like Phish and Guster, but they’ve also assembled enough original material for a soon-to-be-released album.
The festival shifts gears on Saturday when the Heather Walker Thompson Band arrives, performing at 2:00 in the afternoon and 7:30 that night. A native of South Carolina, the band’s leader has a unique resume. She’s currently a certified phlebotomist at York Hospital, and a pre-med student at the University of Southern Maine. “If my dreams of becoming a national recording artist don’t pan out,” she says jokingly, “I’ll be a doctor – not too shabby for a worst case scenario.”
Onstage, Walker Thompson is a bundle of unbridled energy, often taking her cordless microphone deep into the crowd to sing. Her voice is a mix of Patsy Cline and Pat Benetar, and she’s comfortable with material as diverse as “Chain of Fools” and “Red Neck Woman,” truly a country Dr. Feelgood.
The Don Campbell Band also plays Saturday, with two sets at 5 and 9. Campbell’s repertoire is full of easy to digest, twangy gems like “Mashed Potato Swing” and the swelling patriotism of “Veteran’s Day.” Though born in Scarborough, Maine, Campbell’s music lives well below the Mason-Dixon line. In 1999, they won a national “country music search” award at Nashville’s Wild Horse Saloon.
Closer to home, they’ve won Boston Music Awards for Country Band of the Year for three consecutive years.
Last year, the band opened the New England Country Music Festival at Gillette Stadium for close to 50,000 fans. The band plays a big country sound reminiscent of Brooks & Dunn and Rascal Flatts. Campbell began with Celtic folk in the early 90’s. He switched to country for “Flowerchild with the Blues,” a 1996 record with an equal debt to Dan Fogelberg and Vince Gill. Since then, he’s released four albums of original material, the most recent of which, “Backyard Holiday,” came out in 2004.
He cites fellow Mainer Stephen King as an influence, saying, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (King’s 2001 book) should be required reading for any songwriter.” Campbell’s storytelling skills shine on “Freedom Fighters” and “A Friend Right Here,” a song about home health caregivers he debuted at a national conference in 2002.
Sunday morning is special, with the local group Gospel Train performing a special morning set at 10:30. Featuring what member Steve Guyette calls “old conservative hymn book songs, some with a beat to them,” the group is made up of several members of local community, from Goshen, Claremont, Sunapee, Newport and points beyond.
For three years, their membership has fluctuated from “anywhere from 3 to 4 to maybe a dozen,” says Guyette.
Most of the group is affiliated with one of the local churches, says member and retired minister Jim Hills of Claremont, who leads the group Sunday. “We’ve got 5 members who are or were at one time music leaders in their church, so any one of us can lead,” he says.
Recently, Gospel Train performed at a Newport Opera House church festival, where Maria Von Trapp (of the musical Von Trapp family) joined them. “She borrowed a guitar and sang ‘Edelweiss’ in both the secular and non-secular version,” says Guyette, still giddy from the experience.
The group’s changing membership is part of what gives it vitality, says Guyette. “We call it Gospel Train because people are always jumping on and off.” The group plays gospel festivals throughout the area, usually backed by a guitarist or two.
It’ll be a lot like church on Sunday at the fair, says Hills, “a good old combination of hymns, solos and sing-alongs.”
Paula Teebow, Nashua-based singer, also plays at noon Sunday. At 2:00, the last musical “performance” on the main stage is a karaoke contest, for the brave or anyone inspired by the morning’s gospel gathering to take a turn in the spotlight.