The first time Keith Urban performed at the California Mid-State Fair, he was an up-and-coming country singer touring on the strength of his debut album.
Urban played two free concerts on the fair’s smallest stage in 2002.
Now a platinum-selling performer with a movie star wife — Nicole Kidman — three Grammy Awards and a string of No. 1 hits, Urban returns to the Paso Robles Event Center on July 28 as one of the fair’s hottest acts.
“There is no shortage of places for Keith Urban to play,” said Ron Pateras, president of entertainment for Jam Productions of Chicago. “He chooses to play here.”
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According to observers, the California Mid-State Fair has a solid track record for bringing both established performers and up-and-coming acts to the Central Coast.
This year’s entertainment lineup includes legendary rockers Aerosmith, country star Toby Keith, pop singer Justin Bieber, comedian Jeff Dunham and singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins. Rock bands 311, The Offspring and Weezer are also slated to play.
“The caliber of the bands has definitely increased over the years,” said Dusty Rhoads, program director at rock radio station KZOZ, 93.3 FM.
“The fair, that’s our Irvine Meadows or Staples Center,” Rhoads said, comparing it to two Southern California mainstays. “That’s where we can get these giant acts like Aerosmith to stop in our backyard.”
Pateras puts the Paso Robles fair on par with the New York State Fair and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“It’s really a juggernaut,” said Pateras, whose company books and produces concerts for the California Mid-State Fair.
Jam Productions books 1,200 shows a year, working closely with venue management group SMG of Philadelphia.
Most of those concerts are booked months ahead of time, Pateras said, adding that he and his fellow staff members are always on the lookout for the next big thing.
Take Justin Bieber, who’s gone from YouTube sensation to teen idol in a little over a year.
“Industry-wide, many people knew that he was about to blow up and that, by the summertime, he’d be hitting his stride,” Pateras said of Bieber.
Bieber’s 2009 album, “My World,” went platinum, and he’s enjoying similar success with “My World 2.0,” which debuted in March at the top of the U.S. Billboard 200. His hit singles include “Baby,” “One Less Lonely Girl” and “Somebody to Love.”
Fair officials expect Bieber’s July 21 concert to sell out.
“So often, timing is everything in this business, whether it be with routing or in securing the artists at just the right time in their careers,” said Vivian Robertson, the fair’s chief executive. “Britney Spears and Justin Bieber are perfect examples.”
Pop princess Spears performed at the California Mid-State Fair just months after releasing her best-selling debut album in 1999. Christina Aguilera played the fair following her Grammy win for “Best New Artist” in 2000, and “American Idol” winner Carrie Underwood shared the stage with Phil Vassar in 2006 — the same year that her debut album “Some Hearts” and hit single “Jesus, Take the Wheel” swept numerous award ceremonies.
Underwood returned last year to headline a solo show, highlighting the fair’s appeal to top acts.
“It’s a really solid connection between the artists and the audiences,” Pateras said. “(The artists) walk around feeling like they’ve had a tremendous experience.”
Besides that close contact with fans, which they don’t get in giant arenas and stadiums, Pateras said entertainers and their agents appreciate the level of professionalism they find in Paso Robles.
“From an agent’s point of view, they’re putting their trust in the fair not just to write a check and sign a contract,” he explained, “but to really market, promote and produce these shows that will be up to the standards of these artists.”
That may be the reason the Mid-State Fair has seen so much repeat business. Country star Alan Jackson performed in Paso Robles a whopping nine times between 1993 and 2006. Kenny Rogers has played here eight times, and the Southern rock group Alabama is a seven-time fair veteran. Other frequent fair acts include Kenny Loggins, Toby Keith and George Strait.
Pepper Daniels, director of programming for the American General Media group of radio stations, said the fair is known industrywide for its high-caliber acts.
“It’s always been a going-for-the-fences home-run sort of fair,” said Daniels, who oversees KZOZ, country station KJUG (106.7 FM), oldies station KIQO (104.5 FM) and adult contemporary station The Krush (92.5 FM). “They’ve always set the bar that high.”
Although this year’s main stage lineup offers plenty of options for music lovers, Daniels encourages fairgoers to check out free acts as well.
In addition to Urban, who also played here in 2006, country stars Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney played free fair shows before returning to headline main- stage concerts. Country trio Lady Antebellum, who played the Fort Frontier Stage in 2009, snagged a Grammy and three Academy of Country Music Awards earlier this year.
Daniels singled out three of this summer’s free acts — Sunny Sweeney, Julianne Hough and Cross Canadian Ragweed — as worthy of extra attention.
“Sunny Sweeney is a star right on the edge,” Daniels said of the country singer, who is set to perform July 29. “She’s just fantastic.”