The Dan River Girls are still teenagers, but their talent has already propelled them to the stages of many local and regional venues, including the Blue Ridge Music Center, Muddy Creek Music Hall and the Millennium Center. But they have never played the Dixie Classic Fair.
That will change Saturday afternoon. The group of sisters from Winston-Salem is one of many bands and singers scheduled to add music at the 134th annual fair.
“It’s fun just to see people having fun listening to our music and bringing joy to them,” said Jessie Burdette, 13, who plays fiddle and classical violin.
“We’ve inspired these little kids to start playing music, which is really fun to hear,” added Fiona Burdette, 17, who plays mandolin and cello.
Ellie Burdette, the 15-year-old middle sister, plays double bass. The trio sat down at a sidewalk table at Camino Bakery with their mother, Shona Simpson, to talk about their music and upcoming fair appearance.
“It’s gonna be fun,” Ellie said.
They had to reschedule their performance so Fiona wouldn’t miss taking the SAT college admissions test. They will perform at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the fair’s Clock Tower Stage.
The Burdette sisters each started taking classical music lessons at age 5, but transitioned into playing traditional music together about four years ago.
“You have more freedom in traditional music, so part of it is that you just have to learn to let go,” Ellie said.
They were inspired in part by songs introduced to them by their father, Jonathan Burdette. Mentors helped them make the transition, including Rex McGee, a bluegrass picker in King, and Martha Bassett, who sings in a variety of genres and leads weekly music worship services at Centenary United Methodist Church.
“We slowly started to come together with Rex and Martha, and started singing harmonies together and playing music,” Jessie said. “And we’re sisters, so it’s easy to practice because we live in the same house.”
The Dan River Girls released their self-titled first album in 2015. The record begins with a cover of a 1980s pop-rock song given a string-band treatment (“Our Lips are Sealed” by the Go-Go’s) and ends with a bluegrass standard (“Rocky Top”).
They recently finished recording their forthcoming second album, a collection of some of their favorite Scottish songs. Their mother is from Scotland, and they travel there in the summer to visit relatives and attend a music camp on the Isle of Skye.
“We learn so many songs each year in the week that we’re there, so we wanted to record some of our favorites to always remember them,” Fiona said. “There’s a lot of links that you can hear in the traditional music of Scotland and America. A lot of Scottish people emigrated to Appalachia. That’s how the music got started here.”
Each year the fair works hard to offer a mix of musical styles at the Clock Tower Stage and on its Grandstand stage.
“We try to book a diverse range of talent,” said David Sparks, the fair director.
The Grandstand stage will feature music at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Two young country singers, Jordan Rager and Drew Baldridge, will perform on Monday. A Motown tribute band, Motown Sounds of Touch, plays Tuesday. A contemporary Christian group, the Passion Band featuring Kristian Stanfill, performs Wednesday.
Brent Naylor books many of the artists who perform at the Clock Tower Stage. He presented the first Camel City Showcase about 15 years ago at the original Ziggy’s, and he has carried on the name and tradition at the fair for the past decade.
“We try to give people a little bit of everything,” Naylor said. “We’ve done bluegrass. Of course we’ve done rock, some pop, honky tonk.”
Naylor’s rock band, Wafer Thin, will perform at 6 p.m. Oct. 8. Other artists playing under the Camel City Showcase banner at the 2016 fair: Solis, Khiana Meyer, Memphis Thunder, the Near Strangers, Berkstar, Leah Shaw, Kenny Shore, the GB’s, Vel Indica, Electric Ladyland, Jill Goodson Band, Lemon Jack, Mystery Hillbillies and the bo-stevens trio.
“The bands get a varied audience they might not normally get,” Naylor said. “You get a transient flow of people who come in, get some fair food, watch a few songs and then head on to the next thing. But you get a lot of people that come in, sit down and watch a whole set.”
The fair gives artists a chance to perform for people who might not catch them at venues that don’t have pig races and demolition derbies.
“It’s always interesting to me to sit back and watch people’s reactions to who’s playing,” Naylor said. “I watch people come up to the band members afterward and say, ‘Hey, how can I buy a CD or download your music?’ Or, ‘When are you guys playing again? I’ve never heard of you.’ That’s the whole point of it. That makes me happy.”
J.O.T. and Ms. Crystal will also perform on the Clock Tower Stage, marking their eighth year in a row at the fair. They play “positive and Christian” rap and R&B, and will appear every two hours on Monday from 3 p.m. through 9 p.m. Their group, North Carolina Street Heat, will join them on stage.
“It’s a good-time vibe, nothing negative,” said James O. Terry Jr., the head of Soul-Full Productions, who also goes by the stage names J.O.T. and Grande Gato.