John Cady, the retired Memphis football coach who stepped in two weeks ago as interim executive director of the 156-year-old Mid-South Fair, had organized his share of school carnivals but nothing to prepare him for the size and scope of the institution at which he suddenly found himself at the head.
"I've only done event planning for the size of a school not for 100,000 people. I knew the mechanics of it, but the magnitude is a whole different ball game," says Cady, whose 30-year gridiron career included stints at Memphis University School, Briarcrest and Ridgeway High School the year it won the state championship. "I will say this: This is tough, but the hardest thing I've probably ever done is try to get 11 teenage boys to all do the right thing for eight seconds at a time."
In comparison, mounting the fair, which kicks off its 10-day run Friday at the Landers Center in Southaven, should be a snap, especially, Cady says, thanks to the efforts of his staff. That staff includes new operations manager Ashley Albright and music coordinator Brian Paris of Xperience Memphis, as well as the involvement of North American Midway that will be handling the rides and concessions that will line the Landers Center parking lot.
There has been much speculation about the demise of the Mid-South Fair. Since leaving its longtime home at the Mid-South Fairgrounds in Memphis — and increased competition from the recent Delta Fair — the Mid-South Fair has seen sharp declines in attendance. In its last year in Memphis, the event drew more than 340,000 people. This year Cady is hoping to pull in a third of that.
But while the organization behind it is clearly in a state of rebuilding, officials say the fair will deliver the thrills and chills people have come to expect.
"I think the idea this year is really to, on a relatively modest budget, try to bring music back as a force to the Mid-South Fair," says Paris, who has booked a main stage lineup for this year's fair that includes a diverse selection of blues (Reba Russell Band, Blind Mississippi Morris), country (Kerrie Lewis), rock (Star & Micey), world music (Latin singer Marcella Pinilla, reggae band Exodus), gospel (Lisa Knowles & The Brown Singers), and a trio of favorites from New Orleans (Big Sam's Funky Nation, The Wild Magnolias, and The Stooges Brass Band) as well as several genre-specific battles of the bands.
In addition to the Main Stage, there will be a lineup of new, varied performers at the fair's storied Youth Talent Contest, which celebrates its 59th anniversary this year. The contest, divided into junior and senior divisions, will be held throughout the week in the Landers Center Theater, with the finals on Sunday and Sept. 30.
Other attractions throughout the fair's run include a motocross show Friday in the Landers Center arena on Saturday and Sunday, a roller derby match on Thursday, and a martial arts exhibit on Sept. 29. Wrestling matches scheduled for Sept. 28-29 will proceed, though participation of headliner Jerry "The King" Lawler, who recently suffered a heart attack, has not been determined.
But for Cady, who took his late wife on one of their first dates to the Mid-South Fair, the main attraction is a lot simpler.
"I think it's the people," he says. "Just seeing all the different people and watching them enjoying having fun."
Friday through Sept. 30 at the Landers Center, 4560 Venture Drive, Southaven. Gates open at noon, except on Saturdays and Wednesday at 10 a.m. Tickets: $10, $5 for ages 5-12 and seniors 60 and older. Children 4 and under free. Free admission Monday-Friday until 2 p.m. Ride wristbands: $25. Tickets available at the gate and through Ticketmaster. For more information, including a complete schedule and special rates, visit midsouthfair.com.
MAIN STAGE MUSIC SCHEDULE
4 p.m.: Brandon Santini (blues)
5:30 p.m.: Reba Russell Band (blues)
7 p.m.: Ghost Town Blues Band (blues)
8:30 p.m.: Brad Webb & Friends featuring Blind Mississippi Morris (blues)
3 p.m.: The Latest (country)
4:30 p.m.: Cotton & Coal (folk rock)
6 p.m.: Star & Micey (rock)
7:30 p.m.: Eddie L Smith (Americana)
9 p.m.: Wild Magnolias featuring Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. & Big Chief Monk Boudreaux (New Orleans)
4 p.m.: Wade Cottonfield (comedy/blues/country)
5:30 p.m.: Citadel of Praise Choir, Rodney Henderson & Company, and Generation of Praise (gospel)
7 p.m.: Lisa Knowles & The Brown Singers (gospel)
8:30 p.m.: Big Sam’s Funky Nation Gospel Explosion (brass band/gospel)
4:30 p.m.: Battle of the Bands (school marching bands)
7:30 p.m.: Millennium Maddness Fancy Trick & Drill Team
5 p.m.: Battle of the Bands (brass funk bands)
8 p.m.: Hope Clayburn & Soul Scrimmage (jazz/funk)
5 p.m.: Battle of the Bands (country bluegrass)
7:30 p.m.: Devil Train (psychedelic bluegrass)
8:30 p.m.: Kerrie Lewis & Kompany (country)
4 p.m.: Dead Soldiers (country rock)
5:30 p.m.: The Merrymobile (rock)
7 p.m.: Dingo Karaoke & DJ Set