Clay Walker isn’t the world’s biggest classical music fan, but he said every time he’s accompanied friends or family to the symphony, he’s been reduced to tears.
To the self-confessed softie, live music is all about being moved.
“If you’re not vulnerable, if you’re not making your feelings accessible, people know it,” he said. “They’re really not listening to the words, they’re listening to the emotions. Words are like a boat on a river, and emotions are the river. The river is what moves people.”
On Thursday, the second day of the Douglas County Fair, the contemporary country hit-maker moved many of the 4,200 who came to the fairgrounds amphitheater to hear him.
“He seems a lot more engaged than some of the other entertainment we’ve had,” said Fair Director Harold Phillips.
Walker strutted out in boots with 3-inch heels, firing a streamer gun in all directions. He wore a lei and kicked beach balls into the crowd. He got all the guys to sing, then the ladies, who none would argue gave it more brio.
He prowled around, mad-eyed on the barn-burners and ecstatic during the love songs. Between songs, he ribbed the crowd like a rascally country cousin.
At one point, right before he launched into a more-or-less faithful version of “Sweet Home Alabama,” he turned around and looked straight into the eyes of a man pumping his fist near the beer tent.
Walker pumped back, and laughed.
“We had a moment,” the man, Scott Dunn of Seattle, said.
Perhaps more moved than Dunn, and the whole rest of the crowd, was Kelli Jones, a Roseburg High School student who turns 16 this month. Through the Texas-based Western Wishes Foundation, Jones got to meet Walker backstage. What happened next was all Walker’s idea, said Western Wishes’ Diane Ampi, who accompanied Jones and her parents.
Jones, who received a lack of oxygen at birth, told Walker she liked the beach balls he’d brought with him. Walker said, “‘Well why don’t you come up and help me kick ’em out?’” Ampi said.
To a girl who knows Walker’s songs by heart, it was a huge deal. She waited until he started playing “Little Feet” to head to the backstage area for her cue to take the stage on “Then What?,” Walker’s sunny calypso closer.
It was reminiscent of a moment in 2011 when bluesman Buddy Guy invited 13-year-old Savanna Coen of Eugene onto the fair stage to play guitar after meeting her backstage before the show.
Away from Walker’s buoyant performance, the rest of the fair seemed waiting to kick fully into gear. Food sellers, commercial vendors, carnival workers and attendees all said attendance and sales are down so far this year. Many worried they were overstaffed, but won’t know for sure until the end of Saturday.
But numbers at the front gate are assuredly “way down,” according to Deby Hackney, with the Umpqua Valley Mounted Posse, which works the fair entrance.
“The buses aren’t full and our people are working less hours.”
The fair still makes for the best Douglas County people-watching of the year, said Brittany Harris, a Roseburg resident who “got roped into” selling Clay Walker merchandise at a tent across from the venue.
“It really brings ‘em out,” said Harris, 24, during a break in transactions.
Walker, 43, said some of his best crowds are fair crowds and that the Douglas County Fair in particular sticks out as a fun stop.
Most aspects of being a musician on the road Walker finds undesirable. Living on a bus with seven younger guys. Managing his multiple sclerosis on his own. Being away from his wife and five kids.
“But you know,” he said, “it’s all worth it because of that 90 minutes.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.