Oregon Country Fair: The Pinnacle of Communal Festival Culture

Having seen a few interesting photos circulating around the Oregon Country Fair this year but knowing absolutely nothing about it, I reached out to my good friend Aaron Schafer – one of the hosts of the No Simple Road Podcast – who had just attended the event for the first time via an invite for a spot in the coveted “Spoken Word” crew. I met Aaron and his wife/podcast partner Mel last spring at Phish Mexico and they instantly became family. For over an hour, I sat in awe listening to Aaron talk about his experience at the Oregon Country Fair, and by the end of our call I vowed I wouldn’t be missing it next year. Don’t let the name fool you like it did to me, this is far from a small “country fair”. 

Just 40 minutes outside of Eugene, OR on the outskirts of Veneta lies a mesmerizing realm known as the Oregon Country Fair that has been blossoming since its beginning in 1969. ‘Fair’ is not just a music festival; it’s an entire universe of artistic expression and whimsy. The fairgrounds, akin to a bustling city, boast a mind-boggling array of features. From warehouses stocked with refrigeration units filled with delectable treats, to a massive redwood communal sauna and shower area heated by wood-fire, the fair leaves no stone unturned when it comes to ensuring an unforgettable experience. For 3 days in early July, ‘Fair’ becomes the fourth largest city in Oregon, partially deconstructed afterwards, and is completely submerged by water by April due to seasonal flooding (some locals even break out their kayaks to voyage through the fair grounds!) The people making this happen? Over 20,000 volunteers. The way the unique volunteer system works is through different “crews”, each with their own camp at the festival. There’s a Spoken Word Crew, a Fire Crew, a Medical Crew, a Refrigeration Crew, A Vending Crew and beyond. To give you an example of how coveted these crew spots are, in order to become a vendor, artisans and craftsmen must petition the fair, showcasing their 100% handmade creations to a jury. If accepted, they embark on a journey of apprenticeship, learning from seasoned vendors until they earn their spot on the vibrant market area that forms the heart of Fair. Some volunteers have waited a lifetime to earn their spot, as Aaron recalled meeting one volunteer who had been to 45 Fairs, but only just gotten inducted into his volunteer crew position. 

Floods Just Part Of The Off-Season OCF Experience

Each day at 11 AM, the festival opens it’s doors to another 20,000+ attendees on top of the volunteers already there, far grown from it’s humble beginnings as a Renaissance fair started by 200 hippies. But come 7 PM, the “Sweep Team” (another crew at Fair) combs the grounds, sending the public back to their surrounding campgrounds in preparation for “The Night Fair”. As Aaron put it, “This is when the magic really starts”. 

Aaron: “On Saturday night they have what’s called ‘The Midnight Show’. It starts at 9 PM and all of the entertainers at Fair put on a show for all the workers because, if you’re working, you don’t get to see all the performances during the day. So there’s this variety show that happens and it went until like 2:30 in the morning, it was so great. The entire audience was all laid out–it reminded me of all the recordings I’ve ever heard of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters doing what they do, but with a huge stage production, and really engaging and interacting with the crowd. It was just crazy”  

Shady Rest Campground 2023 Tickets

With an astounding lineup of 17 stages, each manned by dedicated crews, the Oregon Country Fair showcases a diverse array of talent. This year, the fair made history by featuring an all-female headliner lineup, including powerful acts like LP Giobbi, The Eights (featuring Nicki Bluhm & Holly Bowling), The Shook Twins, Sister Carol, and Celisse. No Simple Road had the pleasure of interviewing LP Giobbi this year during their live podcast at the Front Porch Stage and Aaron shared LP’s undying devotion to the fair:

Aaron: “So she’s been going since she was in Utero, she hasn’t missed a Fair. She could be in doing a set in Ibiza, and would still fly back for it.”
However, music is just one aspect of the Oregon Country Fair’s multifaceted extravaganza. At every turn, enchantment abounds. The fairgrounds pulse with an energy that transcends the beats and melodies. Picture buskers captivating audiences, poets reciting their verses, puppet shows captivating young and old alike, and fire dancers moving to an otherworldly rhythm. Venture into the forest, and you might stumble upon a grand piano, waiting to be played in the moonlight. Fractal-adorned walls come alive with mesmerizing light projections, while impromptu drum circles weave a hypnotic spell. 

But the magic doesn’t end with the performances and art installations. The very land on which the Oregon Country Fair takes place holds a rich history. It’s the same sacred ground where the Grateful Dead performed their legendary Veneta shows, and the legacy of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters is deeply intertwined with the fair. Each bench, tree, and booth holds a tale of its own, shining a light on the 50+ year history of the event. 
Grateful Seconds: Veneta II: Dead Return to Kesey's August 28, 1982

So, prepare yourself for an experience like no other as you step into the Oregon Country Fair. Embrace the unexpected, surrender to the whimsy, and immerse yourself in the array of art, music, and communal revelry. For four glorious days, the fair becomes the beating heart of Oregon, an ethereal realm where imagination reigns and where memories are woven into the fabric of time.

Oh, and if you do go, it’s highly recommended by all Fair attendees that you don’t miss a performance by “Fooble The Dragon”, a puppet that will have you laughing, crying, and pondering the mysteries of the universe…

Check out the No Simple Road Podcast here, it’s one of my favorites! https://www.nosimpleroad.com/

– LSP 

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