About State Fair Records

“I just hope that State Fair Records makes some kind of impact on North Texas – it’s not a beauty or a popularity contest, it’s about the music.” These words from State Fair Records co-founder Trey Johnson sum up the young record label’s mission statement. It was a conversation with his partner Scott Davis, also a co-founder, regarding the company’s 2019 fifth anniversary, that led them to talk about the future as much as they were the past. After all, as they had learned over those five years, a record label’s work always seems to operate in the past, the present, and the future simultaneously – and it was in the eye of the storm that State Fair Records thrived. 

Scott, a lifelong entrepreneur and businessman, reflects, “We knew that five years would determine a lot. Five years was going to do it” – if SFR lasted that long, they had secured their foothold. Now, here they were: five years in, sitting in a makeshift green room beneath the legendary Cotton Bowl, the State Fair of Texas in full swing outside – where they were curating three stages of music – looking back on a good deal of hard work, and forward to a whole lot more. But the point was, they’d made it, and something else had happened during that time as well, indicated most aptly perhaps by their latest signing: Dallas country music legends Eleven Hundred Springs.

Understanding the shift that had occurred over those five years first requires understanding the label’s beginning. Any startup faces an uphill battle, but founding a record label in the 2010’s seemed to many a fool’s errand. The music industry was notoriously shaky, not least after streaming services like Spotify had wreaked havoc on the traditional business model. But Scott, Trey, and third co-founder and producer Paul Williams had knowledge, a mission and, importantly, the old-school drive to make it work. It was 2014, and the three Dallas music veterans decided it was high time for North Texas to have its own prominent independent record label.

The local music scene had long gone unappreciated by the industry at large, and in recent years had been experiencing its own renaissance. Talented acts were emerging left and right, releasing professional quality music and playing it at the myriad venues across DFW and beyond. Scott watched as these great artists moved away as local opportunities dried up, lamenting “the music scene left Dallas.” Having been a part of the scene for years, no one was more aware of its promise – or its repeated omissions – than the label’s three founders. Scott, beyond being an avid supporter of the arts, is known to play just about every instrument imaginable, which he showcased with the Hella Shriners band and other projects. Trey is a talented singer/songwriter in his own right, most famously as a member of the rock band Sorta, which achieved great success during its run. Paul has produced a number of successful acts over his years in the industry, including work for Reverend Horton Heat and Polyphonic Spree. This firsthand, street-level knowledge of what it takes to make music, as well as genuine relations with both artists and industry professionals, lent itself perfectly to the founding of State Fair Records. 

There was one goal above all, though: to help foster the North Texas music community they’d been a part of. They had witnessed firsthand how fragile it could be, and seeing artists in this latest upswell of new music experiencing their first successes – with very few resources and even fewer local institutions to help guide them – clearly indicated the city’s need for a label. Furthermore, what infrastructure did exist just as often bred competition and controversy as it did community, effectively fragmenting the local culture. Something had to change – “the only way we can do this is if we create a music scene,” Scott said, “And we decided – regardless of race, creed, color, dogma, whatever music you want to make, we were open to it.” Thus began the dream, and in 2014 State Fair Records was founded. Local singer-songwriter Madison King’s sophomore album, Onward and Upward, was SFR’s first release, produced by Paul. 

At that time, the label was recording and producing out of the Southside Building in the Cedars district in the heart of Dallas (which inspired the label’s name – the view from the apartment window overlooked the Texas State Fair). With that five-year goal in mind, SFR set about adopting burgeoning local artists into their small family, offering bespoke guidance and support as their careers progressed. Madison’s full-length was followed in 2015 by a duet single with Old 97’s Rhett Miller and a double album, Stargazer, by the Eagles’ touring guitarist Chris Holt. The next year saw Ft. Worth cowpunks Vandoliers join the State Fair Roster, releasing John Pedigo-produced Amerikinda, quickly followed in 2017 by their acclaimed full-length The Native. Vandoliers, their sound, and their energy offered a glimpse of what would steer the label over the coming years, helping to further develop the State Fair brand. 

John Pedigo, himself a well established and beloved songwriter (known primarily for his work in the O’s), had entered the fold as another in-house producer for State Fair, and was quickly winning acclaim for his deft studio work. In 2018 he brought his brand-new Americana band to the label, dubbed Pedigo’s Magic Pilsner, and put out their self-titled debut. Denton punk trio Upsetting was the next to release a record on the label, 2018’s Everything I’ve Done So Far. Prominent country troubadour Joshua Ray Walker joined the label that year, crafting his internationally acclaimed debut with John Pedigo in the producer’s chair. This would be the first of several Pedigo-produced records released on State Fair, with outlaw country garage rock band Ottoman Turks (in which Joshua Ray Walker plays lead guitar) and rock and roll R&B group The 40 Acre Mule (in which Pedigo himself plays lead guitar) releasing albums on the same day in 2019. 

The end of that year saw two groundbreaking events for State Fair Records. First, though the name had long been shared between the label and the world-famous State Fair of Texas, a true connection had never been established. In 2019 the Fair approached SFR with a new vision in mind, seeking to elevate the music experience there to a real, 24-day music festival showcasing Texas artists. State Fair produced, booked, and managed the music on three stages over all 24 days of the Fair, contributing to the most successful Fair run to date. This event also played host to the announcement of a particularly exciting signing. Eleven Hundred Springs, the veteran Dallas country music pioneers – or as Scott calls them, “Dallas OG’s” – were joining the label, putting out their eleventh full length album, Here ‘Tis, in January of 2020. The label has also formed a partnership with We Know Better Records, which has its own projects scheduled for 2020 releases and beyond. These events mark a new era for State Fair Records, its partners, and its artists, promising exciting things for the future. 

“Our goal is not to lose acts,” Trey says – this is no small-time label looking to foster artists until they move on to the majors. SFR aims to grow with its artists. In a move that starkly opposes the vast majority of modern record labels, State Fair chooses to focus on artist development, and from the beginning set out with a 360 degree approach to managing their artists, offering everything from production and A&R to booking, management, marketing, and promotions. It fosters a familial atmosphere with its artists and employees, an atmosphere particularly obvious at its office in east Dallas, where they maintain an open-door policy and a round table for discussions, making sure every voice in the room is heard. This often leads to innovations and ideas, otherwise left unheard, that can be game-changing for an artist or strategy the label is trying to pursue. 

This approach seems to be working: the label has been nominated for “Best Record Label” at multiple local music awards in 2019 and 2020, winning at the Central Track Music Honors 2020. New records are produced out of a number of local studios, including State Fair’s own state-of-the-art space in Dallas’ Design District, dubbed the Chemical Street Studio. As the last five years have taught, each day promises new and unknown opportunities. It is never known what’s around the corner. But right now, sitting beneath the Cotton Bowl, with good music being performed and a team around them, State Fair has begun to make what it set out to: a community. Which is a pretty good start.

State Fair Records Staff