Ranked the fifth largest fair in Ontario, the Oct. 3-9 Norfolk County Fair & Horse Show is also one of the Top 50 festivals and events in the province.
It's must-see fall entertainment, and when Small Town Girls, a local country music band, was invited to play at the Norfolk Fair they jumped at the opportunity. Twelve-year-old twins Hannah and Haley Van Maele, and 15-year-old sister Cassie, have been busy all summer on a festival/fair tour that started in Tillsonburg with Turtlefest (June 16) and included performances in Oxford, Elgin, Middlesex and Norfolk Counties, and even further abroad, leading up to their biggest show of the season at the Norfolk Fair, Thursday, Oct. 5, 4:30-6:30 in the Simcoe Rec Centre.
"It's going to be awesome because we're going to be backed up by one of the best known bands in Canada," said Haley, who in the past week-and-a-half performed with her sisters at the Langton Fair and two Norfolk 150 venues - Port Rowan on Saturday and Waterford on Sunday.
"We went to the guitar player's house and he had like five guitar player of the year awards," said Cassie.
"And a fiddle player of the year," said Hannah.
"Yeah, they're really good," Haley nodded.
"We played with them once and it was really awesome," said Haley. "To get to play two hours with them - it'll be really cool."
"We're really excited," said Hannah.
The Small Town Girls travelled to Paris, Ont. last week to make sure everything on their 29-song set list would be familiar with the backup musicians.
"Making sure everything would be smooth and right," said Cassie. "We haven't had an actual rehearsal with them though."
"We sent them video tapes," said Haley.
"And our charts," said Cassie. "And hopefully it just comes together."
In addition to all the traditional midway rides and fair food on Oct. 5, Thursday's entertainment will include the Kids World Tent, horse shows, and cow milking and sheep shearing demonstrations. After the Small Town Girls' two-hour set, fair visitors will be able to see Norfolk County Sports Hall of Fame Recognition presentations and Motor Sports Mania (monster trucks) at 7 p.m.
The Small Town Girls plan to hit the midway after their show.
"The rides are insane," said Hannah. "The Fireball... it's fun. Last year I rode it so much, I can put my hands up now."
"That one's scary," said Cassie. "I like the boat ride..."
"I like the Zipper," said Haley.
"And the food..." Cassie laughed.
"Cotton candy, popcorn, slushies..." said Hannah.
"And corn dogs," said Cassie, who also also enjoys the Grandstand experience on Young Canada Day with the cheerleading and tug of war events (Oct. 3).
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Following the fair/festival season, the Small Town Girls will be taking a well-deserved break over the winter.
"From November until April," said Hannah. "We already have a show booked in April I think. And try to find some contests, try to write some songs, and we might work on recording a CD."
"And if any other good shows come up," said Cassie, who said the plan is to learn new cover songs over the next six or seven months.
And new instruments.
"I'm learning the banjo," said Haley. "It's going okay... I'm not that bad."
"She knows a bunch of chords," said Hannah.
"I want to learn fiddle, but..." said Cassie. "I'm basically learning (banjo) with her."
"I want to learn the drums," said Hannah. "Because I'm good at them - I'm trying to teach myself.
During the summer, in between their numerous gigs, The Small Town Girls learned more new covers, co-wrote more originals, and pushed the band's song list well past 40.
"Way more than 40, close to 50," said Haley, who in 2015 knew 'about 10 songs' when she competed in the Langton and Norfolk County Fairs.
One year ago at the Tillsonburg Fair, the band's repertoire had grown to just over 20 - with two not quite memorized yet. And that took some work, Hannah noted in August 2016, when she crammed to learn six new songs for a one-hour set.
"We keep doing them over and over again," Cassie explained. "If you keep practicing, then you remember. Like when you memorize your times tables, you repeat it over and over."
"I'm so good at times tables," said Hannah.
"It just comes naturally to me," said Haley. "I have a good memory."
"You have a good memory?" Cassie laughed. "You can't even remember your times tables!"
"Give me one," Haley countered.
"12 times 11," said Hannah.
"138!" Haley guessed. "Give me another one! Another one!"
"Eight times seven."
"Oh, um 56! Wait, that was right?"
And while they debate what comes naturally and what takes hard work, Haley continues to shine as lead singer. Hannah, who excels at solo parts and harmonizing, hasn't (yet) reached a point where she's confident taking over if Haley is ill.
"No, I'm not good at remembering stuff," she said. "I know most of them. I know most of You're Lookin' at Country, Walkin' After Midnight is simple, My Church, I Could Use a Love Song... I think I could do 10 songs. Maybe."
Included in the band's 50-song list are five originals - four they co-wrote since the spring. More are coming, but song-writing has taken a back seat in recent weeks.
"We've had a little bit of a break," said Cassie.
"It's been going pretty good," said Haley, "but yeah, we haven't been doing it lately. It's been like a couple weeks."
Their first independently written song is also in the works, a song Hannah sat down to write.
"It was one casual afternoon... I was sitting on the couch watching Netflix. SpongeBob. Yeah, I love SpongeBob! I got up to get a drink, saw the drums, and I was like, 'hmmm... I'm going to play the drums today.' So I was just banging on the drums and you know, it sounded bad. But then it came to me! The song! So then I grabbed the ukelele and just started singing.
"You can sail across the ocean, you can fly across the sea. You can climb up Mount Everest, if you parachute back to me.
"Wait, that's not what I came up with first. Mount Everest... I was thinking 'you could jump back down to me...' but that would hurt. Then I was thinking, 'you could fly down to me' but people can't fly. Then I said, 'you could parachute back to me' because you can actually parachute, so it works.
"Originally, instead of the Everest line, I was going to say 'driving down the highway, with you in the passenger seat' but that didn't sound good. So that's the second part of the verse. Then it's 'As long as we're together, that's alright with me.'"
"The song is called 'That's Alright With Me,'" said Cassie. "We're trying to get a chorus for it. Well, we have a chorus but we don't have the sound."
"It's hard to write a chorus," Hannah admitted. "Me and Haley actually tried to write the second verse together. We were saying something about 'You can take a rocket up to space..."
"Wait, what's it actually about?" Haley asked.
"It's about..." Hannah started, but dropped into a whisper. "It's a surprise."
A surprise she will reveal when they launch the song.
What they learned this summer is that song writing is a lot fun, rewarding, but challenging.
"It is pretty hard," said Cassie. "It comes to you when you're not thinking about it, but when you try to think about it, it doesn't usually work out well."
"It takes a lot of time," said Haley.