Country music fans are reflected in the glasses of Confederate Railroad lead singer Danny Shirley during a 2000 concert in Nashville.

CARBONDALE — The country-rock band Confederate Railroad has scheduled a new show in Southern Illinois after its booking was canceled at the Du Quoin State Fair over the band’s name and use of the Confederate flag on promotional material.

The band will play in Marion at Black Diamond Harley-Davidson on Thursday, Sept. 5, according to co-owner Shad Zimbro.

Already, the excitement is palpable, Zimbro said.

“We’ve had some big acts, from Hank Jr., to Toby Keith, to Kid Rock,” Zimbro said. “I think I’ve had more phone calls about this show already than I had about any of those shows.”

The Southern had previously reported rumors that a “radius clause” in the band’s contract with the Du Quoin State Fair would prevent it from playing in Southern Illinois for 60 days from the original show date of Aug. 27.

Luckily, Zimbro said, the state let Confederate Railroad out of that clause, permitting the Sept. 5 show. He and his team chose the Sept. 5 date to ensure the band’s show wouldn’t compete with the entertainment offerings at the Du Quoin State Fair grandstand.

“I’m a big advocate for live music in Southern Illinois. I don’t want people to boycott the fair,” Zimbro said. “I hope people still go to their shows.”

Calls to boycott the fair have intensified as the band’s cancellation sparks a statewide debate about freedom of expression and the modern meaning of the Confederate flag.

Several local politicians, including state Reps. Dave Severin and Terri Bryant have accused the administration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker of hypocrisy for canceling the band while allowing other potentially offensive acts to perform at the state fairs.

Rep. Bryant: Words ‘twisted’ by Pritzker staff on Confederate Railroad cancellation

The administration has responded that the Confederate flag is categorically different from other kinds of controversial free speech.

“This administration’s guiding principle is that the State of Illinois will not use state resources to promote symbols of racism. Symbols of hate cannot and will not represent the values of the Land of Lincoln,” wrote Pritzker’s spokesperson, Jordan Abudayyeh, in a statement.

Meanwhile, a Facebook group created on July 4, called #boycottduquoinstatefair, has grown to more than 4,500 members, though its organizer, Larry Dean Basler, said he does not know how many of those users are residents of Southern Illinois who might actually boycott the fair.

Boycott planned over Du Quoin State Fair band cancellation amid broader debate

Now Bryant, Severin, Sen. Paul Schimpf, and other local politicians are working to avert the possible boycott, despite agreeing with many protesters that the cancellation was unjust.

Their fear, they say, is the significant financial impact a boycott could have on the already struggling Du Quoin fair.

“It is understandable that many want to boycott the Du Quoin Fair. I fear that any such boycott will be a harsh blow to Southern Illinois’ economy and unfairly punish small businesses that count on the fair to keep people employed,” Bryant wrote to followers on Facebook, in a post that she said has reached at least 135,000 people. “These small businesses did nothing to cause any kind of boycott.”

Financially, the state fairs in both Du Quoin and Springfield have long struggled.

In 2016, The Southern reported that the Du Quoin State Fair had boosted revenue by 15%, significantly cut costs, and still ended with a net loss of $33,190.

It was the smallest sum the fair had lost since at least 2003.

Analysis by the conservative think-tank Illinois Policy Institute found between fiscal years 2001 and 2009, the state fairs at Du Quoin and Springfield together lost more than $41.8 million.

Efforts to confirm with the Department of Agriculture and the Governor’s Office whether the fairs have continued to lose money since 2016 were unsuccessful on Wednesday.

Still, that legacy has Southern Illinois politicians anxious for their fair, which is significantly smaller than its Springfield counterpart.

“Boycotting the fair may actually have a result that is intended by this administration — an unsuccessful fair may mean that they will more easily be able to justify shutting it down completely,” said Rep. Dave Severin in a Facebook message opposing a boycott.

The Pritzker administration has given no indication that the Du Quoin fair is in jeopardy, Severin acknowledged, but the paltry funding it receives in comparison to its Springfield counterpart — including an entertainment budget almost 10 times smaller — makes it vulnerable.

The governor’s spokesperson assured he is “committed to supporting the Du Quoin State Fair because it creates important economic opportunities for residents and businesses in Southern Illinois," in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Instead of boycotting, Bryant suggests frustrated constituents consume selectively at the fair.

“Remember there are a lot of not-for-profits who do their major fundraising at the fair,” she said, like Special Olympics, which holds its yearly Ducky Derby. “If you want to send a message to the state, park somewhere else and walk to the fairgrounds, but support these not-for-profits.”

Bryant said she’s also encouraging local vendors to display that they’re from Southern Illinois, so visitors can support them.

In the #boycottduquoinstatefair Facebook group, opinions are divided about how best to protest the Pritzker administration’s decision.

Some, like Basler, are calling for a total boycott of this year’s event. Others have called to boycott Aug. 27th only. Still others are suggesting a protest at the fair.

As Basler sees it, a hit in the pocketbook is the most effective way of showing Pritzker that Southern Illinoisans don’t appreciate his censorship.

“This is our fair,” Basler said, funded largely by taxpayer dollars. “Instead of up-north politicians cramming their agendas down our throats, you should be catering to Southern Illinois and what the people here like.”

Pritzker weighed in on the issue for the first time Wednesday, drawing a sharp distinction between other potentially offensive fair performers, like the rapper Snoop Dogg, and the display of the Confederate flag.

“There’s a big difference between what I just described and the hundreds of thousands of people [who] died; millions, in fact tens of millions of people, were enslaved. We’re talking about a history, a terrible history in the United States,” Pritzker told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Death and destruction that took place under that flag — and on the other side, political satire.”

The state must still pay Confederate Railroad the full $7,500 guaranteed in its contract for performance, according to Capitol Fax.

Danny Shirley, the band’s lead singer, encouraged Southern Illinoisans to visit the fair, in spite of the “very disappointing” cancellation.

“It has been brought to my attention that several people have asked both Restless Heart and Shenandoah to cancel their shows in protest of our cancellation," Shirley said in a statement. "I have spoken to both acts and encouraged them to perform as scheduled. Live concerts are how we pay our bills and feed our families. I would never want to see another act lose a payday because of this. Please go out to hear these two great bands.”

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Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

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