Cottage Grove natives Ken and Darlene Nelson grew up within a handful of miles from each other, but first met long after graduating Park High School as young musicians playing shows in western Wisconsin.
After getting to know each other over post-gig hamburgers and fries, they formed their own band in 1987, eventually morphing into the group they call Darlene and the Boys, which plays nearly every weekend in the summer. Now married for 32 years, Darlene and Ken — and their bandmates, covering everything from steel guitar to saxophone and accordion — will bring their country standards to the State Fair’s opening day at the Department of Natural Resources Garden Stage for the eighth year this week.
“I like that stage the best, it's kind of right in the middle of everything,” Darlene Nelson said. “We both love just playing outdoors, with a beautiful atmosphere, just meeting all kinds of people that you do at the fair.”
Before achieving feats such as recording with band members of the Grand Ole Opry, Darlene said she started singing around the house as a child, influenced by her father. But she didn’t know she could take it further than that until she entered the seventh grade talent show at the encouragement of a teacher. She walked away with a first place award.
“That’s when I first realized, ‘Wow, I can sing,’” she said.
She started singing in school and church choirs and, as a senior, scored the lead role of Laurie in Park High School’s “Oklahoma.”
Shortly after graduation, she auditioned for the local band Stampede, which she credits for helping her build her classic country repertoire.
She was performing in that band when she met Ken, who had been practicing that style of guitar since childhood. When he was 9 years old, he remembers, his family took a trip to the now-defunct St. Paul Sears to get a sewing machine.
“I just saw these guitars, just all on display, with these beautiful lights. it just caught my eye,” Ken Nelson said.
His mom ended up swapping her funds for the sewing machine for the guitar that day, he said.
“My mom was so gracious,” he said. “I'm still very grateful for that.”
Afterwards, he sat down to learn his first few songs — all by Johnny Cash.
The duo’s music career has brought them across the Midwest, including regular trips to Nashville, Tenn., where Darlene has won multiple music competitions. Placing first in the show “Be a Star” led to a recording session with band members from Grand Ole Opry.
“That was really fun and special,” Darlene Nelson said.
Their first State Fair show remains one of their favorites.
The booking came about eight years ago with the help of connections and a stroke of luck — they were chosen to fill one empty spot on the first day, they said.
“We’d watch people for years, and always think it’d be fun to play out there,” Darlene said.
They've been invited for eight consecutive years. Each time, they pick from a selection of days to perform.
“We always pick opening day, because everything's fresh,” Darlene said.
They usually arrive around 5 a.m. to set up for their day of five shows from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
When playing for such broad audiences as State Fair guests, Darlene says she curates her set list to include a variety of dance steps and keys, as well as a few old standards. A typical lineup might include artists such as Johnny Cash and June Carter, Patsy Kline, Loretta Lynn and Bob Dylan.
The pair said classic country sticks with them for its iconic storytelling and simple production, with space in recordings to focus on individual instruments.
They also love the dancing — which the DNR Garden venue has plenty of room for.
“(We like to) just give them a little joy for a while when people are going through problems. You just kind of forget your problems through music and be happy,” Darlene Nelson said.