Recap – Muddy Roots Festival 2011

The idea of sitting down in front of a keyboard to try and describe an experience as epic as this last weekend’s Muddy Roots Festival seems like the essence of fools errand. However I feel inclined to attempt to tackle this impossible task for the folks that weren’t there, the folks that were, but maybe were not able to take in the full experience, and hopefully somehow attempt to chronicle the magic that went down at the June Bug ranch, just north of Cookeville, TN on Labor Day weekend, 2011 for future reference.

My perspective on the fest is somewhat skewed, because I did not go there as a participant, but as a volunteer. I watched most of the bands with their backs to me, but I can honestly say I did not see one performer that weekend that I was unimpressed with. Granted, this was a festival whose epicenter is very similar to the music that is covered here on Saving Country Music, but the diversity of talent when you take a step back was astronomical. There were country music legends like Don Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose, and Wanda Jackson. There were deep blues artists like the Ten Foot Polecats and Left Lane Cruiser. There were punk-infused roots bands like Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, neo-traditionalists like Lucky Tubb, and all manner of variations in between.

While the big city an hour to the west of Cookeville continued to deal with the historic contraction in music consumption, Muddy Roots more than doubled its numbers from its inaugural year. Folks from Canada, Belgium, Spain, The Netherlands, many other foreign countries and all around the United States made the trek to what is quickly becoming an annual epicenter for independent roots music.

Weather was a major factor for the 2011 Muddy Roots Festival, with scorching 99-degree days for Friday’s setup and on Saturday as well, chased by torrential downpours courtesy of the remnants of a tropical storm on Sunday. And then again, weather wasn’t a factor at all. Great music, and the fellowship between real roots artists and their fans was going to happen, and the adversity of uncontrollable elements seemed to only make for better stories. We’ll take temps in the 80’s and clear skies next year though if the weather gods are reading.

Though Muddy Roots did not officially begin until Saturday, by the end of Friday night it already felt like a memorable music experience for many participants, as droves of artists and fans, many that had not seen each other in a year, others that had never met each other ever, or only knew of each other over the internet, were finally able to make a personal connection face to face. Like a gathering of tribes, groups of friends and bands coagulated and intermingled until the early hours of the morning. Rusty Knuckles, one of the labels represented at Muddy Roots had a booth that could transform into a stage, and the band Filthy Still regaled a large crowd late into the night. Meanwhile Uncle Sean & The Shifty Drifters with members of Liquorbox and Cletus Got Shot played the June Bug Biker Bar at the front of the property to a packed crowd.

A late night made for a slow-starting morning, with Cashman, and Mark Porkchop Holder taking the first time slots on the main Muddy Roots stage, but by the time Jayke Orvis and his Broken Band took the stage at 1 PM, people were ready to brave the heat and his set drew one of the biggest crowds of the whole festival. The Broken Band consisted of Fishgutz and Baby Genius from The Goddamn Gallows, James Hunnicutt, Joe Perreze, and a fiddle player.

Meanwhile on Stage 2 under the tent, the blues were being represented by the Ten Foot Polecats who made the trip from Boston, followed by the ramshackle fire and brimstone one man band Revered Deadeye. About the only set of music that wasn’t well attended all weekend was Derek Hoke on the main stage, and it was a shame, because it was one of the best classic country performances of the fest. The low attendace had me worried of what might happen when the 90+-year-old Don Maddox took the stage. My concerns turned out to be unfounded as a decent crowd swelled to see the West Coast country legend, with a band consisting of the omnipresent James Hunnicutt on drums, Felix Thursday of The Cheatin’ Hearts on guitar, Banjer Dan, and Johnny B, a local venue owner from Medford, OR on standup bass.

Don Maddox was followed on the main stage by JB Beverly & The Wayward Drifters. The Drifters lineup included two banjos, and JB’s excellent original songs were complimented by the full sound. JB also gave one of the best, most impassioned speeches all weekend about the beauty and importance of the Muddy Roots gathering.

The Muddy Roots schedule had a few very cool runs where like-minded bands were featured back to back. One of these runs featured The Clamity Cubes and Cletus Got Shot on the second stage. Unfortunately I didn’t get to catch any of the Dirt Scab Band or the Spinderellas, but made it back to the main stage in time to see why Ronnie Hymes has recently been picked up by the Rusty Knuckles record label, and left Muddy Roots on a tour with Lucky Tubb.

Speaking of Lucky and cool runs in the schedule, Lucky’s set on stage 2 was preceded by Slim Chance & The Can’t Hardly Playboys, sans Slim Chance, but still with a cool lineup that included Zach Shedd of Hank3’s Damn Band. Lucky showed up to Muddy Roots with copies ready to sell of his brand new album Del Gaucho, and was followed by Possessed by Paul James, who put on one of the best, if not the best performances of Muddy Roots 2011. By the end of his set, some folks were in tears, and everyone was talking about the mysterious burst of wind on that blisteringly hot day that hit the stage 2 tent right as he began to play.

Bob Wayne and the Outlaw Carnies had a daunting task of following up Possessed, but he did so admirably. Bob’s ear to ear smile and fun-to-be-around attitude was all over the place on the weekend. I can’t remember how many times I looked out over a crowd and saw Bob there smack dab in the middle, leading the charge and cheering on the performer.

On the main stage, O’ Death made the smart decision to hold the beginning of their set until Possessed by Paul James was done, and then entertained the crowd with their dark and original take on Americana roots. They were followed by two legends, from different worlds: the always enchanting and charismatic Soda, and on of the true pioneers of independent roots country, and an American original, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, who dazzled possibly the biggest crowd of the whole festival.

Those still not satiated by Saturday’s festivities sauntered back to stage 2, which after the performance of American Pickers’ star Danielle Colby‘s dance troupe Burlesque le Moustache offered a late night lineup of Black Jake & The Carnies, a band I had never seen or heard before, but were very entertaining with a high energy show and a frontman full of bits, including a flashing banjo that shot fire out the head stock, while he smoked a cigar wedged in a harmonica holder. Viva Le Vox followed up with their own light show and fiercely entertaining songs custom fit for the deep of the night. Unfortunately Farmageddon Records alum Owen Mays got shafted when the sound crew decided to call it quits at 2-something in the morning, but a decent crowd that stuck around were revered with an intimate, all acoustic set that included Banjer Dan, James Hunnicutt, and others fleshing out Owen’s original compositions.

Sunday began on the main stage with Liquorbox, Felix Thursday’s aforementioned Cheatin’ Hearts, and Davey Jay Sparrow, who was introduced by his very young son, who also revered the crowd with a few choice knock knock jokes. They were proceeded by a couple of roots music transplants from the punk scene in the form of Sean Wheeler and Zander Schloss, while on stage 2, a couple of string bands got things going: The Hogslop String Band, and one of my personal favorite acts of the weekend, Thomas Maupin & Daniel Rothwell. Daniel is a young, up-and-coming banjo player, and Thomas Maupin is a champion tap dancer. Folks still sleeping off Saturday night really missed a treat.

As a pinup pageant was going down on the main stage, things really got cranking on stage 2, with the Celtic-infused Cutthroat Shamrock and the sludgy blues of Left Lane Cruiser revering the Dirtyfoot fans of Hillgrass Bluebilly music. This was contrasted by the straightforward Appalachian-style of JD Wilkes of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers‘ side project with his wife called The Dirt Daubers touring in support of a new album. I’ll admit, since the beginning of this project, I’ve been worried Shack Shaker nation will want more blood and guts than what The Dirt Daubers can offer, but simply put, they killed it, and were joined on stage by Liz Sloan of Bob Wayne’s Outlaw Carnies.

Unfortunately I did not have the time to see many of the handful of performer’s slated for Sunday’s stage 3, but I did get to check out a few good songs from banjo player Joe Perreze of The Perreze Farm, who also sat in with numerous other performers over the weekend, as well as a few blazing blues numbers from last minute fill-in Husky Burnette, who at times was joined by washboard Avery from the Goddamn Gallows, and Soda and Jay Scheffler from the Ten Foot Polecats on harmonica. Yes, collaboration was everywhere on the weekend.

As punk band Hans Kondor was playing on Stage 2, and Art Adams Band on Stage 1, the rain came. And it came. And didn’t stop all night. This forced a reshuffling of the lineup and the closing of the open air Stage 1, moving the big Muddy Roots headliners under the tent. Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory were forced to play a short set, but did an excellent job with their post-Chico (their drummer) lineup that includes Leroy sitting on a bass drum and playing it backwards while picking and singing.

Then came one of my favorite runs of shows of the festival, with two legends of Nashville’s lower Broadway fronted by two of the best frontmen in all of music, as Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Hillbilly Casino took the stage one after another. As the rain continued to fall, the Muddy Roots patrons got muddy, and were treated to some of the best live music that exists.

At this point the rain had turned into an outright deluge. The sound equipment had to be lifted out of pooling water, and there was concern the main headliner Wanda Jackson would call the performance off. But all strings were pulled to accommodate the 73-year-old queen of rockabilly, and folks, she absolutely killed it. Her voice was as solid as when she dumped Elvis, and her stage presence was spellbinding. When Wanda called on her crisp yodel, the crowd went crazy. They sang along with full lung with the gospel number “I Saw The Light”. Wanda ran through her set list, and started adding songs sensing the fervor of the crowd. It was a spectacular performance.

After Wanda came short but solid sets from performers that got the short end from the weather: the great one man band Scott McDougall from the Pacific Northwest, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers that made the drive all the way out from Ft. Worth, and the lovely and talented Rachel Brooke.

Muddy Roots 2011 was capped off by one of the few bands that could tackle such a task, The Goddam Gallows. By this time there was water ankle deep no matter where you walked with sheets of rain still falling, but very few people had retreated, and those not watching the Gallows, were watching or participating in a huge jam under the cover of the main stage that included Wayne Hancock, J.B. Beverley, Banjer Dan, Nathan from Cletus Got Shot, all of Hellbound Glory, and many others.

Though I am afraid of attempting to compile a list of the non-musicians that were there or involved in Muddy Roots that deserve recognition because I am sure I will leave important names out, I must mention that independent country elder statesman Mr. Bandana was there all weekend, and using his 4-wheeler to help haul gear and people around the site. And of course, huge props goes to the promoters Jason and Anthony Galaz, and right hand man Jason H. Buchanan for pulling the whole thing off.

There’s really no way I can sum up the 2011 Muddy Roots Festival, and any written treatise just feels like a reduction of the experience. Truly, you just had to be there. But for the folks that weren’t, take note that Muddy Roots is quickly becoming one of those events you plan your year around. I will say that above all the excellent performances, the jaw dropping lineup, the beautiful and ideal grounds, the greatest asset of the Muddy Roots experience is the people it draws, and the fellowship it creates. As the world obsesses more every year with making money, Muddy Roots offers an opportunity to make memories.