Editor’s Note: For more Mile 0 Fest coverage, check out Saving Country Music’s Instagram Feed.
Tons of photos at the bottom of the article.
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It could have been a disaster, or it could have not happened at all. When Mile 0 Fest rescheduled their 2021 festival from late January to late April, a lot of dominoes had to fall their way for them to pull it off. It was a risk. The pandemic had to be trending in the right direction. The vaccines had to be widely available and prevalent. Local officials had to play ball. And they had to convince enough performers and patrons to participate after an over year-long pause in live music, and continued questions for some about safe congregating.
If it worked, they would be the first roots music festival back, proving it could be done again, at least on the small/medium scale. If it was a week or two too early, it could sound off alarm bells across the industry, be a public relations nightmare, and perhaps result in further reluctance and delays in live music’s return. But the stars aligned, and they not only pulled it off, they did so with flying colors. Even the CDC on the Tuesday the festival opened (4-27) offered new guidance for being outdoors and mask wearing, lifting concerns for vaccinated individuals. Forgoing the regular club shows during the day and late evening, Mile 0 Fest instead moved everything to outside venues.
Along with the challenges due to the pandemic, the lineup felt like it was in a constant state of flux leading up to the event. Headliner Lucinda Williams cancelled with only a week to go, meaning once again the name at the top of the T-shirts and posters wouldn’t actually play. Two years ago, the Turnpike Troubadours notoriously canceled last minute in the midst of their troubles. Reckless Kelly was another big cancellation. Shovels & Rope cancelled less than 48 hours before they were planning to take the stage. Their merch even made it to the merch tent, even if they didn’t.
But you could only complain so much, and last minute additions like the blazing Copper Chief filled in admirably. After a year-plus of everything being cancelled, the festival going off was victory enough. Not only was Mile 0 Fest the first country event back, it was also one of the few festivals that didn’t have to cancel even one year. Some are starring at the potential of three consecutive years of cancellations. But just like they did when they tried the improbable feat of throwing a Texas/Red Dirt festival on a tiny Florida island, Mile 0 Fest figured it out.
When the Oklahoma power trio Whight Lighters took the stage early Tuesday evening, it was the first bit of true live music many had seen in over a year, and they were hungry for it. When Micky & The Motorcars performed, Micky Braun said, “I’ve been happy a lot of times in my life, but this is about the happiest I’ve ever been.” And even though this is a platitude some bands love to say during every show, in this case, you 100% believed him, especially after they turned in one of the more energetic sets you’ll ever see from them, with cool collaborations with Courtney Patton and Dustin Schaefer of Shane Smith & the Saints.
To an artist and to a band all week, most everyone can be honestly assessed as delivering career-defining performances. The pent up energy, the enthusiasm coming from the crowd, and the appreciation for the experience of live music imbued everything with a positive attitude. Even artists or bands you may have been lukewarm on seemed to perform the best sets of their careers, and sold themselves to you. It was one top-notch performance after another.
“People may ask why I’m wearing a jacket,” Hayes Carll said as he took the stage in the sticky late spring Key West heat. “I’ve been sitting around in my underwear for the last sixteen months.” American Aquarium came out like they were shot out of a cannon. So did William Clark Green and his band, delivering one hit after another with no filler. Even the usually-reserved Jason Boland was moving around more than normal, and was joined by longtime and beloved steel guitarist Roger Ray, who left the band in 2014.
Reunions, reunifications, and collaborations were all over the place on the week. A set of music rarely went by without someone else jumping up on stage to sing or play along. Headliners Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers pulled out an impromptu “Hold My Beer” session on Friday night. Saturday night headliner Blackberry Smoke with their newly expanded live lineup sent an invitation to old tour buddy Cody Canada to collaborate on a version of “Deep Ellum Blues.” And of course the “Queen of Mile 0 Fest” Jamie Lin Wilson was everywhere, including hosting one of the week’s most memorable events.
On normal years, after Key West’s sound curfew shuts the main amphitheater down, patrons would flood onto Key West’s famous Duval Street and pack clubs until the wee hours for official performances. But this year, the afterparty commenced at the amphitheater itself. On Tuesday this meant Jamie Lin Wilson and Mike & the Moonpies reprised their country music covers set, topped off by an epic version of Toy Caldwell’s “Can’t You See.”
But it was Friday night’s “duets” afterparty hosted by Jamie Lin that folks will be talking about many years from now. Pairing performers from the fest together for both classic country and classic pop songs, it lent to some of the marquee moments of the whole festival, no matter how iffy the idea may have looked to some on paper. Adam Hood, Kaitlin Butts, Cleto Cordero of Flatland Cavalry, Wade Bowen, BJ Barham of American Aquarium, Chloe-Beth, Holly Beth, Jaime Wyatt, Lucas Jagneaux, and a bunch of others performed duet style, and by the time Courtney Patton came out to perform Queen’s “Under Pressure” with Ed Jurdi of Band of Heathens, everyone was bought in.
This led to the finale of Courtney Patton, Drew Kennedy, and Mike Harmeier of Mike & the Moonpies making a memory will last forever when they recreated the ending scene to Dirty Dancing, with Patton and Drew Kennedy singing “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” and Mike Moonpie coming in at the perfect time to recreate the “lift” scene, with Kennedy filling in for Patrick Swayze. It was definitely one of those “you had to be there” moments. But if you were there, it’s one of those moments that will be burned in your memory forever in the best of ways.
Folks will also be remembering the extended set turned in by Shane Smith & The Saints on Thursday evening, who not only had to fill in for headliner Lucinda Williams, but for Shovels & Rope as well. It was both a a big burden, and an awesome opportunity, which Shane Smith & the Saints made the most of, turning in the performance of their careers with songs that are perfect for large crowds and appreciative fans. Their Mile 0 Fest 2021 performance felt like the moment Shane Smith & Co. arrived at legitimate headliner status.
Smith & the Saints encored with “Pancho & Lefty” for Willie Nelson’s 88th birthday with Cody Canada joining them, and then finished tributing the Turnpike Troubadours with John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Day” with all sorts of folks joining them on the stage.
But just as much as the big shows, it’s the more intimate ones on Mile 0 Fest side stages that help make memories, whether it was at the Southernmost point of the United States where you’re only 90 miles from Cuba, or the legendary Sunset Pier, a new stage on a green patch on the “quiet side” of the Key West island, or poolside at one of Key West’s numerous resorts. This is where you could take in great sets from singer/songwriters, including Brent Cobb, S.G. Goodman, Jason Scott, Jesse Lynn Madera, Jonny Burke, Kaitlin Butts, Max & Heather Stalling, and Walt & Tina Wilkins.
This is also where you got to see some members of the Turnpike Troubadours, who are currently on hiatus. Fiddle player (and now singer/songwriter) Kyle Nix played one of his very first performances as a solo artist performing acoustic renditions of some of the songs from his recent album Lightning on the Mountain with great accompaniment from fiddle player and guitarist Haystack.
Turnpike bass player and heart of the band RC “Rooster” Edwards also showed up with his side project RC and the Ambers with Amber Watson. Amber turned out to be one of the biggest takeaway singers of the week, performing a great version of Gillian Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio.” RC and the Ambers have their own album called Big Country on the way as well.
But some thought perhaps we might see the next best thing to a Turnpike reunion take form during the week, but that never really materialized. RC Edwards and Kyle Nix didn’t even collaborate with each other, and since Reckless Kelly who is currently employing Turnpike’s guitar player Ryan Engleman cancelled, it just wasn’t in the cards. Nonetheless, Turnpike t-shirts were everywhere, and you felt like they were there in spirit, if not in person.
Morgan Wade was also a name folks were raving about over the week. Riding high off her recent release Reckless, you had the sense this would be the first and perhaps last time you saw her as an opener. Mile 0 Fest gave her two big slots though, including one on the main stage, and she made the best of them. The moments were not too big for her, even though her Nashville-based band had their first actual practice on the Tuesday before the fest, and literally played the first time live together ever on the Mile 0 Fest amphitheater stage.
The other thing that stood out over the week was just how much of a family affair everything felt like. At one point during the set of Ray Wylie Hubbard, both Ray Wylie’s son Lucas was on stage with him, while Cody Canada was on the stage with his son Dierks. Then during Cody Canada’s own set on Saturday night, the House of Rock took over, with both of Cody Canada’s two sons (Dierks and Willy), and his two nephews taking the stage to perform a lights out and completely uncensored version of “Killing in the Name Of” by Rage Against the Machine.
There were also new members added to the family, including guitarist Benji Shanks and percussionist Preston Holcomb of Blackberry Smoke, as well as guitarist Tyler Powers who did an incredible job filling in for recently-passed founding member of The Steel Woods, Jason “Rowdy” Cope.
Everyone felt like family at Mile 0 Fest 2021, both within the performers, and the crowd. In now its fourth year, many fans know each other, and many of the performers know the fans, facilitated by the intimate nature of the festival. Add on top of that the distanced caused by the pandemic, and Mile 0 Fest 2021 was truly a musical family reunion.
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Editor’s Note: Sincere apologies to any performing artists not mentioned, featured, or pictured. Unfortunately, the human replication machine is still not available, and I just couldn’t be everywhere, and all at once.
Photos by Kyle Coroneos, unless otherwise noted by Brad Coolidge of the Texas Music Photographers.
Editor’s Note: For more Mile 0 Fest coverage, check out Saving Country Music’s Instagram Feed.