Present & Future of Red Dirt Roots Represented at Mile 0 Fest 2023

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When the inaugural Mile 0 Fest in Key West, Florida was first announced in 2017, we had no idea what to expect. The lineup was mouth-watering with the Turnpike Troubadours, Cody Jinks, Wade Bowen, and Pat Green set to headline, with an equally stellar undercard. But it was in the aftermath of the notorious Fyre Fest when a music festival in paradise seemed like a dubious prospect.

Here now six years later, Mile 0 Fest has established itself as one of the premier destination events in all of country and roots music, especially if you’re into the Texas/Red Dirt side of things. Not even the pandemic could knock the production off its axis, though one year it was delayed from its regular slot of late January to May. Now after six years, Mile 0 Fest has its own traditions, it’s own nucleus of loyal patrons and regular performers, and a heap of fond memories it helped make happen.

Some things have changed from the beginning though, and probably for the better. During the pandemic, the afterparties moved from packed clubs on Key West’s famous Duval Street to the main stage of the Truman Waterfront Park amphitheater. The afterparties also graduated from completely impromptu cover song singalongs to themed tribute nights featuring the talent of the festival. They have now become just about as anticipated and enjoyable as the original performances themselves.

When Mile 0 Fest started, festivals like this were few and far between, and many of the acts in Texas, Red Dirt, and independent country were still in the burgeoning stages of their career. Now, the Turnpike Troubadours have graduated to an arena act, Cody Jinks is headlining 15,000 to 20,000-capacity megafestivals, and many acts at the top of the scene have skyrocketed to a status we could never have dreamed of in 2017.

This has made some of those acts unattainable for Mile 0 Fest with its 4,000-capacity limit. But that’s the reason the festival isn’t just concerned with securing the big flashy names, but growing it’s own talent. The festival and its patrons are just as obsessed with discovering the next great live act or a heartfelt songwriter on one of the side stages as whoever might be playing the headlining slot at the end of the night. And when those side stages are located on the beach at the southernmost point of the United States, or on the famous Sunset Pier surrounded by the ocean, it makes those discoveries all the more meaningful and memorable.

American Aquarium and Shane Smith & The Saints both started out as warmup acts at Mile 0 Fest. After their headliner sets Thursday and Saturday night respectively and the energy they brought, it’s hard to ever fathom these bands ever doing anything but headlining festivals ever again. Who would want to follow them? The combination of Wade Bowen setting up The Randy Rogers Band on Friday night has been a winning one and an anchor of the Mile 0 Fest lineup for a few years now.

BJ Barham of American Aquarium

But if we’re being fair, a couple of the headliners didn’t fare as well as hoped. Pat Green returned once again to lead Wednesday night, but as Pat Green will do, he was probably too inebriated to put on the performance Mile 0 Fest and the patrons paid him for. It’s a roll of the dice with Pat these days, but even for Pat, it was pretty off. You honestly can’t help but wonder if his band feels alienated when he appears on stage like that, especially when they’re such consummate professionals through it.

Pat Green

But some enjoyed the Pat Green set, and probably were just as inebriated as Pat was. After all, it’s Key West. Ian Munsick, who capped of Tuesday night received mixed reviews too. No doubt it was an entertaining set, and Munsick is a massive name who is drawing large crowds all across the country. But it took a matter of minutes to recognize Munsick had no bass player, or backing vocalists, or other instruments that you heard but didn’t see on stage.

The guitar and fiddle player who were there in the flesh happened to be great, but playing to backing tracks does not go over well in Texas/Red Dirt music, and Munsick should have known that. Perhaps in the mainstream the practice fine, or even par for the course. But this ain’t the mainstream, and with the way Munsick plays up his Wyoming cowboy roots, it all ultimately came across as disingenuous and out of place, even if some of the lyricism touched on country themes.

Ian Munsick

But with so much great music, and so many other stellar performances up and down the Mile 0 Fest lineup, these performances quickly became an afterthought. One of the things that makes Mile 0 Fest so unique and special is the nucleus of performers who play every year, and multiple times. Jamie Lin Wilson has earned the distinction as the “Queen of Mile 0 Fest” for guesting during other performers’ sets, hosting and performing in the afterparties—including her own “Chain of Fools” soul revival on Wednesday night that set the amphitheater on fire—not to mention her own set on the main stage.

Queen of Mile 0 Fest, Jamie Lin Wilson

Mike and the Moonpies are also Mile 0 Fest mainstays, and as the greatest live country band on the planet at the moment in many people’s estimates, they anchor the Mile 0 Fest lineup, and could easily headline an evening themselves. Jason Eady and Courtney Patton are on the island all week, and are generally everywhere. Wade Bowen probably doesn’t need a hotel room with all the time he spends on the stage, or hanging out supporting his fellow performers, or hanging out on Duval Street.

Wade Bowen

This year also featured Dalton Domino in a leadership role, not only working as an emcee throughout the week, but wrangling a host of up-and-coming songwriters that Mile 0 Fest has become a haven and proving ground for. Chris Canterbury, Jacob Stelly, Jordan Nix, Parker Ryan, and Shelby Stone were just some of the songwriters highlighted both in their own performances, and with Dalton Domino throughout the week. John Goolsby and Slade Coulter were a couple of the other songwriters who are starting to make waves and could be performing on the main stage in the coming years.

Dalton Domino leading a songwriting round at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon

Morgan Wade played her first ever performance with a band at Mile 0 Fest a few years ago. In 2023, she played Saturday night right before headliners Shane Smith & the Saints. Similar to Muscadine Bloodline who played before Ian Munsick on Tuesday night, these are acts who’ve found mainstream success despite a more grassroots approach and appeal. It’s even fair to wonder if Morgan Wade has outgrown her roots with the way she seems to be more enamored with a dark version of pop these days. But like so many of the performers, Mile 0 Fest means something to her, because that’s where she got her start, and they supported her before anyone else in the festival circuit.

Morgan Wade

Mile 0 Fest makes sure that women are supported as well, with Courtney Patton getting her first set on the main amphitheater stage this year, and to a positive reception. Bri Bagwell and Sunny Sweeney nailed it as they always do. And Kaitlin Butts and her “Astro Not’s” came out on the main stage in space suits, and turned in a stellar set (read dedicated review).

Courtney Patton

But the name that was perhaps most buzzed about all weekend beyond the headliners was the same one that was the talk of last year’s Mile 0 Fest: The Red Clay Strays. One of the fastest-rising bands in roots music at the moment, the band announced they had singed with big booking agent WME just before Mile 0 Fest. Every performer plays at least two shows at the festival. The Red Clay Strays played three, and they were all packed. They are the proverbial band you better see live while you still can.

Brandon Coleman of The Red Clay Strays
The Red Clay Strays pack out the Smokin’ Tuna

Speaking of hot up-and-comers, Them Dirty Roses leave a large impression, and are on the path to become Southern rock saviors. And if there was someone you wanted to pinpoint as saving country music in the present tense, it would definitely be Jesse Daniel, and his band who put on two excellent performances. His steel guitar player Caleb Melo also made a big impression.

Jesse Daniel

There were so many landmark performances, it’s hard to name them all, but additional props are deserved for Adam Hood and Jason Eady for their “Southern Brothers” afterparty Tuesday night, and Drew Kennedy’s and Josh Grider’s Topo Chico Cowboys 80’s country night was another hoot.

Saving Country Music 2021 Song of the Year co-writer Drew Kennedy
Josh Grider

You also have to give credit to a crop of musicians who worked like the Mile 0 Fest house band, playing behind a host of different artists, as well as during the tribute shows. Their ability to learn complex parts ahead of time, switch genres on the fly, and generally do whatever was expected of them without missing a beat was beyond admirable. This included but was not limited to guitarist Shane Boeker and bassist Alden Hedges who are both native to American Aquarium, but played in half a dozen outfits on the weekend, as well as Drew Harakal who is best known for playing with Cody Jinks.

Alden Hedges and Shane Boeker

Weather can be a factor in (mostly) sunny Key West. Luckily rain didn’t spoil any plans, and a cool snap mid week did make folks happy they brought a hoodie (or that they bought one rather quickly). But it was bisected by otherwise beautiful weather.

Some may look from afar and wonder if the Mile 0 Fest lineups can compete with so many of the new megafestivals that have cropped up in independent country music since it started, including Born & Raised Fest in Pryor, Oklahoma that the owners of Mile 0 Fest are now a significant part of.

But what Mile 0 Fest has that they don’t is an intimate family vibe, a host of traditions that the family vibe facilitates, a farm system for talent that starts on the side stages and graduates to the main one, and one of the most amazing settings in Key West that is worth the trip down past the tip of Florida to experience all unto itself.

You could see in the future that similar to Newport Folk Fest, Telluride Bluegrass, and Red Rocks, artists seek out playing Mile 0 Fest as one of those unique experiences to mark off the bucket list. It already is for so many, and the same goes for fans. And every year the traditions and the mystique of Mile 0 Fest only grows. It certainly did in 2023.

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All photos by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos.

Sincere apologies to any artist not mentioned or pictured. There was too much music in too short of a time period.

John Fullbright showed what kind of selfless musician he is by giving up time at his Smokin’ Tuna set so that The Red Clay Strays could play an encore. He also played in the house band for the Top Chico Cowboy’s 80s experience.
American Aquarium proved they’re worthy of headliner status.
Kaitlin Butts blasts off on the main stage.
Bobby Texas playing with Kaitlin Butts
Percussionist Keio Stroud played with both Stoney LaRue and The Randy Rogers Band.
Jordan Nix was one of the most raved about songwriters all weekend.
Jesse Daniel plays the Sunset Pier
Jessi Daniel co-writer, singer, and manager Jodi Lyford
Jesse Daniel steel guitar player Caleb Melo
Cody Canada of The Departed with some self-deprecating humor. Hat says, ‘Remember me from Cross Canadian Ragweed?
Jeremy Plato of The Departed
Saving Country Music 2021 Song of the Year winner Jason Eady
Southern brother Adam Hood, and sporting a guitar strap with his new album (and life affirmation) on it.
Jamie Lin Wilson and Wade Bowen singing with the Topo Chico Cowboys
Jamie Lin Wilson during her headliner set
Songwriter Jacob Stelly in a Smokin’ Tuna songwriter showcase
Jack Ingram is one of those songwriters who’s even better when the band stays home. Playing on the Sunset Pier with sailboats sailing by.
Heather Stalling playing with Courtney Patton. Also played with husband Max Stalling during the week.
Dierks Canada (Cody’s son) and girlfriend/performer Elysha singing “Why Not Me” by The Judds during the 80s tribute.
Dalton Domino acting as emcee, and as a crazy person (below).
Canadian cowboy poet Corb Lund made the 3,000-mile trek down from Alberta.
Cool belt buckle, Corb.
Chris Canterbury contributing to the soul revival tribute.
Bri Bagwell never disappoints, and is a bonafide Texas music superstar.
Songwriter Ben Danaher
Ed Jurdi of the Band of Heathens. Unfortunately, Gordy Quist was not with the band.
Them Dirty Roses bring the energy
Bryon White of The Damn Quails, who put on one of the most energetic sets of the fest.
Sunny Sweeney playing songs from her new album “Married Alone”
Red Dirt legend Stoney LaRue brings the jam band element to country.
Slade Coulter is one of the most buzzed about songwriters out of Lubbock.
Shane Smith and the Saints put on a set for the ages.
Shane Smith and the Saints bass player Chase Satterwhite
Songwriter Jade Marie Patek duets with Shane Smith
The Saints bringing the double fiddle attack
The Randy Rogers Band headlines Friday night
Roger Creager performing as part of Dos Borrachos with Kevin Fowler
Kevin Fowler
Muscadine Bloodline
Charlie Muncaster of Muscadine Bloodline
Lucas Jagneaux and The Roadshow were one of the most impressive acts of Mile 0 Fest 2023. Real country music.
Kylie Frey
Lauren Morrow
Kristi Grider
Mike Harmeier of Mike and the Moonpies
Omar of Mike and the Moonpies
More Omar
…and more Omar, because he’s repping Courtney Patton.
Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers
Songwriter Parker Ryan with Dalton Domino
Mile 0 Fest owner Kyle Carter joins the Topo Chico Cowboys for a rendition of “Family Tradition.”

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