Deep down in a gulley halfway to Knoxville on the weekend of Sept. 3 and 4 happened one of the only civil meetings between God and the Devil so far this year. During the daytime, Cookeville’s second annual Muddy Roots festival was filled with bright-eyed ‘billies of all ages and from all over the country; fueled by rain and shine, some of the most intimate live country and rockabilly played as the festival’s intent of “Saving Country Music” shone. But when the daytime settled behind an overlooking western hill, the Devil could be felt creeping into the air to set up for his gig while God put the sun to bed. Muddy Roots’ intentions remained intact and successful throughout, though.
It took a little while Saturday for everyone camping on the hills surrounding vendor alley—a merchandise tent-sprinkled half-mile stretch bookended by the two main stages—to wake, have breakfast from a bus and mingle with the folks filing in the gate, ultimately gathering in a mass around the permanent wood-crafted Stage 1 while Cashman, followed by Mark Porkchop Holder, began Muddy Roots with their sets of Memphis blues for the morning. Afterwards, Jake Orvis and the Broken Band took over by lunchtime as everyone grew collected and attentive. Orvis and his boys, a hodge-podge of other performing bands, could’ve posed as mascots for the guys at Muddy Roots. Looking and acting like pirates of bluegrass with slicked-back hair while handling every instrument from a beat-up upright to Orvis’s mandolin to a mean claw-hammered banjo and a charismatic little fiddler gal they just acquired from God knows where. Their clothes were ripped and tattoos were on anything visible; truly pirates of bluegrass but immediately retorted by Maddox Brother’s Don Maddox’s wholesome yet forgetful lyricism and a fiddle played the way it was meant to be played on a sunny Saturday afternoon while the children played in the stripper cages.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the valley, Stage 2 was set up, a blue and white-striped circus tent opposite 1, with a flatbed trailer holding up Ten Foot Polecats, who began their ruckus an hour and a half after Cashman, with cigar-box guitar blues around noon thirty. Then, about 3 p.m. when Mr. Maddox started on stage 1, a trio of orange headed brothers, Cletus Got Shot, stepped on the Stage 2 flatbed dressed in jeans and dusty button downs with Guthrie-esque folk numbers calling to cheer an impoverished crowd via guitar, mandolin and an upright bass made from the extracted gas tank of a Saab. Its craftsmanship would’ve stolen the show in the eyes of a do-it-yourselfer, but it sounded so clean.
Strolling back down to Stage 1 with the last of a six pack, The Spinderellas took the crowd’s attention away from Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys on Stage 2 until the three ladies’ hula-hoops ceased mesmerizing around the time the sun was setting and a windy storm front set the ominous mood for the evening. And just in time for Possessed by Paul James to gather his fiddle, banjo and guitar on Stage 2 for a head-shaking (his head) solo performance while winds shook the canopy over us, creating a production value not even Paul James’s charisma could’ve prayed for. Some people thought he was rattling the tent himself. This, plus the conflicting yet chilling performance by New York-based alt-country sextet O’Death on Stage 1, with their wall of percussion, gypsy fiddle and horn section out of an Elephant 6 record with nothing but clunky in between, signified the moment God took the sun to bed.
Soda and Hellfire Revival played through a whirlwind of people twixt the stages for a couple of hours until, and to, deviance’s heart’s delight Burlesque Le Moustache began their tasty pasty-laden peep show on Stage 2, a little before Murfreesboro’s own, The Hellbillies, put in their last two cents with their final show. The drummer is moving from town and Renner got engaged on stage that evening to the crowds’ applause but the Hellbillies’ dead, black, frozen heart will forever live on right next door to us all.
They were the last shebang Saturday evening, and no one was complaining until the trek back up that giant western hill to camp, folks from Scooter’s God-send bar managed to set up a giant canvas screen to project movies onto for anyone wanting to relax.
But not for long because the ruckus of Sunday began bright and early with a church ceremony on Stage 2 at 10 a.m. while Liquorbox and Davy Jay Sparrow roused everyone on Stage 1 and bluesy hums from a newly formed Stage 3 tent, erected a little further towards the camp grounds. The morning ruckus settled, though, and was followed by Muddy Roots’ Pinup Pageant, giving any willing ladies a chance to strut it for anyone digging high-heels. If Orvis and the Broken Band were mascots of the fellows there, then these beauties, inspired by Betty Page and her vintage retro ’50s-era style, were definitely a good sample of women attending that weekend. Erin Bell, a tall slip of a thing with legs up to here took the trophy this year after a couple of hours of catwalking and answering pageant questions, leaving everyone looking forward to next year’s as well as a little soaked as the drizzle began and slowly turned into a healthy rain, washing into the parched and dusty valley.
After the vendors were ransacked again and raped for their shelter and food by the wet, famished audiences, it was time for the Devil to come back in with full force as the open-aired Stage 1 shut down along with the leaky Stage 3 tent, leaving everyone crammed steamy all up in the Stage 2 tent just in time for headliners The Legendary Shack Shakers and Wanda Jackson to give it to us that night.
If you’ve never seen the Shack Shakers live, what’s wrong with you? You may know them from the “CB Song” Geico used for one of its commercials so many years ago, but you’d never guess their stage show would be so contorted flesh-wise and spit flying everywhere while playing music serial killers listen to before going out at night from the most amplified and demonic blues harp/mic you’ll hear or see if you’ll pull it together.
And just as Maddox neutralized Orvis, the beautiful Wanda Jackson climbed up on to the Stage 2 trailer with her band of vigilante musicians dressed to kill and all six of them nailed it down. It was obvious Jack White had a lot to do with forming her backing band, seeing their solidity all the while Jackson explains, “I figured I’d stop singing this one after one of us died, but I haven’t stopped yet,” and went into her rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “I Cheated Myself” after making herself giggle. God might have been away for the Devil to play during the Shack Shakers, but he’d damn all if he didn’t show back up for Wanda Jackson’s wholesome radiance. Her and the band left the crowd in an inebriated awe as she finished their set with “Shakin All Over,” slapped her adorable old man of a husband on his tush and hopped in a van headed back to Nashville with God staying with her on the slick roads.
The tent was packed with wet people for the remaining rainy and mud-soppy chaotic night as most of the acts scheduled to play had to work around the Shakers and Mrs. Jackson for a dry stage, but most managed to get at least a couple of songs in. Whiskey Folk Ramblers and the sweetly misplaced Rachel Brooke played on until the Goddamn Gallows finished up the, by then, very Muddy Roots Festival with blood, sweat, beer and spit flying everywhere. They even had some gypsy sprite dressed up as a washboard and playing his own chest with who knows whose spoons while they made the puddles in the tent warm somehow. It was a sight. Some attendees felt sinful for witnessing this act but say they’d trade it for nothing short of life-long happiness.
At an end after the Gallows horrendously beautiful exhibition, rain put most at a standstill. Some brave souls with four-wheel drive managed out of the valley while the others were left to face the wrath of an all-night storm that was punishing, but still supplied a peaceful cleanliness by the time everyone made it back to their tents from the mud all right and awoke on a Monday morning in puddles.
A third annual Muddy Roots is in the planning stages for next year, so the line-up is to be determined. Updated information about the festival and other events the fine people at Scooter’s Bar host, as well as a full list of all 40 bands that were scheduled to play, sponsors of the festival, and vendor’s information for this year is available at muddyrootsmusic.com. And if you’re so inclined, the Shack Shakers are touring up North for now, but will be down in Newport, Ken., on Nov. 20, or wait until they’re at Mercy Lounge on Dec. 3.