On the weekend of Sept. 4 through 6, the weekend before Labor Day and therefore, by the reckoning of some, the last weekend of the Summer of 2015, Muddy Roots Records put on its fifth annual music festival in Cookeville, Tenn.
Although to say the festival happened “in” Cookeville would be a bit of a stretch; the expansive June Bug Boogie Ranch is buffered from mass civilization by about 11 miles of rolling farmland north of the city. The Ranch, a grassy little valley bordered by forest is the site of several motorcycle rallies throughout the year, and, with its lack of cell service and barebones infrastructure, is the ideal place to host a celebration of American roots and “old-time” music.
“This is a beautiful ground,” said Bradford Lee Folk during his Friday evening set, “It’s all uphill. It’s like Ralph Stanley’s festival.”
Folk was referring to the bluegrass icon’s “Hills of Home” festival in Virginia,” but while Stanley’s festival is bluegrass-focused, Muddy Roots celebrates a much wider swath of American musical tradition, bringing together old-school revivalists and new artists who have adapted ancient song forms into the music of the modern age.
In addition to the 88-year-old Stanley, other notable acts who performed included Stanley’s former bandmate Ricky Skaggs, Country Music Hall-of-Famer Bobby Bare, Peter Rowan and “Ramblin’” Jack Elliot, a student of Woody Guthrie and mentor to Bob Dylan.
Lou Shields was one of several “one-man bands” that played the earliest sets on Saturday, along with A.J. Gathier and Lonewolf OMB. A big part of the joy in seeing guys like this is the homespun, ramshackle resources they’ve devised in order to play multiple instruments with a single human body.
Sitting on a wooden bench with a pickup-wired slab of wood and a broken skateboard with bottlecaps nailed into it at his feet, Shields alternated between plucking a banjo and a metal-bodied Dobro while tapping out loping rhythms with his legs.
The wooden box would send an unceremonious thud through the subwoofers—the sound of stomping on a front porch—while the bottlecaps would rattle against the skateboard, creating a tambourine-like jangle. Bobbing his head and arching his brow in time with the beat made for a somewhat comical visual, as if Shields was aware of the inherent hokiness in the “old-time” music he was playing; rather than apologizing for it or couching it in irony, though, he dove right in.
J.D. Wilkes is better known as the founder and leader of Muddy Roots mainstays Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, but he also performed this year with only a banjo as accompaniment—an experience he called “way more nerve-wracking” than playing with his band.
Wilkes told stories both new and old of his native Kentucky in a bluegrass style, including the stranger-than-fiction tale for which his hometown of Murray is widely known: the 1996 murder of a Eustis, Fla., couple by Rod Ferrell, a Murray resident who claimed to be a vampire. But you’d be forgiven for thinking this stripped-down adaptation of the Shack Shakers song was a ballad from long ago.
Also one-manning it was Mikey Classic, whose Michigan “gutterbilly” band The Goddamn Gallows was noticeably absent from this year’s festival. The Gallows have a loyal following, and last year you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone wearing a Gallows shirt or a vest with a Gallows patch sewn on. Classic, singing with a kind of laryngeal masochism that calls to mind Tom Waits, drew a huge crowd, but this year maybe only two out of three swung cats would hit a Gallows fan.
None of this is to suggest that a good number of Muddy Roots acts didn’t overdrive their amps, especially at the weekend’s outset. The Friday night headliners were Southern Culture on the Skids, one of neo-rockabilly’s more successful purveyors, followed by Nashville’s Hillbilly Casino, and then J.D. Wilkes joined back up with Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers to close out that night.
Earlier that day, Texas seven-piece East Cameron Folkcore played the Wood Stage, a six-foot raised wooden platform covered by a tin roof that constitutes the Ranch’s only real permanent piece of music-venue architecture.
A “folk/punk/orchestral” band, according to their Facebook page, East Cameron Folkcore combine guitars with saxophone, trombone, cello and multiple vocalists to create an earnest wall of sound reminiscent of Springsteen or Arcade Fire. When co-lead vocalist/guitarist/trombonist Blake Bernstein takes the mic, they sound more like the more recent indie-rock success Titus Andronicus in the way Bernstein’s nasal, wounded yelp cuts through the band’s expansive, yearning crescendos.
You’d expect a band that puts its own made-up hybrid genre right there in the band name would also smack you over the head with how “folksy” they are in their music. But these guys aren’t Jack White; they actually have some subtlety and taste, most evident in the pleading calls to action and change in songs like “Our City,” which laments the commercialization of the alternative heart of band’s hometown of Austin, with shouted-in-unison lyrics like “They’re keeping it weird in all the wrong ways.”
The Cracker Swamp tent, taking its name from a Muddy Roots-like label in Florida, is a yellow-and-white-striped plastic canvas that traps in heat, fleeting and precious as it is in the late summer, and casts everyone under it in a warm, orange glow. This is where My God, The Heat played Friday night.
Hailing from Rockford, Ill., which singer-guitarist Stu Johnson described as “Like Detroit, but without all the jobs,” MGTH played a breakneck set of bouncy, riffy rock that was a little bit Chuck Berry, a little bit Sublime, and a little bit of Tom Waits. Their lyrics take a jaundiced eye to the social banality and workaday micro-miseries of living small-town, working-class, rust-belt America.
Drummer Jake Dickson’s banter was similarly playful, delivered in a hyperactive patter, as if he was working around a band mandate that each new song had to begin before the last notes of the previous one had finished ringing out.
By far the most popular band format at Muddy Roots is the “string band”: banjo, fiddle, guitar and upright bass, often with some additional homemade percussion, like a washboard, or, in the case of Murfreesboro’s own Glade City Rounders, the jug, played by Josh Smith.
“I think the only thing Josh does better than play the jug is tune the jug,” joked the Rounders’ banjoist, kazooist and vocalist Richard “Squirrel” McClain. “If you know what I mean.”
In an impressive display of stamina and control of his lungs, Smith blew sharply across the mouth of his ceramic jug, making a hollow, resonant hoot in time with the sawing rhythm of the Rounders’ energetic brand of country blues.
The Rounders played Sunday morning, taking the Big Tent stage immediately following a church service and open bluegrass jam, and playfully acknowledged that it might not have been the most pious time to play “hokum” music, an early-20th-century tradition of sexually suggestive blues lyricism, or “jailhouse tunes.” The songs may have been shocking tales of iniquity and delinquency a century ago, but today they wouldn’t cause anyone to blink an eye, and there was a sense of knowing irony and theatricality in the forbidding, scandalized way McClain spoke about them.
“Well, we played some church songs and saved your soul,” said McClain. “But you may have to get dunked again after this next one.”
On Sept. 19 and 20, The Rounders will play in Waardaame, Belgium, as part of Muddy Roots Records’ Cowboy Up Rodeo, one of two yearly extensions of the festival into Europe.
Also scheduled to play in Waardaame is Knoxville’s Matt Woods, who played solo country songs in the “outlaw” style of Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt on Friday afternoon. Woods sang songs lamenting the conversion of a strip-mall bowling alley he frequented while growing up in Oliver Springs, Tenn., into a Baptist church, and a story of how a friend’s attempt to pick up girls in an Orlando bar after seeing the Memphis rock band Lucero was foiled by the appearance of that group’s frontman, Ben Nichols.
“Any of you who have seen Lucero know that wherever Ben Nichols goes, there’s a line of like, 18 girls waiting to talk to him.” said Woods. Woods was genial and open-hearted, speaking improvisationally and relating to the audience as an assembly of friends.
That’s how it was with nearly everybody at the festival. Set lists were the exception. “What do y’all want to hear next?” was the rule.
As the sun set on Muddy Roots 2015 Saturday night, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot observed the last rays of pinkish sunlight reflecting off the clouds in the eastern sky. Elliot, a survivor of the 1960s folk music revival, is aptly named, not only for his tendency to introduce his songs with long-winded stories that trail off rather than end, but also for the sense that he had acquired his repertoire of songs from many years of traveling the world.
“It occurs to me that this is the kind of night Thoreau might have seen on Walden Pond,” said Elliot, a fiery speaker in a moment of zen. “He had a Labrador non-Retriever, you know the kind of dog? He would throw a stick out into the pond, and the water would ripple out.”
He then lost his train of thought and continued to play songs, many of which he learned from his teacher and friend Woody Guthrie.
Dr. Ralph Stanley closed out the festival, and judging by the throng of people waiting eagerly for the bluegrass legend to take the stage, perhaps Bradford Lee Folk was right in calling this “Ralph Stanley’s festival.”
Security suddenly grew tight as Stanley, a diminutive man with deep wrinkles and sharp features, was led onto the stage wearing black pants and a white jacket, almost luminescent under the stage lights. Standing stock-still during the performance and sitting at the back of the stage whenever he wasn’t needed, such as during several instrumental numbers by the Clinch Mountain Boys, the show was mostly led by Stanley’s 23-year-old grandson Nathan Stanley, with Ralph as an aging figurehead.
Nevertheless, Stanley was greeted as a rock star. When the Clinch Mountain Boys, dressed in their pastel-hued Sunday best, receded into the background to let the monochromatic Stanley sing the traditional folk song “O Death” unaccompanied, Stanley came alive.
“Won’t you spare me over for another year,” sang Stanley, ending the song by singing “thank you” in the same cadence and tune, leaving some ambiguity as to whom he was thanking.
A smile forming at the corners of his mouth at the uproar of applause, Stanley repeated the last few lines of the song.
“Won’t you spare me over for another year? Thank you . . . again.”