Well, that certainly was a promising start.
Day 1 of the 1st Annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival promised a talented and spirited mix of the roots and branches of American music. And in spite of gloomy skies and the occasional (and thankfully brief) rain shower, this brand new festival — located deep in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley — pretty much delivered.
The festival is the brainchild of an energetic, talented, and amazingly entrepreneurial (for a bunch of roots music players) band The Steel Wheels, fronted by one of the great voices in Americana music, Trent Wagler. Candice and I arrived back in our old Valley stomping grounds (we lived for 15 years in nearby Staunton, Virginia) after the soggy drive down from Washington just in time to walk in on the 4 p.m. set of the hosts under the tent at the Carolina Old Time Family Stage. And given the weather, could The Steel Wheels really begin this festival with any song other than their iconic Rain in the Valley?
This was the song that turned heads at Merlefest 25, and the Red Wing crowd – made up of the band’s many loyal fans and taking up every square inch of the huge tented area — exploded when Wagner took his cymbal stick (or whatever you call that thing he slams on the floor to set the beat) and was joined by Eric Brubaker, Jay Lapp, and Brian Dickel around a single mic for some amazing four-part harmony singing.
The hosts had a spirited hour-long set, with old favorites (Cluck ‘Ole Hen) and songs from the new album No More Rain. If you haven’t heard The Steel Wheels — on either record or live — both are highly recommended. This is a terrific band.
When The Steel Wheels finished rockin’ the final number (and Candice turned to me as said, “That feels like a song you end the festival on!” and not just the first of three shows they’ll have this weekend), we scooted across beautiful Natural Chimneys Park to the main stage to hear one of my favorites – the Claire Lynch Band. Claire is one of the originals in bluegrass music and gifted with one of the most beautiful and expressive voices on the scene today.
Claire is as unpretentious a performer as you’ll see on stage. (At one point after the group was fumbling around a bit to get itself organized, she turned to the audience and said, “Let us know if we’re getting too slick for you.” Claire’s the antidote to the Dailey and Vincents of the bluegrass world — and in my book that’s a good thing.) But her songwriting is superb (check out the beautiful Dear Sisters — the title tune from her new album — which is taken from letters written by Civil War soldiers before the Battle of Stones River in my hometown of Murfreesboro). And her band is killer (Matt Wingate’s take on Sting’s She’s Too Good for Me is a highlight). And that voice can do just about anything…from the lick-and-a-promise gospel of Children of Abraham, to the swing of Who Knows What Tomorrow Will Bring, to the hard-core bluegrass of the Osborne Brothers’ Be Alright Tomorrow. After her too-fast hour-long set, I renewed acquaintances with Claire (my cousin Hershey produced the first Front Porch String Band album and wrote one of her festival favorite songs) and picked up my own signed copy of Dear Sisters. That’s what good festivals are supposed to provide — plenty of space and time for these amazing performers to have a “shake and howdy” with their fans.
In fact, the first person I heard use the shake and howdy turn-of-phrase was the festival’s next performer, multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien. Performing solo at Red Wing, O’Brien can still sound like a full band as he displays his impressive chops on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. But as impressive an instrumentalist and singer as he is, songwriting is where O’Brien really shines in my book. He worked in originals throughout the set, along with great traditional tunes such the gospel number Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning that he recorded with Darrell Scott several years back. But his encore is among my favorite tunes of all time, the beautiful Like I Used to Do.
There was a time when we’d be the last to leave
Watching the sun come up while everyone fell asleep
The music was always loud and I’d smoke and drink too much
Until I’d fall in your arms and into your lovin’ touch
Now as the years roll by, time has reeled me in
I’ve slowed down a notch or two from the way things were then
Those old ways of mine, I’ve left them behind
Those crazy days are through
The only thing I still do like I used to do
Is carry this torch for you…
At the 7 and 8 o’clock hours, we caught a couple of performers that were new to me. Gregory Alan Isakov had a strong show on the main stage, followed by a loud…but not necessarily to my taste…performance by the band Yarn. That gave us some time to eat dinner, catch up with long-time friends from Staunton, and buy my raffle ticket. (Yes, I will win that beautiful Huss & Dalton guitar.) And when 9 p.m. rolled around, we were back in our chairs for the kickoff show of the summer reunion tour of The Duhks.
I first heard this Canadian band – in the original incarnation – several years ago at Merlefest. I’ve heard them off-and-on through the years, and while always strong, this particular line-up has always been a favorite. Singer Jessee Havey has a voice that fits this energetic and innovative group, and last evening they had the crowd clamoring for more from the traditional jigs all the way through to Death Came a Knockin’. Percussionist Scott Senior adds an especially non-traditional beat to this neo-trad band. Great show!
By 10:30 p.m., the moisture in the air was heavy, but that didn’t faze the wonderful hair — or terrific spirit — of bluegrass master Del McCoury.
Playing with sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), Del’s voice sounded a little tired but classic nonetheless. (A tired Del McCoury beats about 99% of the lead singers in traditional bluegrass on their best days.) Candice had never seen Del’s act, and when he opened his mouth to speak, she turned to me and said, “He sounds like your dad!” which I took as a favorable comparison, since she loves Tom Brown.
The best place to watch a Del McCoury Band show is up-close and right in front. There you get the interplay of the musicians — like a finely tuned machine — working that single mic. Del mugs for the crowd, a fact which is lost in the back rows, and the sound washes over you like a rippling mountain stream. When Del answered a request and played Richard Thompson’s classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, I knew that Day 1 of the first Red Wing Roots Music Festival had been appropriately christened by the master.
I said that Like I Used to Do was a favorite of mine, so I’ll take us out of Day 1 with an old video of the tune featuring a much younger Tim O’Brien (along with much younger versions of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Douglas, and Mark O’Connor). Enjoy!
More to come…