ROAD JOURNAL: My Day at the Americana Folk Festival

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

We bump along the asphalt, the road’s medium curves bending up a hill through a changing forest framed on both sides by tall, slim trees in various stages of undress-their limbs and the ground laced and scattered with warm-colored leaves. Orange, red, yellow and amber wrap the landscape in a silent fire, allowing a lovely sight and adding a whisper to what can only be described as that distinct, subtle smell of autumn.  It is early in the season, and the sun is high above us; it is the kind of day that people take pictures of for Tennessee postcards.We bump along the asphalt, the road’s medium curves bending up a hill through a changing forest framed on both sides by tall, slim trees in various stages of undress-their limbs and the ground laced and scattered with warm-colored leaves. Orange, red, yellow and amber wrap the landscape in a silent fire, allowing a lovely sight and adding a whisper to what can only be described as that distinct, subtle smell of autumn.  It is early in the season, and the sun is high above us; it is the kind of day that people take pictures of for Tennessee postcards.

We crawl up to the entrance of the festival in our rented RV, identify ourselves to the smiling young attendants at the greeting table, then stroll onto the grounds.  We drive five miles per hour down the side road that takes us around the field and behind the two stages where we put the creaking box in park.

For the traveling musician/songwriter (though one occupation does not always automatically assume the capability of the other, as we all know), daytime hours can-if not treated carefully-reach Twilight Zone-like heights of anxiety, boredom, crumminess, irrationality and just downright weirdness.  For those touring regularly who are involved in daily drug/alcohol marathons, there is little chance for escape from such a groundless existence. However, for the rest of us, the feeling comes from the varying quotient of discomfort brought on by the details of an ever-changing landscape.  This can be confusing since it is also, technically, exactly what we desire.  Its reward is offset by some of the more “colorful” aspects of the road-the dirty backstages without bathrooms that smell like dirty bathrooms, their walls drenched with bad sex drawings, cuss words and primal phrasing which is sometimes funny but normally just stupid and sometimes even racist…the bar food and the bar crowd, more concerned with the television in the corner than the person on the stage…the rest stops we don’t rest at, the hotels we don’t sleep in…and the many miles between everything. It is the very late nights and the very early mornings, and so much more during these days, that make the moving and the living hard.  And then, there are days like this…

The “backstage” here encompasses many things.  It is a huge green field, perfect for kicking the soccer ball around, big enough to throw the Frisbee in and soft enough to lie down in.  It is also a forest with cabins and trails, where you can walk as far back as you care to.  This backstage is a longhouse-style stone building, one that sends your mind reeling back to summer camp.  There are concrete floors and interior screen doors that lead to the kitchen and wherever else, an open space where picnic tables are scattered and a long table with all that glorious food-gourmet pizza with toppings that are actually good for you, coffee, tea, fresh fruit, two kinds of salads and (perhaps this is where we leave the summer camp flashback) a few cold silver kegs of Yazoo Ale.  Oh, and yes, thankfully there are a few clean bathroom options.

If the festival atmosphere is a breath of fresh air for the traveling band, then this small festival atmosphere is a shot of pure oxygen.  The family feel and daylight coziness is in such sharp contrast to the hard-nosed Jaegermeister blur of the bar scene that one has to wonder at times why they continue to perform among the latter.  In fact, some do choose to exclusively play the small festival circuit. Walking around Montgomery Bell State Park today, I can understand why.

I am walking through a large open field, surrounded by a narrow gravel road that is polka-dotted with a variety of structures. There is a merchandise tent and a tent with information about the park and the state of Tennessee, where they are also giving out free cookbooks. There are food tents selling kettle corn in plastic bags and quality beer in red plastic cups.
I see people.  There are perhaps two or three thousand, a crowd big enough to be a sight, but still few enough to have individual faces.  I see families.  I see young parents pushing strollers over the gently uneven plane of grass.  I see a couple of little kids in overalls running by as fast as their little legs will carry them.  There is a small sea of folks sitting in fold-up chairs with built-in cup holders facing the stages. People are standing, walking, laughing, smiling, talking…some are watching…some are dancing.
There are two stages set next to each other on one side of the clearing, and off to the left of them-just where the woods start-is another small colony of tents and tables with people selling handmade crafts: paintings, tie-dye t-shirts, magic candles, beaded necklaces, purses, drawings of hands holding guitars, sterling silver earrings and bracelets, aprons with ruffles and floral prints.  Inside the forest and among the one-day merchants is yet another stage.  It is late in the afternoon.  As I walk over the gnarled roots of red and willow oak trees and the newly laid bed of their leaves, I hear a band playing.  Most of the people under this high canopy of limbs are standing, tapping their feet and smiling, watching as the young men on stage tear through a song that has something to do with members of The Grateful Dead.  I hesitate to describe the music, as genre titles seem only to dilute and confuse the true nature of most current projects among the acoustic landscape. I suppose it is perhaps something like bluegrass, and the music is exciting and good.  I don’t catch the name of the group, but judging by the quality, I doubt very much that this will be my last chance to learn it.

The day moves along at an easy pace, and for those of us performing here today, the time is spent in the expected ways; we walk around, sit around, prepare for our set, eat and drink and talk with people, with friends, with peers…with two friendly women from the press.  I am able to watch a few acts from the fine schedule (theeverybodyfields, Julie Lee, Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub).  I spend most of the day just enjoying the place.  I take a nap.  I see and listen to music.  We practice.  And as our time to play comes and goes, I am glad for our invitation to the event.
The actual set for us tonight is a relatively short one, maybe 35 minutes on the stage. For the brief six or seven songs we play, we are fortunate to have a good sized group of people standing, watching and listening-their faces upturned and lit in the night by the multi-colored bulbs above the stage.  The incredible exchange of excitement from crowd to performer, and back again, takes the moment to a jubilant high…with people smiling and screaming their approval.

The set is over now and the show goes on, with a few more acts left to close out the day.  It is colder now than the day led us to expect.  Folks in winter coats walk around in slow motion, their final beers in hand.  Soon everyone here will be retiring to wherever they plan to sleep.  Some will go home, some will bed down in cabins, in tents or in vehicles.  The festival winds down to that slow pace, and the volume of people’s voices as they talk with one another has dropped with the temperature.  Little clouds of steam leave the mouths of the crowd, still congregated before the stage.  Others surround the outdoor tower heaters holding throwaway cups filled with tea, coffee or hot chocolate. The fading feeling here is a good one.  It is that same level of calm that settles in at the end of a downtown parade, or as you leave the fair.  It feels safe. It feels satisfying. Sparse drops of rain tap the shoulders of the quiet crowd, and Mindy Smith’s pretty voice fills the air all around my footsteps.

And as I take a last stroll around the far side of the field, I say goodnight to the festivities and make my way back to my partners and the already-cranked RV, glad to do so…because even on such good days…I am happy to see them end.


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