Muddy Roots Festival - Cookeville, TN - Sep 3-4, 2011

Folk music is, by both implication and definition, the music of a particular group of people. It's the stuff they make on their own - a cultural statement which both defines them and expresses their collective interests. It's an outlet. And, if you follow it into the culture from whence it came, the further you go, the more you understand about those people. 


And so it was that I tooled on out to Cookeville, Tenn., for the second annual Muddy Roots Festival this Labor Day weekend. 


For my friends up north and out west, Cookeville is a small town in central Tennessee, east of Nashville by about an hour, hour and a half. I've come to know it as the Starbucks stop between Knoxville and Nashville, but this weekend I got to see a different side of the town. 


Off the 40 by about six miles, the roads narrow and the hills start to rolling. There's a creek back there that the State of Tennessee has designated as "Scenic." If you drive over it and around the bend, take the fork, you can follow the income bracket from mansion to food stamps. Just past that, you'll see a sign for Scooter's Biker Bar. Take a left, and you're pulling down a long red clay hill that'll drop you at the Muddy Roots Festival. 


There, the women sport Betty Page hairstyles and fashion. The men are large and hairy, decked in some combination of Harley leather and hillbilly denim. Beards. Tattoos. Dogs who look like they may have driven up on their own choppers. It feels a little like a Quentin Tarrantino movie at first.  


Down the hill from where we set up camp Friday night, a movie was showing. From somewhere distant, under a tent between hills, came the pound-and-thrash of some country metal band who set up to play before the festival had even officially started. We met up with some Texans, stayed up late in the heat. 


Come morning, the sun rose on a scene like none I've experienced at other folk and roots music festivals. Of course, calling this a folk music festival could probably drum up at least a little disagreement. But, I'm going on my definition of folk music - the one with which I opened this post. If you looked around the Muddy Roots camp, you saw vintage cars and pickup trucks, motorcycles, the Betty Page girls, filthy dudes, beer cans, and boots. Here was the United States of Americana, to borrow a phrase from my pal Kurt Reighley, but there was nothing trendy about it. No flirting with the rural hills; here were the hills, personified. 


Or so it would seem. 


Scanning the license plates scattered throughout the apparently unplanned camping "rows," you'd notice plates from as far away as Alaska, as near as Arkansas and the Carolinas. If these were hill people, they'd scattered far from their hometowns. (Need I even mention the Quebeçoises? Obviously not hill people.) Yet, for all the farflungery, I felt like one of the most out of place people among them. 


It occurred to me somewhere between JB Beverly & the Wayward Drifters, the pinup (aka Betty Page lookalike) contest, and the car show, I'd finally stumbled onto a subculture of American folk and roots music which was completely foreign to me. Suddenly it all clicked - the XXX thing, the hillbilly punk thing, the Hank III thing. (Is it not all one and the same? Maybe; maybe not. What do I know?)  


I resolved any critical opinion I could divine from this thing would be completely based on my abject ignorance of the culture from which it sprang. I felt like Claude Levi-Strauss, more pleased with ruminating on the characteristics of humankind and the language of culture, than in finding some shiny object I can hold up as the most characteristic relic of the experience. 


Musically, Muddy Roots gathers a fair balance of rockabilly, hick country, hillbilly punk, and a touch of the Hackensaw Boys' brand of bluegrass, whatever that is. There's a common thread of anti-establishment figurative fist-pumping. Of course, due to the festival's proximity, a lot of that anti-establishment sentiment is aimed at Nashville; it could just as well be about the labels and suits (such as they are) in Austin, LA, Seattle, New York, or elsewhere. This is a culture which spots itself being coopted by hipsters, repackaged as something mainstream-palatable, and marketed right back to its own neighbors.


They're calling bullshit.  


Besides, there's no room for posturing in that part of Cookeville, Tenn. When the flood watch came and the sky opened up, my girlfriend and I decided to give up and bail. The one act about whom we were most excited - Wanda Jackson - was scheduled for the time of night when the storm was really supposed to roll in. The sound guys had told me they didn't know who'd cancel and who would show. We headed to town and got a hotel. 


Meanwhile, on that red clay hill, the rain poured down in bucket-sized dumps, a small thin creek formed in front of Scooter's Biker Bar, and Wanda Jackson took the stage and played what was - the hardcore (aka Texas) faction of our party reported - an excellent set for the diehard festivarians who had resolved to stick it out. 


Folk/roots/Americana music or not, you've got to love that.

Views: 2955

Comment by Adam Sheets on September 6, 2011 at 8:19pm
Thanks for writing this! I truly enjoyed reading it. I didn't make it to Muddy Roots myself (hopefully next year), but based on my interactions and friendship with various artists and fans in this music scene, I trust you that this is WAY different from your average music festival. As for XXX and it all being one and the same, I don't disagree, but some folks may.
Comment by olds sleeper on September 9, 2011 at 4:51am

for a more in depth and informed coverage of this event...i would suggest visiting where several videos and words testify to  the  spectacular nature of this event.  it seems to me that for some reason, the bands and scene represented there are not getting fair coverage on this site. just my opinion, but it makes me sad.

Comment by olds sleeper on September 9, 2011 at 5:12am

again, within this article, no mention of the music that you did see... i find that almost snobbish. here you have a platform to reach thousands of people and mention some band or act that was playing heartfelt and true...from the guts, which is the true spirit of the underground country/folk scene...but instead, you distanced yourself like a anthropologist stumbling upon a oddity... maybe i am mistaken...but this is not open-minded journalism.


Comment by Jack Williams on September 9, 2011 at 5:35am
Olds:  Kim is the only blogger here that is a No Depression employee.  All others are from the community at large. As a frequenter of this site and also Saving Country Music, I was pleasantly surprised that the festival was covered here at all, especially considering Kim's admission of ignorance about the scene.  I agree with you on Triggerman's article, though.  Of course, Muddy Roots is right in his wheelhouse.
Comment by Kim Ruehl on September 9, 2011 at 5:38am

@olds - I'm the first to admit this wasn't  my scene. I didn't expect that to be the case, but that's how it shook out. Not sure what's snobbish about that honesty. I could have written a blog post about how almost none of the music I heard connected with me at all, but I don't think that would have been fair. This is a good festival, if you're into the bands they're presenting. I've been to a lot of festivals and can always find something to enjoy. In this case, I liked O'Death, but they seemed as out of place as I did. Wanda Jackson was exciting to me, but the flash flood watch and severe storm warning drove me away before her set. Other than that, the music wasn't really my thing, but I can see where it might completely connect for some people. My girlfriend's brother was having a blast - a good indication people with different musical tastes than my own would love it there. I also don't think it's fair for me to write a post from my imagination about what it would be like for me at this festival if I had different musical tastes. That wouldn't have been honest.


As it was, I enjoyed the atmosphere and spirit of the festival, the people I met, etc. I can objectively recognize it's an incredible scene and probably would be a great time for someone who's into those bands. I think did a great job of coming at this festival from the perspective of someone who already knows and loves this scene. I wish I knew and loved it better, but I just don't. I'm glad it's out there, though, and I think it's keeping an important, vital part of the country music scene alive. In the future, I'll leave the XXX and punk country to others. (That's why I admitted I realized any criticism I could divine from this would be based only on my ignorance of the scene.)

Comment by michael scott pullen on September 9, 2011 at 5:53am
what you people know about music (i.e. the author) is summed up by her own admission of ignorance.simply put- if you don't know what you're talking about keep quiet and just let people think you're an ass rather than proving it.
Comment by BJ Christy on September 9, 2011 at 5:56am
Wow, this made me a little sad. I will be giving a true and honest opinion of the festival tonight on my show. But maybe I am just dumb hill folk.  I wish I could type more but I am at work now. Tune into The Happy Hour tonight over at tonight if you want a honest no bullshit opinion. That is at 9pm est.
Comment by Kim Ruehl on September 9, 2011 at 5:58am

@BJ - I never said anyone was a dumb hill folk. I have a huge amount of respect for people from the rural hills. I'm admittedly ignorant of all aspects of hill music. I'm truly sorry if that comes across as me thinking anyone involved in this scene is "dumb". Quite the contrary.


Comment by olds sleeper on September 9, 2011 at 6:01am, if i seem harsh, perhaps its because i used to think of nodepression as an ALT-SCENE mag...i used to subscribe to the hard copy. It was something that really inspired me. And i would always find a new band in the mag...sometimes through the COPIOUS amount of ads and such...but sometimes through the articles too...i know youre just one woman...but where is No Depression's scope? I appreciated your write up of Hymn for Her a while back, and im sure youve done more...but  why arent there more "employees" out there looking for something that is ALTERNATIVE to what is readily marketed by big record labels and such...or has the "mag" turned that over to the reader's blogs?  which i admit, i dont read very much because everyone is pretty much just covering their own particular preferences...its not objective  journalism as much as "the flavor of the day".....

im not trying to bag on ya too hard, but i feel like in this maze of electronic hype about everything under the sun, we need reliable, intellligent, respected and articulate sources to keep their eyes wide open to nEw emergent artists, alternative scenes and good tunes.I think of nodepression as a site where that NEEDS to happen. Even if they dont get marketed by the big machine or XXX or whatever .

PS>.. I liked your coverage of the Cayamo cruise...and yea, i was envious of that too... but...i felt the tone of this article was dismissive and the coverage shallow. I find it hard to believe that NOTHING grabbed you. lets not be scared of tattoos, 'hairy' men and motorcycles...



Comment by Muddy Roots Music on September 9, 2011 at 6:04am
As the festival promoter I'd like to say I am cool with this article. It doesn't see, negative at all to me. Just one person's take on all of it and it just so happens the music is foreign to that person.  It is documentation from one viewpoint. I don't want everyone to have the same take on the festival as that's kind of the point. Solidarity through individualism.  We are hard to define but by joining together in a field to have our own party we are saying "No we will not be told what to party to."  The music is organically written, shared nationwide, and loved by it's fans. It is not endorsed by big money and put in front of you conveniently with cardboard cutouts of the band members eating doritos. If you found the music you found it through a natural course. As far as XXX goes, well that's another man's take on music and he has his own view point.  I don't expect everyone to know the bands nor do I want everyone to know the bands. I only wish the weather had been better this weekend.  ;) I am personally happy to have been mentioned on this site as it will reach out to some people that have not heard of us yet and keep others away that might not have as good of a time as we'd like them to have.  Of course this is all just my stance on it and I welcome all of yours.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.