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.