Closeup on Galax, Virginia’s HoustonFest
We’re at HoustonFest in fabled Galax, VA, this weekend. Galax is the home of the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention, which has been held since 1935. Located along the Crooked Road in Southwest Virginia, bluegrass and old-time musicians make the pilgrimage to the convention in early August to compete, jam, camp in the woods, and enjoy five days of musical nirvana. I’m told that, back in the woods, the white liquor flows and the music soars. Meanwhile, onstage, contestants of all ages and degrees of competence vie for recognition.
Of course, while the contests are important, the camaraderie and hot picking in the field are what true bluegrass and old-time musicians crave. They tote their instruments around the grounds in an amoeba-like crawl to find one last jam group at all times of day and night. But that’s in the heat of the summer. We’re here on the first weekend in May for a different, but perhaps soon-to-be-as-well-known, event, a celebration of service and music in remembrance of Houston Caldwell.
Houston Caldwell was the sort of kid every parent and town would be overjoyed to be associated with. At age 19, he was a member of the Galax Fire Department, leader of the band Broken Wire, had just returned from basic training to enter the U.S. Army Reserves, and was planning to attend college in the fall to major in criminal justice. He had been studying the banjo for half a dozen years and had come to know many top bluegrass pickers personally, including Sammy Shelor, Ron Block, Sierra Hull, and others. His enthusiasm was infectious. On April 30, 2010, Houston was killed in a motorcycle accident while heading home from MerleFest. He had finished second in the banjo contest there two years earlier.
We first met the Caldwell family – Kenneth and Tess, and their daughter, Hayden – at IBMA Fan Fest the following year, in Nashville, at the Kids on Bluegrass performance. The kids dedicated their performance that morning to Houston, and there was a lot of emotion as his friends, both aspiring musicians and professionals, picked and sang in his memory. Their grief still raw, the Caldwells, as can easily be imagined, could barely speak. But the kids announced at that performance that a memorial festival would be held the following spring in Galax, in Houston’s memory. Since then, this two-day festival – held the weekend after MerleFest – has grown in size, quality, and prestige.
While HoustonFest has a strong lineup of professional bands, it’s perhaps best noted for attracting some of the best young musicians around. Particularly on Saturday, the grounds are littered with hundreds of young, enthusiastic pickers forming jam circles, performing at the Camp Houston Youth Stage – where 15 mostly youthful bands perform over two days – and on the main stage. Last year, Sierra Hull stood in a circle of admiring girls and played music with them for over an hour after her performance.
I’ve often expressed my concern about exploitative parents either pushing their kids, or worse, using them as they seek to further the kids’ careers in music. There’s an evil genie within me that wants to corner them and ask something like, “How’s the trust fund for their education coming?” It’s easy to see that for every Marty Stuart or Ricky Skaggs – each of whom was on stage with Bill Monroe at an early age, and each of whom has had a successful career in music – there are many more once lionized, cute kids who have gratefully laid their instruments down. One can only hope that their experience as precocious musicians has not permanently damaged them, or that they don’t become permanent victims of the “cute factor.” Thankfully, HoustonFest confirms my hopes instead of my fears. Many children come to the “Petting Zoo” to try out instruments for the first time, while other much more accomplished pickers can be found everywhere, just having fun together and making music. Few will become professional musicians, but music will inform and enrich their lives forever.
As spring creeps into Southwest Virginia, nestled into a valley at 2500 feet and surrounded by the highest mountains in Virginia, the town of Galax warms up and welcomes visitors for two days of celebration. This is one of the few events we attend where old-time string-band music, traditional bluegrass, and progressive bluegrass combine in a congenial and successful mixture both onstage and off. Old-time music is alive and well in Galax, and kids are hearing their musical heritage in the sounds they encounter in recordings and the radio. They take joy in learning from the past while creating new directions.
This year, an integral part of the celebration will be performances from Carl Jackson’s Orthophonic Joy, a tribute to the famous 1927 Bristol sessions, where country music spread its commercial wings as a recorded genre.
Many people might consider HoustonFest to be a minor event, but that would miss the impact it has on participants and observers. This is an important festival where fans and promoters with sharp eyes for talent come to identify young up-and-comers. They hope to see them moving from cute and promising to delivering more mature, effective performances. It’s become a fun-filled and gratifying stop on our journey, an opportunity to connect with the future while staying grounded in tradition.