Lovefest in the Mountains: Floydfest 2015
On most spring days in 1925, my grandfather rode his swayback mare from his family’s cabin along the Little River across the Alum Ridge to the Stony Point school, a one-room schoolhouse on the road to Copper Valley.
Not far from that pass sits my family’s cemetery, a couple dozen graves of Mannons hard by the Valley Tire and Lube in Floyd, Virginia. There’s little room for one more, but at 42 I’ve already considered buying some space so I can settle in next to some distant kin, shove in a little marker, and spend eternity just sighing into that view. There’s something about those mountains that whisper to you and pull you in.
While my grandfather was crossing over that knob, Sara Carter would have been practicing her shape notes with A.P.’s harmonies as Maybelle was honing her distinctive guitar picking for the famous recordings the family would make just across the Blue Ridge in Bristol in 1927.
Ralph Stanley was born that same year, near the Clinch River Valley, not too far away. And countless other home pickers and luthiers were on front porches all through these hollows, jar down on the floor half-filled with some of Franklin County’s finest. The Wettest County in the World is just the next county east. It’s a place where the music floats over and between the mountains and creates The Crooked Road.
90 years later, I point out that graveyard off Route 8 just before we hit the town of Floyd and get ready to pull our minivan of little Mannons into the sweet-smelling mountain air of Meadows of Dan, Virginia. The 14th annual Floydfest Music Festival is getting off to its sleepy early weekend start. This is my kids’ first real festival. It had to be this one. My wife and I had dreamed for years of taking them to Telluride, where we fell in love with what summer music could be: a shared tarp with multitudes of previously unknown friends who would watch your chair and your beer and your shirtless four-year-old. But it really had to be Floyd; you have to start where you are supposed to start.
Erika Johnson and Kris Hodges knew it had to be here too. Back in the early 2000s, the pair had a dream to bring a world-class festival to the vortex of Floyd, a high mountain town with a high count of creatives, a place where in the middle of traditional mountain farming and even more traditional values, you could be a little weird.
Johnson, of Across the Way Productions, has four generations of family in Floyd and takes that tradition seriously as she continues to help shape Floydfest 15 years in: “There’s a lot of inherent responsibility in naming your festival after your one stoplight town. We were committed and constantly vigilant to get it right and represent what Floyd is.”
In that vein, they’ve limited the size of the festival to make sure that they continue to get it right, and that move has created something that has a gently throbbing but laid-back vibe to it. Just like Floyd itself.
Through the years, the festival has ebbed and flowed, gotten a bit too big for its 80-acre tongue of land that rolls out over the Blue Ridge. A couple of years ago, they dealt with torrential rain and had to pull hundreds of cars out of a mudhole parking lot. The locals grumbled a little. Like most onsite camping festivals, they’ve had to deal with complaints that the late night drumming was too, well, late and drum-my.
But for the past couple of years, FloydFest has settled into what the founders dreamed it could be: one of the best music festivals in the country. This year’s theme was “Fire on the Mountain,” and it was capped by the burning of a big wooden Phoenix in the middle of the grounds, Burning Man style, right after headliner Grace Potter’s set on Saturday night.
As you walk through the grounds and take it in, everything just seems to belong. You’ll pass a pretty little stage laid down in a hollow and catch a fiddler drifting notes up at you. Then a few steps later as that tune fades, you’ll pass another stage and pick up some dissonance and feedback of an up-and-coming quasi-punk outfit whipping a slightly more pierced crowd into a frenzy.
Although the “Fire on the Mountain” theme fits well, the feel of the weekend was even better represented by the giant lit-up sign just above one of its five nicely spaced stages: LOVE. It was an absolute LoveFest up in the mountains this year. The weather was perfect; the band schedule was perfectly paced and cast. Newer, meaningful Americana acts mixed with established jam band and bluegrass stalwarts, late night Deadish jam sessions with lots of old friends joining old friends on stage. There were more wide grins and back pats between musicians than you typically see, the Southwest Virginia old-time hospitality of the staff and volunteers leeching into the artists and the sweaty, grinning crowd. I’ve never heard as many musicians use the word “honored” before playing in front of a smallish afternoon crowd of mostly tarp-sitters. But it seems right, and it seems genuine.
There’s something about these mountains
I caught Sam Bush, who’s seen a few festivals, scanning the crowd and the grounds and looking downright wistful. “This is a special, special place, these mountains, these people. . .” Bush flew in for a few hours on Thursday to play a set, tell some stories, and see some friends. Bush still kicks too much ass on fiddle and mandolin to call him a treasure yet, but he’s our best living storyteller who connects the current Americana scene to where so much of it comes from. And he was in rare form at the workshop stage, recalling tales of Bill Monroe and the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival, which was held a few miles away 45 years ago. Then, Sam being Sam, he tore into another lightning fast mando tune with another treasure, Drew Emmitt.
Unbelievably, Emmitt’s band, Leftover Salmon, recently celebrated their 25th anniversary. And Emmitt wouldn’t ever acknowledge it, but to anyone watching, he’s becoming our link to Sam and the tradition, and the stories.
When I was still kicking around the area after college and feeling a little blue, I would drive the few miles into the town of Floyd, and if it was a Friday evening, I’d stand at the back of the General Store for the weekly old-time jam sessions. Strangely, it wasn’t a world I was born into. Of course, those born in Southwest Virginia had Old-Time all around them, but most of us hardly noticed it. It was an embarrassing music to the uninitiated (and stupid).
In the 80s if you would have told your high school friends you liked fiddle tunes, they’d think you were joking. It was a music that was of an age, as relevant as Swing or Big Band to a teenager, even though if you listened hard, you could hear its stamp in most every classic rock tune you and your buddies would shout into the night. And about the time I saw Leftover Salmon for the first time—a mistake really, I was there for the headliner Widespread Panic—I began to hear it too. Their “Polyethnic Cajun SlamGrass” was just weird enough to be cool, and it opened the door to Grisman and Old & In the Way, and back around to the Dead, and so I wrapped back to the sound of my ancestral mountains late. But what a journey worth taking, what a crooked road.
To sit with Emmitt and shoot the shit about what Sam Bush has meant to him, from being a gifted picker in a Colorado campground to founding one of the pioneering bands of the jamband genre, to playing beside Bush at so many festivals for so many years now, is just a joy. He’s a thoughtful dude, they both are, and it’s a thoughtful music, even with all the wild, reckless runs that the best of these pickers go on.
Sitting next to an old timer on benches in front of the workshop stage, I watched a young band fuss over their sound for a few minutes too long on Friday afternoon. The crowd wasn’t even that restless as the band apologized that they just couldn’t get their kick drum mike right. My old-timer leaned in with a big smile and between his teeth whispered “come on son, it’s just a drum. Smack that dog and let’s hear you play.”
And they did.
Something about these mountains.
As Erika Johnson says, “it’s the right place the right time, the right town.”