Mucklewain – Whicker Park (Harriman, TN)
Mucklewain was billed as a Southern American Rock Festival, and it had the sprawling, lively, and Tennessee-heavy roster to back up all parts of that claim. But it may have been three guys from way the hell up north that epitomized the spirit of the gathering.
Had you found yourself in the parking lot of the Harriman Super 8 on the night before the fest, you would have gotten to tip a few with the trio in question, fresh (well, relatively speaking) from the province of New Brunswick, Canada. They had driven 22 straight hours, pausing only for a Cracker Barrel break in the wilds of Pennsylvania, to bask in the roots-rock glow of Steve Earle, the Yayhoos, and others on their musical heroes list. And you might have thought, as I did, that if you could bottle their enthusiasm and crop-dust it over the foothilly field that was home to Mucklewain’s three stages and 35 acts (ranging from the unapologetically stampeding Caddle and Southern Bitch to the comparatively calming Garrison Starr and David Mead), you could guarantee a successful fest.
Turned out there was enthusiasm aplenty; what everybody really needed to bring to make the inaugural Mucklewain a complete success was three of their friends. But, unless you’re paying the bills, festivals are about tunes and not attendance, and Mucklewain’s noon to midnight running time offered abundant opportunity for musical highlights in three categories: sets, songs, and moments.
Mic Harrison & the High Score had the honor of opening the fest — if playing at noon after a night of around-the-campfire guitar-pulling can be considered an honor — and proved to be an extremely affable welcoming committee. A bit later, also on the so-called Tennessee Stage, Brian Waldschlager and his band impressed with a set that was all high-energy Rockpile-in-the-Smokies rock at first, before taking an almost country-soulful turn in the latter half.
Looking like a circa-’75 pro golfer, complete with red slacks, Trent Summar led the New Row Mob through a sweaty 45 minutes that caromed from the Summar-penned Jack Ingram hit “Love You” to the sing-along favorite “The Dope Smoking Song” to a speed-punk-chorus cover of “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Perhaps noting Summar’s fondness for between-song calisthenics and comic banter (“The next one is one of my favorites. Which one are we doing?”), a friend commented that the act was a bit over-the-top. Summar, I suspect, would have been offended had anyone thought otherwise.
The Yayhoos, another outfit not exactly known for subtlety, offered up a rowdy and compact greatest-hits set that included the Replacementsy pair “All Dressed Up” and “Never Give An Inch” off their new Put the Hammer Down, plus “Bottle And A Bible” and “For Cryin’ Out Loud”.
Will Kimbrough, Tommy Womack and Paul Griffith — a.k.a. three-fifths of Daddy — pluralized the Songwriter Stage late afternoon, holding court with a mix of songs from Kimbrough’s state-of-the-union album Americanitis, Womack’s still-being-shopped There I Said It, and last year’s live Daddy record. They reconvened five hours later on one of the big stages, joining three other Nervous Wrecks to back Todd Snider during the event’s best set. Barefoot and vested, his eyes wide and fragile whenever they broke the shadow of the brim of his shapeless hat, Snider looked like a demon-haunted Huck Finn. Crackling versions of songs almost exclusively from East Nashville Skyline and his new The Devil You Know chased away any lingering haints, and he ended his time onstage with a perfectly goofy soft shoe.
Snider and company’s spirited take on “The Ballad Of the Kingsmen”, a passionate ode to the oft-misunderstood majesty of rock ‘n’ roll posing as a ramble, is one of three songs that continue to echo the loudest for me some 350 miles away from Whicker Park. “Higher Ground” from Raleigh, North Carolina, band Patty Hurst Shifter — rechristened “A Prayer For Kim” in memory of the late wife of band friend and collaborator Ian McLagan — packed an undeniable emotional wallop. But most memorable was Womack’s “Alpha Male And The Canine Mystery Blood”, a stream-of-consciousness tour de force for all us fortysomething bastards. It’s about weeknight rock shows, our own summers of love, God, and so much more.
Then there were the moments. Scott Miller & the Commonwealth interrupted “Only Everything” for a chorus of “Muckle Wain, Muckle Wain” sung to the tune of “Purple Rain” — followed by a ruckus caused by all the performers who went on earlier kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. Dan Baird and Dash Rip Rock’s Bill Davis sneaked up behind Kevn Kinney during Kinney’s big-stage solo set to surprise him on “Straight To Hell”. And the line “Tennessee in spring is green and cool” from “Fort Worth Blues”, as sung by its author Steve Earle on the heels of an equally mesmerizing cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues”, sounded especially goosebumpy at 9:45 under a Volunteer State moon.
According to Joie Todd Kerns, Mucklewain co-founder along with Johnny Mark Miller and a lanky blur all day long (even when playing drums with his and Miller’s amped-up Les Honky More Tonkies), the goal was for a “1976 southern rock carnival vibe.” Mission accomplished, although a Ferris wheel somewhere between the beer barn and the corn on the cob booth would have been cool had they been able to scare up the funds. And special mention needs to be made of the seamless shifts made between the two main stages. They were situated a baseball throw from each other, and the music would halt on one stage and crank up on the other in about the time it would take to complete such a toss.
It made Kerns’ day to hear about the New Brunswick threesome, last seen talking with Yayhoos drummer Terry Anderson. I lost them in the dark during Earle’s set, but I hope they collected a combined 22 hours worth of memories for the drive home.