Red Wing – Roots Music Soars to a Family Beat
And I was standing there. Dust was flying through the air
Like days before when we believed in things we couldn’t see.
Oh, my red wing, take me softly/ to my home now to my family.
— Red Wing, trad., as recorded by The Steel Wheels
One magical thing several thousands of us believed in but couldn’t see was the music, flowing across the “music meadow” and rolling up the towering natural stone chimneys bordering it. Chimneys lit during the evening concerts in dark-shattering shades of red, yellow, and blue. Hank Williams came here once, and on three July days at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival, so did a range of some forty bands and performers from as far away as Ireland. Like the red wing in the song above, they brought us festival goers home.
We were a widely varied group attending the festival, particularly in age. For every 40-year old roots music lover, there was a nine-year-old, for every 20-something – a toddler, for every 55 perhaps a 70-years-old or two. The Red Wing Roots Music Festival at lovely, woodsy Natural Chimneys (county) Park was founded and is sponsored by the rootsy band, The Steel Wheels.
Its four band members were born and raised in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and have chosen to remain there. Natural Chimneys is located near the charming towns of Staunton, Harrisonburg and small, nearby Mount Solon. The band wanted Red Wing to be family friendly – complete with hula hoops, kid-filled hammocks, and bubbles floating in the mountain air, and they wanted to feature some of the best talent available, and they did, for a third, successful year.
The language of music is as unique as it is universal. When we hear a beautiful melody or feel the pulse of a rhythm, it touches us on a deep level. … Connecting in this way, I believe, sends a signal or prayer to the greater universe that we are capable of being one. That we are capable of love, Lead singer and song writer Trent Wagler said in the festival program.
The Importance of Memory
One song sung at the festival was about memory, describing it as the core of our perception of life. The memories of the festival weekend are so rich and varied that, for Red Wing villagers, perhaps the road (will go) on forever, and the party never end! in the famed words of keynote performer, Robert Earl Keen, in his song, The Road Goes On Forever. (As is tradition at REK’s concerts, the audience loudly sang along on this part of the chorus.)
Keen’s performance was one of many highlights at Red Wing. He was radiant in a white suit and cowboy hat, backed by his brilliant band, most of whom have been with him for 20 years. Keen covered many of his classics such as Gringo Honeymoon and Five Pound Trout in addition to tunes from his new CD of bluegrass standards.
Ever the story teller, REK shared memories, particularly of other players, notably remembering when he and Lyle Lovett were students at Texas A&M. The gangly Lovett would walk by and eventually joined Keen and other friends jamming on his porch. Keen played a song he and Lovett wrote together, The Front Porch Song (This Old Porch), that brought me to tears.
The Punch Brothers!
The marquee performance was on Saturday night when the multi-talented Chris Thile and his immaculate colleagues, The Punch Brothers, came to the Shenandoah stage, singing and playing their way through a plethora of musical styles and subject matter. All of this was welded together seamlessly by the central, often (very) high voice and the speedy, melodic fingers of Thile on mandolin. The MacArthur Award winner, recently chosen to be Garrison Keeler’s replacement as host of Prairie Home Companion, and his band romped through classical, jazz, bluegrass, and rootsy strains with ease and elicited a raucous response from the large crowd.
The majority of tunes were from their most recent album Phosphorescent Blues, along with a sampling from their previous six albums (the first one of these under Thile’s name). Another highlight was the playing of Debussy, “old Dirt Claude Debussy! “as Thile called him with a laugh, alluding to the seeming incongruity of mixing country and classics. The young virtuosos moved effortlessly from bluegrass to classical to balladry, folk and country. They did so with an ambition and choice of songs that left some in the audience scratching their heads, others positively swooning, and many floating happily in-between.
Sitting near my wife and me was the lovely and powerful combination of voice and acoustic virtuosity that is I’m With Her, the new collective of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. These ladies gave a great performance earlier on the Southern Stage. As the Punch Brothers performance ended, the band members moved off toward The Punch Brothers’ huge tour bus with Aoife holding tight to a tall, young, handsome stranger, talking animatedly into the steamy night.
Saturday was the first day that the festival sold out in its three-year history. To keep some level of intimacy and avoid craziness and stress in what should be a fun environment, the Steel Wheels held firm to an attendance ceiling of 3,500, a goal met Saturday
Sunday night’s featured act was the boogie-drenched trio, The Wood Brothers. They wowed a smaller but appreciative crowd with a collection of Wood Brothers favorites from the bluesy to the outer limits of rhythm-drenched jams. Preceding them over on the Southern Stage was a tribute to Hank Williams who has been found in a photo at Natural Chimneys from back in the day. The Steel Wheels and their long-time friends and festival managers Jeremiah Jenkins and Michael Weaver, of Black Bear Productions, added more performers and bands to the already announced 35 to join in the tribute. The David Wax Museum and Caleb Stine were among those who joined with other Red Wing acts to perform both well and lesser-known Williams classics.
This followed another special group concert that morning of gospel music led by The Steel Wheels and featuring other festival performers before an enthusiastic “congregation.” The Steel Wheels much later in the day opened for The Punch Brothers and later closed the festival with a few final strains of Red Wing, the festival’s signature folk song.
Red Wing was recorded by the band, and leader Trent Wagler learned the song as a child from hearing his grandfather sing it. The Steel Wheels , as was evidenced that night, have only gotten better over the years. Their new album, Things I’ve Left Behind, is a culmination of that. They shared from it and their earlier body of work with a huge, loving audience that night.
We want to focus on the way it (music) pulls people together, and music on a very base level, Trent Wagler said in article in Newsplex.com, draws something out of babies, and it pulls something out of the most elderly people in our own community.
To a one, the bands heard throughout the festival thanked Steel Wheels from the stage for the loving care with which the festival had been devised and maintained. Wagler made sure to acknowledge Jenkins from the stage for his efforts as the “task master who keeps the ship running tightly.” Steel Wheels t-shirts were everywhere at the festival on young and old.
We’re winning, festival leader Jenkins said in a recent issue of the prestigious The Huffington Post, We’re winning with Red Wing. We knew what level we wanted to produce it, and there’s been such a strong response, we know we are doing something right.
The festival goes on through the efforts of 30 staff and 150 volunteers, who do everything from picking up trash to providing shuttles from the stages to camping areas and parking lot, including special shuttles for people with disabilities like myself.
One volunteer, Kevin, had driven me in a shuttle one morning from our campsite to the Music Orchard. When not volunteering, he was enjoying the performances. When, later in the festival, I was slowly making my way with my walker/scooter from one outlying stage back to the Music Meadow, he called out from his camper, “Hey, Ron! Do you need help?” When I said “yes,” he loaded me on his pick-up and took me to another off-duty volunteer on a small golf cart, holding his pet poodle in his left arm while driving with his right, who took me to the main festival grounds.
My wife Gayle and I chose to camp and had picked the new Z Lot section, set off from the festival grounds in a cow pasture painted thick with poison ivy and provided to Red Wing by a neighboring farmer. This was a big challenge for me, with disabilities following upper spinal surgery a year before. We were poised to go to Red Wing then, but emergency surgery changed all that a week before we were to leave, as well as for Gayle. The first night was rough, but it got much better. Ultimately, we were glad we camped there. It gave us a feeling of being part of a community, integral to the whole experience.
Our neighbors were varied and great company. The first two mornings, I couldn’t get up without help, and young fellows from the tent two doors down came and lifted me up and out of the tent. We were a soggy bunch at times because it rained a lot, but only when the music wasn’t playing!
Hammocks & Hoops
Kids were a major presence at the festival. They were at performances with their families, often on dad’s shoulders, at other times dancing with mom or with dad’s girlfriend. They loved the many hammocks on sale from vendors dotted across the Music Meadow and swung in them, creating pockets of breeze in the hot air. Dancing with hula hoops was another popular kid and adult activity with hoops galore from vendors who’d brought their colorful creations.
Another favorite activity of young and old alike was wading in the North River that borders the property, where the kids also built creative castle-like structures of river stones along the river’s path. The Steel Wheels also provided a large fiddle workshop for children, culminating in a concert at the festival.
Red Wingers enjoyed unusually eclectic and gourmet-quality food experiences from vendors who were mostly area restauranteurs and food truckers. Choices ranged from quinoa to pizza, from home -made ice cream to specialty grilled cheese. Ecology-minded, festival goers were provided free Kleen Water and prohibited from bringing small, disposable bottles of water into the staging areas. Other local venders brought woven goods, jewelry, and other arts and craft items for sale, and the “merch” table of the performers’ CDs, t-shirts, and the like consisted of an entire open-air building.
For the adults, there was a beer garden, lit at night by tiny bulbs strewn across the top, a place to have local craft brews and socialize and discuss each other’s musical highlights of the day.
Back to the music, another hit attraction was a band that has established itself as one of the up and comers, but was just now being discovered by a large number of audience members, Elephant Revival. With its unique female lead singer Bonnie Payne, with her warbling vocals and red-hot washboard licks, and the band’s distinctive sound and style, they are a socially conscious band that focuses on the human experience within the broader universe.
Elephants and Immigrants
Another highlight was The Travelin’ McCourys, featuring Ronnie and Rob McCoury’s (Del’s sons) mandolin shredding and super vocals. Nikki (It’s always the right time to do the wrong thing.) Lane and her band also did a rocking performance.
Two other bands struck me as becoming quick fan favorites after coming in unknown to most in the crowd. One of these, I Draw Slow, came all the way from Dublin, Ireland, hitting La Guardia that morning and driving the long path from Manhattan to tiny Mount Solon. Led by siblings Dave and Louise Holden, who write most of the songs together, the band provides a magical, lyrical blend of traditional Irish influences and Appalachian harmonies, influenced by roots music of Irish settlers.
With four albums under their belts, they are beginning to get more recognition in their native Ireland as well as in America, where they tour as often as possible. I met a man stage-side during the band’s sound check who first heard them at MerleFest and has since then been followed them to every concert they’ve given in the south. The band seemed glad to see him, and Louise was chatting with him as I came up to introduce myself.
The mix of Irish and Americana has attracted many new fans on both sides of the water. Reviewer John Walshe in the Hot Press describes their latest album as follows: Co-produced by the highly experienced Brian Masterson (Planxty, The Chieftans), White Wave Chapel may have been born in Ireland, but its heartbeat comes from high in the Appalachians, as the fiddle swings, the guitar strums and the voices snake around each other like star crossed lovers.
Louise and Dave’s brother and brother-in-law came all the way from Austin, TX, to visit them. Singers themselves, they joined Louise in singing I Heard that Lonesome Whistle during the Hank Williams Tribute.
Another band making waves was The Barefoot Movement, a quartet with guitar, fiddle, bass, and mandolin playing a mix of bluegrass, traditional country, blues, jazz, and rock and pop. There are African influences also, developed when the band played in western Africa recently. While in Burkina Faso, they performed with national stars of this small African country such as Diko, a kora virtuoso, and Rovane, a famed vocalist.
Noah (a female Noah) Wall, fiddler and vocalist in The Barefoot Movement, says in CMT Edge: Traditional music and dance in Africa are a huge part of their daily lives. They have pop music just like we do, but everybody over there is in tune with traditional music. We were definitely immersed in the culture and the music.”
Two guys and two gals, they deliver delicious harmonies and have a solid background in traditional American music. The ladies developed theirs during their tenure as students in the unique and highly touted bluegrass and country music program of Eastern Tennessee State University in Johnsonville, TN. I was surprised to see that in performance they were, indeed, barefoot.
All energy, band members leaned into each other center stage to pound out the intricate rhythms and carefully woven vocals of their songs. Performing on the smaller Roots Stage, the room was filled, and the band received a standing ovation. After their performance, they moved to the natural chimneys to catch I’m With Her on the Southern Stage.
When I asked her about the significance of being barefoot, on stage and in the band’s name, she said, Honestly, the name just dawned on me one day and it made sense in so many ways. We had often performed barefooted but I never thought of it as something significant until I thought of the name. Basically, we want our shows to be down to earth and for people to feel at home, which is what being barefooted has symbolized to me my whole life. Of course we wear shoes in our daily lives, but going barefooted onstage hopefully lets the audience know that they can relax and let go some of their worldly worries.
When I first heard her songs, I thought that’s a good bit of understanding and experience voiced by such a young sounding voice. Asked about this, she replied: I can only say that I write songs about life. People’s stories are fascinating to me. A lot of my songs have been about experiences that I’ve had personally and I think they have been helpful in my growth as a person. Every time you write, it’s like capturing a moment in time, exactly how you felt then and there. I am constantly thinking about the world and my place in it, so all that thinking has to come out somewhere!
An addition was made to the original schedule to provide a “Guitar Talk” by Jon Stickley and Stephane Wrembel, considered one of the world’s leading guitarists, a welcome opportunity for players like me and others taking advantage of an intimate combined discussion and performance. Wrembel composed part of the score for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, among other distinctions.
He discussed practicing eight hours each day, including perfecting some of the most demanding classical forms. (He has studied with the famed classical music icon, Nadia Boulanger). He emphasized, however, that in the actual playing/performance, the guitarist should improvise rather than consciously execute the techniques, harmonics, etc. He and Stickley answered questions from the audience and played a number of tunes together such as Sweet Georgia Brown, often with a playful exchange of solos dueling-banjos style.
Artists of Color?
My only quibble with Red Wing is the lack of minority artist representation, with the Brazilian- American band Matuto and Dr. How and the Reasons to Live (part Asian-American) the only minority performers I’ve identified. I do not suppose for a minute that this is intentional, but it must be something the planners have discussed. Including the music of people of color not only seems logical but critical to presenting a true range of roots music, especially given the importance of Africans in bringing their musical influences and instruments to America, such as the banjo. Each culture has its own roots music, and much of that has made the trip to America.
Sounds of Song Remain
Now it’s over for another year. RVs have pulled out, and tents came down in the steady rain. Other folks, including a number of our friends, checked out of area hotels and B and B’s. The sounds of song now linger only in the wind through the birch and hackberry trees, the soft rippling of the North River, and the chorus of croaking frogs that lulled us to sleep at night.
For this writer and ever emerging singer-songwriter, Red Wing was the stuff of dreams. We who were fortunate enough to attend the Red Wing Roots Music Festival were, to paraphrase the song, with our family once again.