Richmond Folk Festival a Leader in Musical Diversity, Exposing the “Roots” in Roots Music
In the plethora of music festivals, it’s like James Lee Burke is said of have remarked about writers in Missoula, Montana, that there’s one behind every parking meter. So, you take note of what’s unique about each festival. Richmond Folk Festival’s distinctiveness lies largely in a couple of areas, its wide diversity and its singular urban setting, a natural oasis in a concrete canyon. This year’s festival at summer’s end in October featured 36 international and multi-ethnic acts and took place on an island in the middle of Richmond at a spot where a river runs through it, specifically, the historic and beautiful James River.
For festivals that purport to present “roots” and “traditional” music, many have missed the boat in not being more careful to include in their line-ups a mix that ain’t white top-heavy in its pigmentation. That’s of note especially of those festivals here in the states, where our roots music has grown from diverse roots, black, white, mixed-color, African American, European, Baltic, Hawaiian, American Indian, the Scots farmers and the African slaves, the previously landed and those coming from captivity. It’s a mixed line-up that Jack White was good in representing in the brilliant PBS series this past year that most people seem not to have seen or heard about, American Epic (but is still available at PBS and Amazon on DVD).
At the Richmond Folk Festival, you would “get” the diversity behind our own musical history, as well as a broader understanding of world music as a whole. Headliners included Eddie Cotton, Jr., Wayne Hancock , Hot Club of Cowtown, Sherman Holmes, Betsayda Machado and La Parranda El Clavo, Don Bryant, and Wild Ponies. Other acts came from states and countries from Tennessee to Santiago, from Madrid to Grenada. They played instruments that ranged from the pedal steel to the cimbalom to the taiko drums and the funana accordian.
Performers included: The nine ladies of Be’la Dona who have classical training, musical ministry in church, and have spent years backing leading artists such as Nile Rogers, Erykah Badu, and Salt-N-Pepa. Also, La Parranda El Clavo and their leader Betsayda Machado internationally-acclaimed Afro-Venezuelan performers, took to another stage. Santiago, Chili, is birthplace of accordion player Victor Tavares, better known as Bitori, now an elder statesman of the legendary musical form, funaná. And, C.J. Chenier, successor to his father, the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, brought the best of Louisiana zydeco to the fest.
Bluesman Eddie Cotton, Jr.’s music is rooted in the church, where he began as a child to develop his deep, resonant blues voice. His set was one of the loudest, rocking-est, bluesiest, and most appreciated of the entire festival, with a tent full of a very mixed audience loudly voicing their appreciation when not dancing. Like The Crooked Road itself, southwest Virginia’s 333-mile long “heritage music trail,” another group, The Crooked Road Ramblers “took listeners on a journey into the Blue Ridge region’s rich heritage of old-time music.”
And, the landscape whereupon the festival was situated was itself unusual in that it was both urban, like the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, and in a natural setting like Lockn’. Primary festival site, Brown’s Island, is a lovely stretch of landscape including riverside trails stretching its length and walking bridges over the water. Yet, it’s situated in the heart of downtown Richmond, skyscrapers, expressways, and all.
As to the music itself, at the core of this jewel this year, it was exceptional. The locals my wife and I met raved about the festival and said they return year after year. Like many, in my festival experience, the denizens were welcoming to newcomers and invited us with open arms to become membes of the returning RVA (as the locals call Richmond) folk festival goers.
Having said what I did above about diversity, of the three shows I made it to, two were white acts, with us having been delayed in our arrival, causing us to just catch the end of a rousing and packed performance of Eddie Cotton, Jr., and missing the diverse group performing in the earlier “Troubadors” set. What I saw were great shows, however. I started with the famed and fantastic Wayne Hancock, West Texas honky-tonk king, and followed by the up-and-coming Nashville country queen Laura Leigh Jones. Then came the African American gospel group that may have been the crown jewel of the entire conference, The Evangelist Maggie Ingram & the Ingramettes, who close every year’s festival to packed houses, and whom organizers say the festival would not be the same without.
Hank Williams III has said that Wayne Hancock performs Hank Williams, Sr., better than he or his dad, Hank, Jr. Hancock is authentic and sings with a blend of humble reality and restless enthusiasm, sprinkled with off-beat humor. The reality and humor were quite evident in one of his original songs about time spent in jail, a real honky-tonk rocker taken from Wayne’s checkered history. The stage vibrates when he’s on it, and his bassist told me they never use a set list, it’s figured out as they go, with a quick nod or two from the leader to his exquisitely talented lead guitar player who riffs like a rifle’s shots, a female pedal steel virtuoso, and a talented young stand-up bass player.
Hancock’s arm is like a hammer. He strictly plays down strokes, heavy and hard, now, and again and again. His band is well-oiled and has bursts of varied movement to rival his ferocious single strokes
Laura Leigh Jones is an up-and-coming Nashville country singer. She’s hitting all the right notes for climbing that Music City ladder, recently selling out Nashville’s famed Station Inn. On that October late afternoon, she hit the heights with Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbi Magee,” recorded famously by Janis Joplin. Jones managed to put her own romping spin to it, with her great, rich smile sealing the deal. Jones reaches out to her audience with each gesture made and note sung. She ranged back and forth from ballads to rocking country.
Often playing with her band, she told me she greatly enjoyed doing the solo RVA gig. “It’s my favorite,” she said in a brief but lively interview after the show, “I really, really love to do solo shows. I may decide some something, and I’ll just do it. I enjoy just being free. I’ll do a song I haven’t done in 5 years, & maybe I’ll mess up, but I make a joke about it, & the audience laughs about it, & I move on. I’m very spontaneous. Sometimes I don’t even bring a set list. I just have fun. Love playin,’ just me and my guitar, even though I’m a mandolin player first. I love a band too, & they’re very good. They play with the big acts too. But, this is what I like most.”
Born in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, where she communicated with the spirits of the Andy Griffith Show, and visited regularly and learned from legendary bluegrass player and luthier Wayne Henderson, who lived just over the line in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Her biggest influence, however, was Alison Krauss, “Alison Krause first,” she’d said, “I remember I had to be two, and a song came on the radio, and my dad said, this is a girl singer Laura, listen to this. I fell in love with that voice. I got older, and I listened to her all the time, and started to play and write on my own. I would play and write , stop, write, then play, and so on I’d go.”
Her family was there in Richmond in support. She played in a well-known family, bluegrass band, The Cana Ramblers, for many years. Her father and brother still play, her brother leading his own group, The Will Jones Band. Both were at the show to cheer her on. She told me that as she was walking into the festival grounds, toting her equipment to the stage area, she looked around and saw, to her surprise, her brother coming up, unannounced, behind her. She wanted him to join her on-stage but he said he wanted to concentrate on her show as an audience member and supporter.
She and her family had migrated from Mt. Airy to tiny Cana, Virginia. In recent years, Laura Leigh made the move so many musicians do, to Nashville, which she said she truly enjoys. “I love Nashville,” she told me, “Everybody’s good and friendly. I’m like that. I bring a little Mayberry there, where Andy Griffith is from.” She’s been rooming in Nashville with the indy, traditional music phenome, Sarah Jarosz, whom she’d known and played with since she was a child. “We’ve lived together for the last six years. We’d said a little longer and we could claim a tax exemption.” That is changing though, as both Laura Leigh and Sarah both got married recently, their betrothals coming within a few days of each other to Nashvillian spouses, both in traditional music, Jarosz’s as a singer and Jones’ as a promoter.
For over five decades, Evangelist Maggie Ingram & the Ingramettes “have brought their music and ministry to congregations in the Tidewater and Piedmont.” “Mama” Maggie Ingram passed away in 2015, but music was “always a family affair,” and three generations are represented in the group. They are one of Virginia’s premier gospel ensembles, and they showed why at the Richmond fest. As I said above, this Black gospel super group is a staple of the festival and closes the festivities each year. They were one of the most passionate, exuberant, and mesmerizing groups I’ve ever seen. Their songs are triumphant, and the band rocks. The ladies are constantly moving and sing with beautiful force. A memorable moment is when they stand together center stage and dig with imaginary shovels as they illustrate a lyric.
It was a great day in the sun, surrounded, in a lovely setting, by a planet of song from the nearby Crooked Road to the far off exotica of Africa. Roots were spread everywhere, giving all of us a sense of brother and sisterhood with shared melodic spirit.