THROUGH THE LENS: Red Wing Roots Music Festival Celebrates Family, Healing, and Faith
Bettye LaVette - 2021 Red Wing Roots Festival - Photo by Larry J. Fowler
For the second week in a row this column features a music festival, Red Wing Roots Music Festival. I’ve always wanted to visit this one, if only for the setting. It and FloydFest, which I have attended, have to be the most beautiful fest backdrops in the East, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Fortunately, ND photographer Larry John Fowler was at Red Wing to take in the action, soak in the vibes, and take some superb pictures. What follows is his report on what went down during the long weekend of July 9-12.
Red Wing Roots Music Festival
Situated in the beautiful Natural Chimneys Park in Mount Solon, Virginia, healing and family along with restorative faith in music was the unofficial theme of this year’s Red Wing Roots Music Festival. That theme is perhaps best epitomized by the photo of the legendary Bettye LaVette.
Hosted annually by The Steel Wheels, the event sets a family tone right from the beginning with a four-day Red Wing Academy music instruction youth camp prior to each festival. The young campers then perform as part of the festival along with the headliners. Festival attendance this year had been kept limited until Virginia state officials updated their pandemic guidelines, so it was a joy to see that it remained well organized and kept five stages running every day.
From the stage many performers noted that this was their first performance together as a group before a live audience since the pandemic hit last year. It was obvious to all that they were overjoyed to see faces smiling back at them rather than computer screens. It also appeared to be the first live music event for many of the 4,000 fans as we gathered together in what felt like a family reunion, just with more music.
The Artists: Headliners, Fan Favorites, and Sierra Ferrell
The headliners this year were a who’s who of roots music, including The Mavericks, Sarah Jarosz, Hiss Golden Messenger, Bettye LaVette, Son Little, Asleep at the Wheel, Tim O’Brien Band, Peter Rowan with Los Texmaniacs, and Dustbowl Revival. Previous Red Wing crowd favorites were on hand to give an enjoyable overview of Americana music, including Fireside Collective, Hawktail, Scott Miller, The Wildmans, The Judy Chops, and The Cactus Blossoms.
Artists new to the festival that captured the audience and created festival buzz included Katie Pruitt, The Currys, and Anna Tivel. But the biggest buzz was for Sierra Ferrell, who seems primed for the big time. Performing songs from her new album, Long Time Coming, that comes out next month, the gypsy-like chanteuse from neighboring West Virginia entranced the crowd with a free-flowing set that breezed effortlessly from Kitty Wells country to upbeat, swinging jazz. It was unlike anything I have ever heard. You just have to catch her.
Family, Faith, Renewal, and John Prine
At the close of The Steel Wheels’ main stage performance on Saturday night they mentioned how each of their families has experienced losses during the past year. The band brought their extended families to the stage to sing their version of the “Red Wing” song that frontman Trent Wagler had been taught by his grandfather. It was definitely a “to the heart” moment that brought a tear to the eyes of many in the audience.
True to the band’s Mennonite roots, Sundays at Red Wing always begin with a Gospel Hour led by the band and features guest artists with “faith,” including in the redemptive power of music. The Wheels’ Eric Brubaker’s performance of Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart” certainly had the largest crowd reaction. It was something Brubaker had deeply felt as he lost a child to septicemia just prior to the 2019 festival.
Another festival tradition is to end with a tribute performance. This year it was the songs of John Prine, featuring a boatload of guests. The highlights were “Summer’s End,” and “In Spite of Ourselves” by Miss Tess and her husband, Thomas Bryan Eaton. The finale was, of course, “Paradise,” where a full stage of performers lead the audience in a bang-up emotional audience sing-along.
As we sang John’s lyrics along with the performers, in my head I could hear John monkeying with the words of that old Alka-Seltzer commercial, saying “Sing, sing … oh what a relief it is!” as he smiled down on us.
While I was looking forward to attending live music again, I never thought my first time back would be as exhilarating as this festival. I wish I could bottle my feelings and take a sip every now and then when my spirits need a lift.
Now, the photos. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.