Twangfest is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful
A year gone now, and the feedback, found harmonies, slurred melodies, two-step sweat, covers of Townes Van Zandt and Richard Thompson and George Jones, the stick-to-your-teeth St. Louis pizza, the fifth beer someone bought you, the intense connection between people who, by all laws of nature, should be strangers — it’s pretty well receded into memory. I’m relatively recovered.
I was at the first Twangfest in St. Louis in June 1997 — I think. At the Off Broadway nightclub, I watched Edith Frost, Belle Starr, the Sovines, Gasoline, Cash Hollow, One Riot One Ranger, Fear & Whiskey, the Ghost Rockets, and the Waco Brothers, and felt transformed. I may have performed; I can’t be sure.
Mix honest music and good people, and that’s what happens. The inhibitions and anxieties of daily life slough away; a door to the community we all crave blows open. Isn’t that why we love a tender melody, a thumping backbeat, twin fiddles? Don’t call it escape. Call it something like freedom. I sensed it a bit when Belle Starr’s Kip Loui and Lynn Reiff harmonized; when a trucker band from Columbus and a rockabilly band from Kansas both fondly remembered a friend in Norway; when One Riot One Ranger sang sharp harmonies in sharp get-ups, and even cajoled a hard-core bluegrasser into plucking his bass to a Pere Ubu song.
Strange, the things you remember: the carmine telecaster, the crushes that flare up in fantasy and settle in friendship, the number of shots you had — seven — the way Gayle Salamon (of Cash Hollow) cracked up mid-song, the goofy banter, the sound a microphone makes when knocked over by Jon Langford, how a reverbed guitar lick echoes off the warm wood of the walls of Off Broadway.
Twangfest was and is the brainchild of Postcard2, an internet listserve given to alternative country. An odd, inexplicable thing, this connection between highways, the lost and the electronic. I recall Gillian Welch once explained her songwriting as a love for words like “downtown,” and a resistance to other words, like “internet.” Yet no matter how unpoetic, the internet forms a central artery for the music we love.
Why would devotees of today’s commercially struggling (or ignored) styles of country — be it snazzy bluegrass, swirling countrypolitan, manic rockabilly, chicken-wire honky-tonk, country punk — huddle together in the ether and obsess over their keyboards just to remind someone who wrote “Looking At The World Through A Windshield”, or just to needle and thread through themes like incest and folk ballads, Ryan Adams’s antics, forgotten greats such as Ted Daffan, the politics of Jon Langford or “Hee-Haw”?
They’re finding kinship. Or maybe just exchanging thoughts on the giddy pleasure of this music.
If a place like Postcard2 didn’t exist, Don DeLillo would have had to invent it. Derailers-devoted therapists; an English teacher who knows George Strait’s catalog even better than Billy Sherrill’s; a banjo picker unsure if the Dillards or the Monkees are the true artists of any decade; a would-be novelist as fascinated by techno as by Dylan; librarians who gush over a pedal steel solo; a translator of French post-structuralists who can rock and swagger like Faron Young reincarnated (the translator, that is) — every day, they and hundreds of other folks sling opinions and spin theories about popular culture until their e-mail boxes overload.
The internet isn’t utopia, and neither is Postcard2. It’s a flawed place, of tempers and misunderstandings and conflicts of taste and vision — which of course is what makes it vital and human. It’s also a place of camaraderie and wit, rare knowledge and insight into every dusty corner of American roots music.
Twangfest captures this world nicely, in real time and space. It’s probably the first musical festival organized entirely via the internet; and it’s significant, not as a curio, but as sign of how crucial the medium has become to alt.country.
The first Twangfest was more than just a motherboard-sired dynamo of sentiment. At the end of the night, while emcee Don Yates thanked everyone and their third cousin, the Waco Brothers, no longer suffering the restraint, chulugged into “The Death Of Country Music”, building steam until the dance floor became a mosh pit. The enthusiasm of the Postcard2-ers poured over into the hundred or so bewildered St. Louisians in attendance: Bodies surfed, slammed, pogoed, and fell as the band banged on past closing time. If the soundman hadn’t cut the juice, the Wacos would probably still be playing.
Twangfest II begins June 11th and goes till the 13th, once again at Off Broadway in my hometown, St. Louis. The sequel is fueled by greater ambition and wider scope. With a lineup featuring Robbie Fulks, Kimmie Rhodes, Mike Ireland & Holler, the Barkers, Belle Starr, Hudson Super Six, the Ghost Rockets, Blue Tick, Fear & Whiskey, Kevin Johnson & the Lineman, the La-Z Boys, the Sovines, One Riot One Ranger, the Meat Purveyors, and One Fell Swoop, it’s one of the biggest and most varied roots festivals of the summer.
And if the intimacy of that first gathering has been swapped for a higher profile, Twangfest remains a grass-roots event, built and run by fans and musicians. It’s their ideas and their hard work that give it life. The organizers have even put together a 2-CD compilation of 30 bands on or affiliated with the Postcard2 list.
Come the second week of June, you might see their vans, pickups and subcompacts, blaring Uncle Tupelo or Johnny Horton or Roscoe Holcomb, heading from disparate states to the arch city by the river. They’re going to entertain and be entertained by the whole weird range of country music. You have their cordial invitation.