by Kathleen Larrick
Tucked in a tranquil corner of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a new festival has emerged that honors the traditions, history and future of the region and its music. More than that, this fest is giving back the heritage of the Blue Ridge to its people and creating a local tradition all their own. With a main stage situated beneath the towering pillars of the Natural Chimneys, a jaw-dropping lineup on three stages, and three jam-packed days of music and events, the fest offers the full audience experience of a first-string, seasoned festival.
Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien and The Duhks were among the legendary headliners with 2013-2014 festival tours that also included heavy hitters like Wintergrass, Rockygrass and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Yet, 2013 was just the first year for Red Wing Roots Music Festival. So, who pulls off a successful, top-notch music festival their first go-round? A few years ago, while working in Harrisonburg, a song rocked me so hard, I was left breathless: “Kiss Me Like a Stranger”. A haunting melody, gut-wrenching lyrics, fiddle drifting sweetly above…I was hooked. Their Americana flavor had deep roots without any trad staunch. Yet, they had the instrumental chops to pull off “Tamlin” at full-on bluegrass speed. Given my penchant for roots music, my colleagues couldn’t believe they were the first to introduce me to the band- The Steel Wheels.
In tight collaboration with Jeremiah Jenkins’ and Michael Weaver’s Black Bear Productions, the artists drew from their performance experiences at the nation’s top roots music events to grow their own festival from the ground. Their memorable experiences being treated like royalty at Merlefest and Fayetteville Roots, especially inspired them to create something special of their own and to do it right the first time. When I asked Wagler how the crew developed a business plan for the fest in the face of steep competition and economic woes, a few cardinal components were clear: Location, Lineup and Legacy.
In a town like Harrisonburg, locals see a lot of transients come and go through the JMU and larger outfits. Yet, while the band’s members have lived all over, the Valley is proud to call them hometown boys. “The Burg” shaped and influenced all four members of The Steel Wheels, whether at Eastern Mennonite University or playing the spots along East Market. Regardless of where these guys are geographically, Wagler explains what makes the Valley home.
“A lot of performers talk about their hometown and try to make it a drag. Like nobody really understands. You could be much more famous across the country, but you get back to your hometown, and you’re just some dude who lives on such-and-such a street. That’s not been our experience. We’ve had great support at home, and we’ve always loved our hometown crowd.”
They love you too, Trent. The community has already embraced their role as the hosts and stewards of Red Wing. Afton, Virginia’s Blue Mountain Brewery quickly jumped on board as a sponsor and vendor, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to see a local school principal driving the campsite shuttle. Walking through the grounds, toward the main stage, the path is lined with booths from the best local restaurants and shops from Jack Brown’s to Cristina’s Café Sexi Mexi food truck. Even in the inaugural year of the festival, a small village formed over three days- from WNRN radio station personalities to the local Boy Scout troops- to make the weekend run smoothly. An urgent run for garbage cans may have taken place, but that was another example of anticipating needs.
“I realize I can’t find a trash can. Now that’s a problem. Sure we’re doing Klean Kanteens, and there’s not as much trash, but if I can’t find a trash can, I bet these other people can’t find a trash can,” Wagler laughs.
But it doesn’t matter how gorgeous the location is or how many friends you have in the community if you don’t have the big name acts that can draw a crowd; it could make the difference between becoming a destination event or being pigeon-holed into a small, local scene. The festival directors had a tough choice to make when it came to a conservative booking budget vs. fanatic draw power. In the end, they went big. REAL big.
Even throughout a surprise deluge of rain the first Friday night last year, hundreds of us huddled even nearer to the Shenandoah Mountain stage to revel in The Duhks’ electrifying energy…and then drip-dry, danced to The Del McCoury Band. (We were so close, I would’ve sworn Del sang “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” directly to me.) When those skies opened up, it was an experience that crowd will be reminiscing about for years to come. Beyond the nightcap ringers, the festival also boasts a diverse smattering of emerging, alternative, traditional and local artists for a really well-rounded bill. Looks like we can expect nothing less from the brilliant lineup this year.
The fest will be July 11th-13th and includes Trampled by Turtles, a return from Pokey LaFarge, Sarah Jarosz, Peter Rowan and The Devil Makes Three. Drawing from their top (and bottom) experiences at venues across the nation, the crew also knew that whatever impression they made on their artists, audience and partners would establish their legacy. Seeing how well their predecessors organized multi-day events, it became a priority for the hosting band to greet every artist personally and give them that royal treatment that makes such a difference when they tour.
Wagler recalls, “I remember the first festivals we played that were like that, we were like, ‘Man, who do they think we are? We don’t deserve all this!’ But it’s a total foreign country to every person who steps foot there. Minimizing that confusion makes the kind of difference where some of the onstage moments can become magical.”
One such moment occurred last year throughout the Doc Watson tribute set. The Steel Wheels first played Doc’s Merlefest in 2012, his last year with us. It was Sunday afternoon; the musicians were right on, but the only festivalgoers with energy to spare were the children. As Jonathan Byrd and Jay Lapp kicked off a rip-roaring instrumental, those kids could not be still. The large field and family-friendly setting ensured they didn’t have to be, and they danced themselves dizzy. After so many beautiful, somber Doc Watson tributes that past fourteen months, this felt like a fresh start with a new generation of roots music lovers. The tribute jam will likely become an annual tradition, paying homage to those who paved the way in the genre and have now begun their long journeys.
When lovers of folk music chart their summer concert schedule, plans often revolve around a balance of their favorite local events and those premier destination staples- Merlefest, Newport, Delfest, Fayetteville, Telluride, Grey Fox, etc. When it comes to my annual plans, Red Wing Roots Music Festival has made that elite list. There are only a few days left to buy your tickets. So, in the words of Mr. Wagler, “Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. Tell your sister. Tell some stranger.”
See you at the fest.