Some of you know what an odd and wonderful musical journey I have been on since September 2011, when I accidentally attended my first bluegrass festival. I have written about it, I have talked about it, and I have positively baffled my friends with my discovery and subsequent fanaticism about this music.
What is so great about Bluegrass?
Collaboration. Mutual respect and admiration of musical greatness. Willingness to peek, grasp, and sometimes grab giant fistfulls of earth from outside the genre proper and mold it into something new and magical. Talent. Passion.
These are the things I see when I see live bluegrass shows. I have seen one of the best fiddle players ever just stand and stare, amazed, as Bela Fleck played a banjo solo.
So, now I have gotten to the stage in my fanaticism that I am actively seeking out live shows and festivals. I want in. This is my music. These are my people. They get what I get out of it.
And somehow, in all of this, one of the least likely bands ever reached out and grabbed my ankle as I tried to sneak by. I don’t like music that has “too much jamming.” I never was one for jam bands. Ever. Ask anyone, really.
So, imagine Mr. Thor’s surprise when I stood through my first Railroad Earth show, mouth half open. Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I cried. Sometimes I clapped my hands and closed my eyes. I have never heard music like this. I have never heard songs like this. I have never seen artists split themselves open on stage night after night and pour out what this band pours out.
They don’t fit into the tidy little slot created by the word “bluegrass.” But then again, neither do my other top contenders. They get served with bluegrass. If bluegrass is a backyard barbeque, Railroad Earth is that exotic but delicious dish that your new neighbors brought and you’re SO GLAD you tried.
They certainly aren’t the potato salad.
I have seen them late at night, I have seen them two nights in a row, multiple times. I drove 5 hours and burned an entire weekend to see one show of theirs. I recently went to see them in Lancaster, then Baltimore – two nights in a row.
It seems that I am planning my life around Railroad Earth concerts.
Right now, I am looking forward to this: in July, I will go to Colorado for the first time in my life. I will see Railroad Earth play Red Rocks, The Boulder Theater, and Belly Up. Three nights in a row.
They’re not the only band, but they are in my top three. This year, it works out that we will get to go to at least 9 shows, including one on my birthday. My brother has taken to calling me “hippie” and saying that I am going “on tour.”
I think I have been dragging my feet in getting this post up because well – finishing the recap means that it’s really over. I found my pocket pal in my backpack yesterday as we unpacked and put some camp stuff away. I have been washing our camp bedding. We stowed the air mattress under the bed. The lantern is sitting out for me to return to Jax.
One week ago today, as I am sitting here writing this, I was sitting in the rain and watching Sam Bush do his sound check.
I don’t think I need to recap Day Three. We watched amazing music. It rained. We had to take cover in a giant grandstand. We came out and saw Steve Martin. We had to take cover again. I fell asleep before the last music of the night.
We got up Monday morning and hauled everything to the car and drove home. I am still exhausted, to tell you the truth.
Last night I looked up the Railroad Earth concert from the first night of the festival and listened to the song “Railroad Earth” and I smiled and cried a little. It was really a magical experience, and I am someone who barely has a toe in the bluegrass/newgrass/jamgrass genre. I knew approximately two songs going in to the weekend, and I came out the other side obsessed.
I was blown away by the skill level, the dedication, the humility, the good-naturedness of so many performers. The gratitude that they profess for being able to do what they love. The appreciation that they express for the father of the festival, Del McCoury.
It was a wake-up call for me. A reminder that hard work goes a long way toward “living the dream.” A reminder that I have unfinished business in here – I have stuff to write. I have stuff to make. And maybe, somewhere in here, I even have a song to sing or play.
I cleaned out my purse on Friday, and as I shook it out, a piece of the mini-gravel that was on the music meadow at the festival fell out. I picked it up and put it back in, just for a reminder. Just for a few more days.
On Saturday morning, I woke up at 7 and decided to try out the showers. I was so tired that I forgot to grab my towel! I wound up drying myself off with a tank top and a fistful of paper towels. The showers were just fine for what they were – cement stalls with a small curtain and a barely-there soap shelf that was almost too high to use.
I went back to the tent and back to sleep after my shower. We both woke up a few hours later to the sound of stoned people talking loudly about nothing much right outside our tent. We decided to get going for the day. I really wanted to see Sleepy Man Banjo Boys at 11:35. Mr. Thor decided to try his luck with the showers while I stood in the unbelievable line for coffee.
The coffee problem
This is pretty much the only semi-negative about DelFest. The fairgrounds has a permanent concession stand that can make all kinds of food as well as coffee – but they don’t make it during the festival. Instead, a coffee truck comes in that serves lattes, iced coffee, smoothies, and frappes. A cup of regular coffee was $3. Sure, it was organic, fair trade, but honestly? When you are already covered in sweat at 10:30 am, the last thing you want to do it stand your exhausted self in a slow-moving line of 20 people and wait for $3 iced coffee that is going to last about 20 seconds because you’re so hot you barely taste it on the way down. Eventually, they did make a sort of “express line” for just hot coffee, but maybe in the future that could include iced coffee. I would have wasted way more money on iced coffee if I didn’t have to stand in line for 25 minutes to get it!
We were so hot by the time we got the coffee and Mr. Thor bought some breakfast that we didn’t make it into the main music stage. Instead, we sat in a large, open-air grandstand that overlooked the stage from a distance and had speakers. After our experience in the heat the previous day, we decided to pace ourselves in the sun to make sure we could last the entire day. We caught the very end of the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys and then Greensky Bluegrass. We decided to stay in the grandstand as long as we could.
Lunch was amazing, and we both ate the same thing every day: lamb gyros. The Mediterranean booth served what I thought was the best food there. The first day, we carried the gyros 15 minutes back to our campsite to eat them.
More music, and Thunderstorm #1
We started watching Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys but quickly started to overheat and decided to head to the car for a few minutes of A/C. While we were there, I tuned into the DelFest radio station so that we could catch more of that set. A few minutes after we watched some nasty clouds roll in, the MC, Joe Craven, made an announcement to take cover because storms were coming. He actually said, “looks like there is a spritzer heading our way.” We decided to stay in the car and wait out the storm. After a storm and a trip back to the tent, we headed back to the music meadow to catch a Keller Williams solo set followed by another Del McCoury band set.
I admit, I was completely exhausted and I was ready to skip the Keller Williams set. I was so hot, tired, and cranky that I picked a fight with my husband. I accused him of disregarding my needs (he pretty much had to force me to go to the KW set). He asked what my needs were, and I snapped at him that I really needed to be pushed off a cliff at that particular moment. He, frustrated, snapped back, “ok, fine! where’s the nearest cliff?!” hee hee. I can laugh about it now, but I was a holy terror in the moment.
My mood perked up instantly upon hearing “Kidney in a Cooler” coming from the music meadow, and I practically ran to see the remainder of Keller’s set. Fun, fun stuff!
The last of it… for now
My last musical set of the night was Del McCoury band. I was completely exhausted, but my love for Del is strong. The first thing he said when he came on stage was something like, “Don’t worry now – it won’t rain… it won’t.” It was just what I needed to hear, and he was right. At some point they welcomed Doyle Lawson out as a guest… the man can wear a jacket, let me tell you. The bedazzler has nothing on this guy’s jacket. Or, maybe it has everything on this guy’s jacket.
Leftover Salmon closed out the evening, but I was asleep before the set ended. I left a flashlight with Mr. Thor and headed back to camp to get some sleep.
We arrived at DelFest without incident. The first step was to head to the off-site box office to turn in our tickets for wristbands. Once we did that, we drove a few minutes to the Allegany County Fairgrounds. The festival volunteers were just awesome. Everyone was very nice and very helpful. We were directed to a parking spot and decided that the best thing to do was to grab our tent and go stake out a camping spot.
Setting up camp
Neither of us had ever had to find a camping spot before, so we were both pretty nervous. By this point (about 12:30) it was already Very Hot. I was sweating within moments of leaving the car. It became instantly apparent that most of the nearby campsites had already been claimed. So, we walked. And walked. And walked.
We saw tents as far as the eye could see, packed very efficiently. And then we saw a beautiful, open spot of grass – but it was on a slight incline. I felt like this wasn’t a great spot and really wanted to find a flat spot, but a quick glance up the path revealed walls and walls of tents. We were going to walk for a few more minutes to continue the search for the perfect spot, but I was suddenly overwhelmed with frustration and declared, “I am about ten minutes from going back to the car and driving to a hotel right now.” Knowing that we were about a ten minute walk from the car, Mr. Thor implored me to take the inclined spot. After a quick consult with a hemp-bracelet-making hippie two tents down about what he thought about the spot, I decided that his expertise was enough to go on.
We set up the tent and the canopy and then schlepped back to the car two more times (at least!) to finish loading in our stuff. Some people had hand carts, radio flyers, even collapsible wagons. Those people, my friends, are geniuses. One of the volunteers remarked on our “West Virginia luggage” (trash bags) that we were using to carry our pillows.
After lots of walking, lots of sweating, and lots of water…I had to pee. I mean, I really had to pee. There were some permanent restrooms on the map, but they were quite a hike. There were porta-potties everywhere, but, well, I have an irrational fear of them. I decided that this would be different, I was just going to fling open the door, and GOOD GOD WHAT IS THAT THING POKING OUT AT ME?! I slammed the first porta-potty door and tried door number two. Just as bad. I started retching and cursed myself for thinking that I could ever do something like this. The phrase, “why do you have to be such a special snowflake?” may have crossed through my mind a few times. Devastated at what a wimp I was, I started dragging myself toward the spot on the map that represented a flushing toilet. That was the last time I tried a porta-potty, and I spent the rest of the weekend leaving camp and walking a solid 15 minutes before I got to the restroom.
The music… finally.
We didn’t make it to a show until just before 8 pm. don’t ask me what we were doing for those 7 hours. I was probably having a nervous breakdown in the tent. I kept wondering how on earth I could ever make it through one more day. But I also had a slight feeling that maybe, just maybe, dragging myself out to watch the Del McCoury band might make everything better. I was thrilled to watch them. I love Del, Ronnie, Rob, Alan, and Jason. I love watching their style, hearing their harmonies, I love it when Del holds his guitar up to the mic. Love it all. And It did make things better, for a little while.
Yonder Mountain String Band was set to go on next, but I was so exhausted. Mr. Thor likes the band a LOT, and I like them enough, but I decided to walk back to the tent and rest. We had tickets to Friday night’s late night show, which included Greensky Bluegrass and Railroad Earth – and the show didn’t start until 12:00. Midnight. Remember, I got up at 4:30 that morning to drive 4.5 hours to be traumatized by a porta-potty log, then to sweat out half of my body weight before I had ever heard a note. I was exhausted. I considered telling Mr. Thor to go to the late night show without me.
As I rested on the air mattress, I could hear Yonder Mountain playing. I decided that I would suck it up. I was at a music festival, after all. Sure, I saw them in September, but they are good. So I hiked 15 minutes, bought a cup of coffee, wandered up to the grandstand and sat down. I decided that we would get to the late night show early and be right up front. After all, the late night was sold out and we had our tickets in hand.
Friday’s Late Night show – AKA the moment I entered the festival with my whole heart
We were in the very front and almost center for both acts of the late night. Like, holding on to the railing, fighting off hippie girls who were trying to steal our spots, FRONT of the crowd. It was a little stressful to battle for my spot, but suddenly I remembered who I am. I might be a total wus who almost pukes when I see a poo in a porta-potty, but am also the girl who has ALWAYS been able to get to the front and stay there. I love music. It means so much to me. It speaks to me the way nothing else can. So I dug in my heels, grabbed the railing, closed my eyes, and danced.
Those bands were GOOD. They were fun. And, honestly, I knew one song by one of them going in. I went because Mr. Thor loved them both. I didn’t really care, and I only went because I had a ticket. At some point, even though I was exhausted, and tired, and also, exhausted, I realized how truly lucky I was to be in that little room with all of those people, right in the front. I cried. I laughed. I danced until I was sure my feet and legs would just give out. And when Todd Sheaffer finally yelled out, “now go to bed, you crazy motherf___ers!!” sometime after 4 AM, I felt an incredible sense of loss. I couldn’t believe it was over.
We headed back to the tent and went to bed. I couldn’t wait to get up and try it all over again the next day.
This past weekend, Mr. Thor and I did something completely different. We went to a weekend-long music festival. And camped. In a tent. In 90+ degree weather and thunderstorms.
We chose DelFest because it wasn’t too far to drive – about 4.5 hours each way. We also decided that the lineup was too amazing to miss. We could easily spend the price of admission over and over again trying to chase some of our favorite bands around to catch good shows.
A lifelong fan was born from the first second I saw Del.
Here is the thing about bluegrass music. It might not sound like much when you listen to an album. It might not be your style. But there is a true magic that happens when watching a live show. It’s just one of the best things I have ever experienced. The good-vibey, collaborative, and appreciative spirit that happens on the stage is enough to give me chills every time. Add to that the absolute perfection of skill that’s required to play truly great music and well – the perfect storm created a true live bluegrass junkie right here.
Mr. Thor and I decided that a festival bearing Del’s name must be awesome. We bought our tickets on February 28th, bought our tent (we have never camped before!) and waited anxiously for the festival to come.
On May 25, we left the house at about 6 am. Our first plan was to gas up the car and buy some ice for the cooler, and to make a quick stop at to grab some rain boots “just in case.” When we pulled into the gas station, I asked Mr. Thor if he had his cell phone – he did not. After putting gas in the car and ice in the cooler, we stopped and picked up our boots, then turned around and went back home. After retrieving the cell phone, we hit the road around 7am.