This Labor Day weekend, the Muddy Roots Music Festival was held at the June Bug Boogie Ranch, north of Cookeville, Tennessee.
It became immediately clear that Muddy Roots caters to a certain subculture, giving a newcomer the initially-disorienting, ultimately-thrilling festival experience of wandering from show to show of bands they’ve never heard of. Meanwhile, die-hard fans were everywhere, pumping their fists in ecstasy with every beat and singing along with every word because these bands are their life.
Not the Crowd You Might Expect
Muddy Roots bills itself, unsurprisingly, as a festival of American roots music. This conjures an image of old men in overalls and John Deere trucker caps with brambles of gray hair extending from their jaws down their chests, picking at banjos and guitars, sawing at fiddles and rapping spoons against washboards. That’s where Muddy Roots surprises: your typical camper is heavily tattooed and decked in classic punk-rock regalia—combat boots, torn jeans, studded jackets and patches.
These are fans of country music’s working-class origins and outlaw spirit, and they hold no love for the corporate edifice Music City represents.
“It’s a hippie-punk kind of collective,” said Chris Saint Clark, singer-guitarist for Nashville psychobillies Hellfire Revival.
“It’s all inspired by roots music. Everybody here listens to older music created by the legends,” said Ticket, a 27-year-old machinist from Madison, Wisconsin. “We appreciate the fact that it’s created by themselves. It’s not written by somebody else or produced by somebody else. They put out all the work, and the fact that they show that, and that people can see that is super important.”
Muddy Roots caters to a small culture that got its start in the 1980s, when punk rock’s infectious spirit of self-expression caused it to spawn a seemingly endless variety of fusion genres. Punk met country-western music and micro-genres with names like “psychobilly” and “cowpunk” took off, especially in the Midwest.
“The way I think of it, ‘Muddy Roots,’ it’s roots-rock influenced, but it’s torn and twisted and molded,” said Saint Clark.
A Line-up Full of Surprises
Hellfire Revival kicked off a breakneck tear of acts Friday night consisting of Nashville’s Hillbilly Casino, 1960s garage-rock masters and punk forbears The Sonics and Swiss punks The Monsters.
Hillbilly Casino’s singer and stuntperson Nic Roulette brought a wooden crate on stage with him to stand on, and, more frequently, leapt off of. Each side of the box shows the face of a music great like Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. The band’s style, as restless as its impossible-to-photograph frontman, paid tribute to each.
While eardrums were certainly pummeled with their share of power chords through Marshall stacks, the guys who played less mutated strains of roots music rocked just as hard.
Dave Arcari, alone on the “Cracker Swamp” stage with his National resonator guitars, opened his Friday afternoon set by saying “Ooh, I’m just a quiet little acoustic boy from Glasgow,” before rocketing himself across the stage, screaming “Come on!” Arcari played fearsome slide guitar blues inflected with Gaelic folk, hawking his consonants from the back of his throat with a thick Scottish brogue.
On Saturday, Gabe Zander gleefully said “this one’s a song about killing cops” before plucking out a classic country walking bass-line and twisting the Johnny Cash story-song format into a bracingly informative lesson on how to dispose of a police officer’s body.
Later that day, Mason Tinsley, banjo player for the Detroit bluegrass outfit Rickett Pass, invited fellow banjoist Buck Thrailkill on stage, saying that everyone in the community owed the man a debt of gratitude.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Thrailkill later, “that’s a bit of an overstatement.”
Thrailkill is the Vice President of Operations for Rusty Knuckles, a Raleigh, NC based record label and leatherwork company. Exemplifying the festival’s D.I.Y spirit, Thrailkill and Rusty Knuckles set up shop, custom-making belts and guitar straps on a workbench he built himself.
A banjo player of 40 years, Thrailkill has provided lessons through Skype, and played with many of the bands present at the festival for years.
“The thing about music is, if you’re not willing to give what you know, everything you know is just going to go away with you,” he said. “It’s worth what you make it, and the worth is in how you share it.”
They Don’t Call It Muddy for Nothing
The festival lived up to its name Saturday night when a period of torrential rain brought rivers of opaque water and an onslaught of “muddy” jokes.
Several camps were destroyed by water that was knee-deep in places.
“When the storms come, everybody pitches in and tries to save what they can,” said Thrailkill. “People who would never normally talk to each other end up knee-deep in mud saving somebody else’s gear.”
“Where else would you see that scenario? The lawyer who’s on vacation and the high-school dropout with face piercings trying to help out an older couple who very ignorantly set up in the bottoms knowing it was going to rain,” said Thrailkill. “I see it every year.”
Because of the rain, Saturday’s headliners, including Mudhoney, played in the much more intimate “trailer stage” tent, and perennial festival favorites, the Goddamn Gallows, closed out the weekend Sunday night.
Before that, Music Row got due representation with Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Bare. Bare introduced songs like “Marie Laveau,” “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn” and “Quaaludes Again,” with stories from the 1960s and 70s, when the songs were written.
Ticket calls the scene “one of the closest families I’ve been involved with.” He would go to Revered Horton Heat shows when they came to Wisconsin, would follow Horton’s opening acts, then follow the opening acts of those bands.
“I finally got a chance to recognize faces, and the artists started to recognize my face. We got a chance to talk to each other and hang out with each other,” Ticket said. “It comes down to, right away, this family thing. Every time they come up to Madison,[Wisconsin,] I take care of them, take them to supper, take them to the pub-house for drinks, then hang out afterwards and give them a place to crash.”
Ticket also sees being a part of the scene as a sharing experience.
“I try to reciprocate the affection I feel they show me by creating the music that they do.”