The Third Annual Muddy Roots Festival (in Cookesville TN) was many things. It was the most diverse showcase of talent that could be found in any festival, anywhere this year with performers ranging from traditional icons like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Ralph Stanley to the uber-hardcore Antiseen with a unique montage like Dad Horse Experience, a one-man band from Germany, and in between. For it’s tight-knit core of bands and fans that spans the globe, the event was also a kind of family reunion. It was even muddy, (but thankfully only on the third day).
It was also a kind of carnival. Beautiful burlesque dancers and girls in colorful Rockabilly costume dotted a midway otherwise clothed in black and tattoos, lending an authentic carnival-like atmosphere. It wasn’t a carnival of lights or rides, but of sounds from three stages often featuring very different acts and of smells not so much of funnel cake, (though it was there) but of the very best BBQ imaginable. And everywhere, everywhere, from sky to hand, moonshine flowed. All tucked far away from anything else but a biker bar in the rolling vales of Tennessee.
Festival headliners were truly legendary. They included not only Stanley and Elliott but some truly stellar and unconventional blues artists like bluesmen Robert ‘Wolfman’ Belflour and L. C. Ulmer. Belflour’s Hill Country Blues were filled with steady, driving rhythms that almost carry punk rock undertones. The style, rooted more in African rhythms than traditional blues, conveyed a steady, driving spirit shared by most of the performers seen over the weekend, from Joe Buck to Kara Clark. Ulmer, a Delta Bluesman is a multi-instrumentalist who is known for being his own twelve piece one man band, plays guitar, keyboards, drums, fiddle, banjo mandolin, kazoo and harmonica. They’ve led the lives of everyman, working hard and playing hard. As evidenced by Belflour, who wrecked on the way, hitched a ride with a tow truck driver and came walking up the hill with his guitar and amp. (The tow truck driver stayed for the show and took him home.)
Also displaying hardcore tenacity and overall badassary were Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Dr. Ralph Stanley, who both played in spite of positively torrential rain, delays and related issues. Ramblin’ Jack is a true wandering poet, a rugged singing cowboy and friend and student of Woody Guthrie. He was an enormous influence on Bob Dylan, who, along with Guthrie’s son Arlo, learned a great deal of Guthrie from Elliott due to the latters tragic early death. Like many other Muddy Rootsartists, Elliott merges a variety of genres to create a new, unique sound, Even at 75, he continues to defy convention, changing labels and releasing I Stand Alone on the ANTI– label, with backup players who included members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Dr. Ralph Stanley, of course, needs no introduction. His performance was deeply stirring, and his “Man of Constant Sorrow”, “O Death” and other iconic American songs were perfectly backed by the driving rain. I don’t doubt for a moment that the mud carried the imprint of the footsteps of Blind Dick Burnett, the hard living travelling songster who originally penned the tune. When he began “Amazing Grace” I’m almost certain no one in the audience breathed until he was done.
Other Country music icons, Little Jimmy Dickens, (the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry) and Don Maddox of Maddox Brothers and Rose. Like many otherMuddy Roots performers, the Maddox’ are as real down to the salt of the earth as it gets. Hitching to California a little ahead of the Dust Bowl rush, they often worked dawn to nightfall and slept on the ground. They also became the best ‘Hillbilly’, (that’s what they called Country Music before it became Country Music and lonnnggg before it included Snoop Dog and Journey), band of the 40s and 50s. Because of their unique rhythms, and because they pre-dated Rock n’ Roll, Fred Maddox’s bass is displayed at the Experience Music Project in Seattle because they, “…believe he might have hit the first note of rock ‘n’ roll on it.”
Other festival highlights were the dynamic, theatrical Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, who held the audience in a hypnotic trance throughout their performance and Nashville artist Joshua Black Wilkins. A strong songwriter, Wilkins is also a talented photographer and filmmaker. His photography, like his lyrics is truly striking. As Wes Freed’s paintings reflect his music and vice-versa, Wilkins photography and songs do the same. Another multi-disciplinary artist, Dale Watson, who is slated to star in Stephen King and John Mellencamp’s musical, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County“, was also a true gem of the festival.
Solo artist James Leg along with Immortal Lee County Killers delivered the most energetic performances I think I’ve ever seen. Watching Leg perform was almost more like watching a sort of ballet of body and sound. ILCK infused his tunes with the same level of energy, as though not only his hands and voice but his entire body and soul infused each of his tunes.
James Leg in motion:
Fan favorites Wayne ‘The Train” Hancock, who is often compared to Hank Williams III, (who has recorded several of his songs), Joe Buck Yourself, Hank III’s distinctive former bassist and Bob Wayne and the Outlaw Carnies delivered amazing shows, as did J. B. Beverley, his stirring lyrics and delivery somehow combined the rawness of Merle Haggard with the plaintativeness of something like a sober, train hopping George Jones. When he sang “Dissappear on Down the Line” I don’t think there were many dry eyes in the crowd.
But what, you may ask, of the women? Were they on stage as well as in the crowd? Who were they? What did they do? Where do they fit into all this?
They deserve their own feature… so stay tuned for Part II of Muddy Roots
Till then, I think Dr. Stanley should have the last word.
~ Lonesome Liz
Lonesome Liz is an Outlaw Country and Blues singer/songwriter, (http://lonesomelizmusic.blogspot.com). She lives in a corner of Near-Nashville Kentucky she’s dubbed “The Land of the Outlaw Amish.” Always creating in one form or another, Lonesome Liz is multidisciplinary Artist and Mulitmedia Producer. Add Lonesome Liz (Elizabeth Bissette) on Facebook.
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