Visiting Three Southern Music Festivals During the Delta Variant Surge

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Visiting Three Southern Music Festivals During the Delta Variant Surge

Rodney Crowell at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville

To go or not to go: That was the question. Whether it would be nobler to hide from the slings and arrows of this outrageous virus, or to take to the road despite this sea of troubles and by defying them, vanquish them.

The schedule was so tempting, it was difficult to resist. The Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion on the Virginia/Tennessee line was in its usual slot of the second weekend in September. Merlefest, postponed by the pandemic from the spring to the fall, was the third weekend in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. And the Americanafest was in Nashville the fourth weekend. So my wife Liz and I, along with another couple, made plans for a road trip that would hit all three festivals, with stops at our favorite restaurants, trails and shops along the way.

That was in June, when all four of us had been vaccinated for months and post-Trump America seemed to be returning to normal. We were beginning to believe the plagues were behind us, but by August, such optimism seemed naïve. The Delta variant was racing through the unvaccinated population. The West was burning; the East was drowning. The Taliban had seized Afghanistan, and in Texas, new laws were passed to require involuntary pregnancy, limited suffrage and the freedom to spread the virus.

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A barbed-wire fence near the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

Such headlines reinforced my ambivalence about the American South. Much of my favorite music, my favorite food and my favorite landscapes are housed there, and I make at least one major road trip into the region every year. Yet it’s hard to ignore the reactionary politics and the stark disparities in wealth, education and legal treatment. And all summer long, the New York Times’ maps of Covid infections and deaths had the South a blazing red, while the maps of vaccination had the same states a pale green.

Did we really want to drive through this area for most of September? We did. It turned out that our fear of one disease was canceled out by our fear of another: cabin fever. After 18 months of isolation in our houses, eating at the same dining-room tables every night, taking the same neighborhood walks, absorbing our culture only through computer screens, we were starving for Southern food in restaurants, Appalachian trails and string-band music on stages. We were going.

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Farm machinery near Blowing Rock, North Carolina

My ambivalence about the South is reflected in my address. I live in Baltimore, which is south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but north of the Potomac River. There’s a lot of the South in the city—especially in the neighborhoods where African-American and European-American families migrated in droves from West Virginia and the Carolinas after World War II. But Baltimore is also an East Coast seaport, and that makes it different from border states such as Kentucky and Missouri. My hometown has a strong Southern flavor, but that’s not the only flavor.

We left on Thursday, Sept. 9, and in an hour we were crossing the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers near their confluence in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The city, so crucial in the Civil War, nests on the riverbank, surrounded by steeply sloping green hills on every side. We were now in Southern Appalachia, and the timelessness of the rivers and mountains were allowing us to relax our pandemic nerves. This, too, will pass, the landscape seemed to say.

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The Mabry Mill in Floyd County, Virginia

On our old Camry’s CD player was Valerie June, an artist deeply rooted in such landscapes. Though she has released one of 2021’s best albums, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, she still splits her time between her professional home in Brooklyn and her family home in Humboldt, Tennessee. When I talked to June in Nashville on this trip, she wore her hair in a pile of braids tangled like vines and threaded with flowers, while her black dress resembled a pond reflecting a night sky full of stars. I asked her why she has to keep one foot in the South.

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Valerie June at the 3 Sirens Studio in Nashville

“I love the nature in the South. I love the smell of the South. The city smells so bad,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “When summer comes and I go back to Humboldt, we see lightning bugs every night. When I visited my boyfriend’s mom in Florida, I saw my first alligator. How cool is that? I know what the South is, but I also know what it can be. That’s why we’re always outside in the spring, asking, ‘What’s growing?’ ‘What’s changing?’”

From Harper’s Ferry, we slid down I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, with a verdant mountain range on either side—the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians to the west. We stopped at my favorite gift shop in the world (Gift & Thrift in Harrisonburg, Virginia), and at one of my favorite restaurants (Mrs. Rowe’s in Staunton, Virginia). At the former, I picked up some vintage rubber stamps. At the latter, I ordered the chicken pot pie, and it arrived topped by a piece of cornbread the size and shape of a large pancake. After eating our own cooking for a year and a half, how great it was to eat someone else’s—especially someone with this kind of Southern imagination.

We arrived at our Airbnb in Abingdon, Virginia, and met Greg and Pat Timm, our old Maryland friends who now live in Texas. The next morning I ate huge, moist biscuits smothered in sausage gravy at the Girl and the Raven in Abingdon. I tried to compensate for those calories by taking a hike on an old railroad line that had been converted into the Virginia Creeper National Trail. It squeezed us between moss-covered cliffs, through open-meadow farms and across old wooden train trestles over creeks feeding the Holston River.

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An old sign in Bristol, Virginia

The Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion began on Friday, Sept. 10. This event had been shrouded in controversy since Jason Isbell and Yola both pulled out when the festival failed to insist on proof of vaccination or recent negative test for entry. My little group almost pulled out, as well.

When I spoke to Leah Ross, the executive director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, the non-profit that runs the festival, she explained her dilemma. Unlike most festivals, this one doesn’t take place in a rural field, in a state park or on a college campus. It takes place in a historic downtown, which is fenced off from non-ticketholders for three days. That means all the shops, restaurants, theaters and bars in that area are de facto parts of the festival. In a normal year, that’s a key part of the event’s appeal—you’re not isolated in a bubble as at most festivals; you’re in a real city with real businesses.

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A doorway in Bristol, Tennessee

In a pandemic year, however, that’s a liability, because you have to get agreement on the protocols from all the private businesses involved, plus the police and sanitation workers who provide security and clean-up. Making things more complicated is the fact that Bristol’s main thoroughfare, State Street, is the boundary between Virginia and Tennessee. Lead singers on the State Street Stage like to introduce their bassist as standing in Tennessee and their lead guitarist in Virginia, while pointing out that their left leg is in one state and their right in the other.

“There was lots and lots of discussion about how to make our artists feel safe, to make our audience feel safe,” Ross said. “But even if we required that of our ticketholders, we couldn’t require it of the city workers who help us set up and police the area. We have restaurants open downtown, and Tennessee wouldn’t allow us to impose protocols on that side. At the end of the day, we felt we had to go ahead with our festival without the protocols. We did require everyone in our backstage areas—all our artists, stage crew and security—to have vaccination or tests.”

My group decided to go ahead, as well. We stayed out of the few indoor performance spaces and kept our masks on even when outside. No doubt there were some stray coronavirus particles floating in the air, but never enough to pierce our vaccine shields. Our gamble paid off in some terrific music.

Country legend John Anderson of Florida sat in a folding chair next to fellow acoustic guitarist Glenn Rieuf and ran through a deep catalogue, with his rich baritone—a cross between George Jones and Levon Helm—remarkably intact at age 66. The acoustic duo of dobro virtuoso Rob Ickes and singer/guitarist Trey Hensley played songs by Bill Monroe, Tom T. Hall and The Allman Brothers. Looking over the duo’s shoulders were Jimmie Rodgers, Ralph Peer and the Carter Family. They were painted on a nearby brick wall to honor the 1927 sessions that gave Bristol a legitimate claim to the name, “The Birthplace of Country Music.”

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The mural for the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, Tennessee

Folk Soul Revival, local heroes in Southwest Virginia, played their final show before breaking up, and the emotional throng before the parking-lot stage radiated the happy/sad mix of any farewell affair. Another Virginia band, Woody Woodworth & The Piners, displayed the potential to fill the void left by FSR. Alabama’s Early James, a quartet led by singer/songwriter Frederick James Mullis Jr. in bright orange overalls, recreated the distinctive storytelling and Southern groove of its Dan Auerbach-produced debut album.

The SteelDrivers, the Tennessee bluegrass band where Chris Stapleton arguably did his best work, has survived his departure for solo stardom to keep the same sound, approach and high standards. “It was such a big thing when Chris left the band,” fiddler Tammy Rogers told me before the set. “Once we proved we could survive that and prosper, our fans want to hear the new stuff as much as the old stuff.”

When asked about the controversies plaguing the South this year, Rogers said, “It’s hard. I’m a born and bred Southerner. The only states I’ve ever lived in are Texas and Tennessee. Maybe because I’ve traveled so much and been exposed to so many people and places, I feel the pandemic shouldn’t be a political issue; it’s a health issue. I trust in science. But the South is home to me. I grew up a stone’s throw away from here. I remember lying in bed, listening to the Carter Family, and thinking, ‘That’s the music that grabs me.’”

Earlier that same day I’d talked to Houston’s Hayes Carll in Bristol’s wonderful Blackbird Bakery. As he nibbled at a pink-glazed donut and I at a key lime bar, the singer/songwriter said, “Anywhere you go there’s good and not-so-good. Maybe the South’s not-so-good is a little more visible, but I’ve yet to find a place where there’s not the same elements that bother people about the South.”

After we talked, Carll went out and delivered a knockout set with his band. The highlights included several songs from his fine new album, You Get It All, his most countrified, Texan project in years. “I’m a seventh-generation Texan,” he had told me. “I don’t know what gives us such an inflated ego, but we’ve got it. Not until I went to college in Arkansas did I realize that not all of us are so great. But I love that Texas gives you that feeling that you can do anything.”

The crowning achievement of the weekend, though, was Charley Crockett’s Sunday afternoon set. Wearing a gray cowboy hat, pointed boots, creased green pants and a belt buckle of five fanned cards in a diamond royal flush, the singer straddled the boundary between country and soul with a sound he’s dubbed “Gulf & Western,” a sound that required the pedal steel guitar, B-3 organ, trumpet and Telecaster that his band contained. But it was Crockett himself—with his economical lyrics, honky-tonk melodies, R&B grooves, purring verses, crying choruses and radiant charisma—that sealed the deal. When he started twisting to a guitar solo or aiming his guitar neck like a rifle at the moon, he was nothing if not a Southern star.

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Charley Crockett at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion

“It’s easy to look down on the South,” he said later at the Bristol Hotel, “but culturally, the whole world looks to the South. Most of the greatest country and soul singers are from the South—or a generation removed. It’s so poor that people live side-by-side, so it’s less divided than up north. Houston is the most culturally diverse city in America. The blackest states are in the South. The politics make me very uncomfortable—a lot of this stuff should have been put to sleep a hundred years ago—but the people make me feel comfortable. There’s a hospitality and friendliness in the South that disappears when you leave it.”

I had loved hearing Crockett’s two 2021 albums on CD: 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand, his tribute to the Texas country singer, and Music City USA, a collection of new, strong originals. But seeing him live from 20 feet away, adding some body English to every word and note, provided a more intense pleasure. This is what we had been missing during the pandemic: this sharing of the same space with a performer so that we could respond to the music in a way that the artist might feel in real time. This is why we were making this pilgrimage to these Southern festivals. We were interacting not virtually, but physically—and not just with the music, but also with food and landscape.

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Ridgewood BBQ in Bluff City, Tennessee

On Monday, Sept. 13, our traveling troupe left Abingdon and headed farther south. Our first stop was Ridgewood BBQ, a hard-to-find, culinary treasure on a two-lane blacktop in Bullocks Hollow, near Bluff City. This restaurant’s secret is that their beef and pork are sliced so thin and cooked so long that the hickory smoke and tomato-based sauce permeate every bit of the meat. And their servings are so large that we took boxes of pork and homemade coleslaw to our next Airbnb for a reprise of the experience.

That afternoon we hiked the Green Knob Trail, which crossed under the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The trail often took us through tunnels of 20-foot-tall rhododendron—impressive enough in September, but just begging for a return visit in late April during its blooming peak. As we got back on the Parkway, we had to stop for a moment as six wild turkeys wobbled across the road—two adults and four juveniles.

We had three days off between Bristol and Merlefest, and we devoted the second day to more hiking. We visited the Moses Cone Memorial Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway and learned that textile king Cone was the older brother to Claribel and Etta, who assembled the world-famous Cone Sisters collection of Matisse and Picasso paintings, now at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The hike began at Moses’ white mansion, which now houses a well-curated crafts gallery, and climbed steadily through alternating forests and meadows to a fire tower. From atop that tower, we could see for miles, as the ridges rolled toward us like waves, the closest a light blue, the in-between a dark blue and the farthest a shadowy purple.

Merlefest began on Thursday, Sept. 16, and as soon as we rolled into our parking lot, the volunteers checked our vaccination status and gave us a checkered wristband to prove we were good to go. We didn’t feel we had to wear masks at the outdoor stages amid our fellow vaccinees, and at the indoor stages, the ushers reprimanded those who let the masks slip below their noses. It felt much safer than Bristol.

Merlefest was co-founded by the legendary old-time country guitarist Doc Watson in 1988 to honor his son Merle, a fine guitarist himself, who had died in a farm tractor accident in 1985. It has always been held at the Wilkes Community College, just 23 miles from Watson’s home in Deep Gap, North Carolina. The college is built into the side of a hill, and one often walks down the steep slope through classrooms and gardens to the flat fields alongside a creek. The five open-air stages, four tent stages and two indoor stages are dotted across the campus. The festival is usually held the last weekend in April, when spring flowers are peaking in the Carolina hills, and it plans to revert to that schedule next year.

Doc Watson died in 2012, but the festival continues to emphasize gifted acoustic pickers. This year that included the 77-year-old Roy Bookbinder, who was a student of and later a chauffeur for blues legend Rev. Gary Davis in the ’60s. As his running buddy and fellow Davis acolyte Dave Van Ronk once did, Bookbinder carries on the Piedmont blues tradition of ragtime fingerpicking and droll storytelling. Playing on the Cabin Stage—the front porch of an actual cabin—Bookbinder provided a living link to an earlier age of folk music.

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Yasmin Williams at the 3 Sirens Studio in Nashville

But Merlefest also showcased Virginia’s 25-year-old prodigy Yasmin Williams, who has developed a radically individual approach to the acoustic guitar. Laying the instrument horizontally on her lap, Williams uses all 10 fingers to tap on the strings to make them ring. It’s as if she were playing the piano, and each of her hands creates a different melody that diverges from and then converges with the other. At times she sticks a kalimba—the African thumb piano—on the guitar top below the sound hole and flicks those metal tines while her left hand is tapping the guitar strings. It’s an astonishing approach to the instrument, but it wouldn’t be as mesmerizing as it is if the melodies weren’t so strong.

“My parents always played Earth, Wind & Fire in the car,” she recalled, “so I heard ‘Kalimba Story’ as a child. When I heard the song again as a college student, I thought, ‘This would be cool combined with the acoustic guitar.’ Suddenly I was my own rhythm section. I came up with my approach by hearing a sound in my head and trying to recreate it on the instrument. But the more I listened to Southern music, the more I realized my music was unconsciously rooted in Southern artists like Libba Cotten and Etta Baker. I do wrestle with that paradox. I didn’t want to listen to Southern music, because I conflated it with all the problems here. But the more I listen, the more I realize I do have roots here.”

Jens Kruger has taken a similarly distinctive approach to his instrument. As a teenage rock’n’roller in Switzerland, he was so entranced by Appalachian music that he picked up a banjo. He mastered it so thoroughly that he was actually hired by Bill Monroe. Jens and his guitar-picking sibling Uwe moved to North Carolina in 2002 so they could be closer to their hero Doc Watson. The Kruger Brothers are still there, and Jens has taken to writing chamber music and orchestral music centered around the five-string banjo and steel-string guitar. And when the group—now a quartet with bassist Joel Landsberg and drummer Jody Call—played two sets at Merlefest, the excerpts from the chamber pieces seemed a natural extension of the songs learned from Watson.

“We’d go to Doc’s house,” Jens said in introducing a medley of old-time tunes, “and he’d pull the banjos out of the basement. His wife Rosa Lee would make tomato sandwiches and we’d play all day. If I could go back there and hear Doc play ‘Shady Grove’ again, I’d be willing to start music all over again. There was just something about that sound; there’s just something about this place.”

The next day, Sam Bush Band played “Shady Grove,” which Bush described as “Doc and Rosa Lee’s courting song.” The quintet also played a song from the musical Hamilton, as well as songs by Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Hartford, and Bush’s former band, the New Grass Revival. The rhythm section was muscular and the solos were long, but you could always hear Watson’s influence under everything.

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Sam Bush at Merlefest

Many performers at these three festivals spoke of how glad they were to be playing in front of live audiences again, but few got as emotional as Bush did at Merlefest. “We’re thankful for so much,” he said. “We’re thankful to still be here. We’re thankful that we get to congregate with you all and play music for you. Let me tell you: If any of us took playing music for a living for granted before, I can assure you we don’t now.”

My favorite set at Merlefest, however, was by Robbie Fulks, the NBA-tall singer/songwriter from North Carolina who spent decades in Chicago and is now based in California. Fulks has never lost his taste for Appalachian instruments (he was backed by fiddle, mandolin and upright bass) and storytelling, with a strong dose of humor. The humor was serrated when he saluted North Carolina as the “Cigarette State,” but he was much more wistful when he introduced “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals” as “a song about being on the fence as a young person about whether to leave your hometown or stick with it.”

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Robbie Fulks (left) and Dennis Crouch at Merlefest

“For me, it was get the hell out,” Fulks said backstage after his set. “I love coming back here now, but I didn’t like being here at 15. I didn’t object so much to being in the South as being stuck on a farm. I could be in Corvallis, Oregon, and drive 10 miles into the countryside and see the same Trump signs people associate with the South. The fact is that the South is less segregated than places like Milwaukee and Chicago. Down here, we live closer together, so we know each other better. No matter where I live, I feel connected to this part of the country and its music.”

Merlefest ended early on Sunday, and our group celebrated with dinner at the Daniel Boone Inn, a white, flower-bedecked plantation house in Boone. The food was served family style with all-you-can eat platters of fried chicken, country ham on biscuits, strawberry preserves and warm, chunky apple stew. We ate a lot.

We spent Monday, Sept. 20, driving across up and across the Cumberland Plateau and down into Nashville. Tuesday was spent eating the fluffy pancakes at Wendell Smith’s and revisiting the terrific Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame (my favorite artifact: Guy Clark’s actual Randall knife). The locals pronounce the Hall’s address on Demonbreun Street as deh-MAWN-bree-uhn, but the female voice on Google Maps pronounces it as DEE-muhn-broon, as if to warn us of the city’s demonic undercurrent. Whether that Satanic threat is the coronavirus or the invasion of Florida Georgia Line clones on country radio, the app didn’t say.

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The Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville

When we registered for Americanafest, sponsored by the Americana Music Association, we had to provide proof of vaccine so we could get a pale blue “Health Check” wristband. That allowed us to enter any of the 37 venues, ranging from hotel rooms and rooftops to bowling alleys and actual nightclubs.

That provided a lot of options to choose from, and I was reminded of a conversation I had with Jay Sweet, executive director of the Newport Folk Festival. Sweet was arguing that the only reason to go to a festival was to discover new acts. And I said, “I have to disagree with that. If you rely too heavily on new acts, you’re going to see a lot more so-so music than great music. That’s why it’s also important to see the artists you really care about, to check out the latest chapter in their career. It’s important to keep going back to the people you know are going to provide pleasure. That’s why we get married.”

That’s why I made a point to see such favorites as Rodney Crowell, Brandy Clark, Robert Randolph, Jim Lauderdale, Amy LaVere and The Mavericks. Four other acts I was seeing for the first time ever: Queen Esther, Vincent Neil Emerson, Kingfish and Waylon Payne. But I had already fallen in love with their recordings, and I just wanted to see how that music translated to the stage.

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Queen Esther at the Musician’s Corner in Nashville

Queen Esther, raised by a Gullah grandmother in South Carolina, appeared at the open-to-the-public Musician’s Corner in Nashville’s Centennial Park, home to a life-size, concrete model of the Parthenon. The singer—striking in her gold-glitter eyes and pink-blossom dress—began the show with an a cappella version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator,” before being joined by mandolinist Jeff McLaughlin on “Whiskey Won’t Let Me Pray,” a song she wrote based on a Son House quote. These weren’t politically correct pieties; these were the real blues, where irrepressible desires wrestle with good intentions.

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Vincent Neil Emerson at the Country Music Hall of Fame

Emerson, a 29-year-old from Fort Worth with sturdy build and a boyish face beneath a tan cowboy hat, performed at the Hall of Fame’s Ford Theatre. His good ol’ boy image belied his big ambitions. “Townes Van Zandt is my favorite songwriter of all time,” Emerson said, “and this is the first song I wrote and kept. It’s a tribute to Townes.” It was “7 Come 11,” a lament that had Van Zandt’s razored leanness, a song so good that Charley Crockett has recorded it.

Kingfish (aka Christone Ingram) first made his name by holding his own with Buddy Guy as a guitar shredder on his debut album. But Kingfish has matured as a songwriter since then and is now willing to restrain his flash to put across the difficulty of growing up on the Mississippi Delta. That self-discipline carried over to his late-night show at the Cannery Ballroom, where he built his stories slowly but surely until it was time to cut loose with the six-string fireworks.

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Waylon Payne atop the Bobby Hotel in Nashville

Waylon Payne, the son of country hitmaker Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson guitarist Jody Payne, performed twice at Americanafest: a solo set on the Bobby Hotel’s rooftop and a band set at the famous nightclub the Exit/In. He didn’t mince words about his problems growing up gay in a conservative small town in Texas and the drug problems that resulted. But those candid sentences were so artfully crafted that the tabloid details were less important than the memorable aphorisms and psychological insights.

“I wanted to be a preacher,” Payne told me on that rooftop, “and I went away to bible college until I got kicked out for being gay. So I decided to become a country singer, which is sort of like a preacher, and is our family business after all. The songwriting came easy. I just said things differently, because I don’t have a filter. I won’t back down from the subject matter. You wouldn’t know the happiness that overcame me when marriage equality finally happened. Even though I’ve never been married, it was huge to have that option. And now the Texas Republicans are talking about taking that away.”

There it was again: the impossible-to-ignore paradox of the South—all the edifying culture we’d encountered on this trip and then the political dagger to the heart. After the sets by Crowell and Clark at 3rd & Lindsley on Saturday night, the Americanafest was over and it was time to start heading home. We made a stop in Paducah, Kentucky, to check out the terrific National Quilt Museum, the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, and the bread-pudding waffles at the Gold Rush Café. We made a stop in Renick, West Virginia, to visit a college friend’s farm. We awoke on Tuesday, Sept. 28, to lingering fog in the hills, angus cattle on the slopes, apple trees heavy with fruit and ghost footsteps in the dew-whitened grass. Before sunset, we were back in Baltimore.

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A farm in Renick, West Virginia

If one person tied the whole trip together, it was Charley Crockett. We’d seen him deliver sizzling sets in Bristol and Wilkesboro. We’d seen him accept the Best Emerging Artist prize from the Americana Music Association’s awards show at the Ryman Auditorium. We’d seen his stage clothes and lyric notebook encased at the Country Music Hall of Fame. We’d even seen his picture painted on the wall of Nashville’s best record store, Grimey’s. We’d heard him sing the title track from his new album, Music City USA, with the lines, “There underneath the lights of Broadway, I’m in the alley with the ghosts / I shouldn’t have come here in the first place, ‘cause folks in here don’t like my kind.”

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Charley Crockett painted on the side of Grimey’s in Nashville

Crockett stands out, a Black man from the Rio Grande Valley mastering the terse storytelling of Dallas honky tonk and the lubricated groove of Houston blues. He walked the block from Broadway to the Ryman to seize his trophy with an attitude that refused sentimentality and evasion. As he sang in that same song, “I’ll ask you just one question: ‘How would you like to pay my dues?’” As he told me during a long, wide-ranging interview, “I’ve traveled so much and have met so many people that I can see myself in everyone’s shoes. I don’t want to sing in an echo chamber. I want to reach people who wouldn’t agree with me on certain things. I want to reach everyone.”