Packing Bags and Hittin' the Road: A Look Back on Music Gatherings of Yore
Remember when Mumford and Sons spent their pre-show hours swinging from tires in a lake crowded with fans?
With Summer 2016 now nearly officially upon us, outdoor music festival season in the US is in full swing. Between mega-ticket acts and smaller, boutique gatherings, those inclined to attend can now pretty much find a day or weekend event in just about every state. Although it’s still an option for certain circumstances-Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza aside-, the days of road-tripping halfway across the country to seek out a unique festivity are nearly gone.
With the progression of festivals in mind, it’s interesting to think back on some happenings that either no longer remain or exist in a completely different format. Remember, Bonnaroo began as a smaller niche outlet for those worshipping at the altar of Phish and the Dead, while Lollapalooza was once a traveling road show. The demographics amongst festival attendees skewing young. Not to sound like the angry, “Get off my lawn” guy, but it’s important too, to remind younger audiences that the festival game has been existing and thriving amongst many different environments for quite a while.
Below are four festivals and one unique travel outpost that resonate with this seasoned festival goer, for one reason or another. There’s a relic from days gone by, two recently reformatted rural gatherings, a gospel-tinged event that tipped its’ toes in the country music waters, and a bizarrely conceived roadside attraction that failed to capitalize off the legacy of its’ namesake.
Singing on the Mountain
Grandfather Mountain is a work of majestic beauty. At 5,946 feet, it lies in the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and stands as the tallest peak of the range’s eastern escarpment. It's also a State Park, serving as a peak tourist destination that features several environmental habitats, numerous hiking trails, and the world-famous mile-high swinging bridge. Given its’ rural, southern geography and its’ wide open natural space, the land is seemingly well-suited for a music festival and for the past 92 years that’s exactly what it has hosted.
Founded initially in 1924 as a Sunday school picnic, Singing on the Mountain became a yearly gathering with primary emphasis on gospel and sacred music before broadening its’ horizons to include some folk and country music elements. Championed and frequently hosted by ‘50s pop hit-maker George Hamilton IV and documented by noted folklorist and photographer Hugh Morton, Singing on the Mountain gradually morphed into a well-attended regional attraction.
Decidedly less fashionable than the hippie gatherings on both coasts, the festival nevertheless hit its’ peak period during the late '60s and '70s with appearances and performances from the likes of Roy Acuff, Bob Hope, and “The Man in Black” himself, Johnny Cash. As an artist who possessed that rare crossover appeal to both Christian and Secular audiences, Cash’s presence likely provided healthy doses of swagger and dynamism to the sedate and rustic setting. If nothing else, he served as Morton’s principle subject for two of his most particularly iconic photographs
California Jam I & II
As racetracks turned into concert venues go, Altamont Speedway is, of course, the most well-known. Nearly five years after that tragically mismanaged event, another raceway, this one about a six-hour drive south, made another attempt at hosting hordes of festival goers. With California Jam, the Ontario Motor Speedway set what were then paid attendance records as over 250,000 fans swelled the venue past capacity. In addition to the attendance figures, the day was memorable for a couple of other notable happenings.
ABC-TV cameras were on hand to film footage for its In Concert series, while radio stations broadcasted the action live in an early example of simulcasting. From an audio standpoint, Tychobrae Sound Company developed what was considered to be the loudest amplifier sound system ever created for concert use. Surprisingly, for an event this massive, the artist lineup was particularly unimpressive. Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were stars at the time, but as headliners their top billing seems today a bit underwhelming for a crowd that size. “Smoke on the Water” likely ruled coming from that sound system, though.
The day also came with some legendary band antics and temper tantrums. Irritated over a set-time pushback, Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore tossed equipment into the crowd, attacked an ABC cameraman, and then, in a pyrotechnic mishap, accidentally caught the stage on fire with his amplifier. In a scene straight out of Almost Famous or Altamont years before, the band hightailed it out of the racetrack in a helicopter.
In 1978, promoters tried again with California Jam II. An even bigger crowd descended on Ontario and jammed out to the likes of Aerosmith, Santana, Heart, Ted Nugent, and Foreigner. The daylong parade of FM Gold hit-makers was once again filled for posterity and broadcast nationwide for peak promotion and revenue collecting.
While Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnics or his several trips to the tiny outpost of Luckenbach, Texas are much more well-known, an unobtrusive truck stop just south of Dallas in Carl’s Corner, Texas was the site of Willie’s Place, a gift shop/hall of fame/studio/concert hall hybrid centered around the The Red Headed Stranger himself.
Considering Nelson’s own numerous financial battles, it’s not too terribly surprising to learn that Willie’s Place was forced to close in 2011 after a loan default led to foreclosure and bankruptcy. It now stands as a Petco Truck Stop, but for six or so years prior, Willie himself would occasionally drop in to perform short sets, host episodes of his satellite radio show, and meet with adoring fans who would go out of their way off of an I-35 exit to catch a glimpse of their pony-tailed hero.
Occasionally other touring bands would stop in, but as a blip on the crowded highway that runs from Dallas to Austin, there was never much incentive for artists to schedule gigs there. Sadly, it now stands in history as a kitschy remnant of Americana masked by a corporate façade.
Wakarusa Music and Arts Festival
With a population just under 4,000 people and a difficult to navigate mountain location, Ozark, Arkansas-like Manchester, Tennessee or Indio, California, two of its’ more recognizable sister cities of the festival circuit is not a major tourist destination in and of itself. However, from 2009-2015, Mulberry Mountain on Ozark’s outskirts, hosted the Wakarusa Music and Arts Festival showcasing a wide range of national and local acts on several stages for a weekend in early summer. The Black Keys, The Avett Brothers, Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket, and The Lumineers were a sampling of the headliners featured over the festival’s run. The promoters, though a bit jam-band heavy, also took great care to feature several acts that representative of the region’s rich folk and country-influenced heritage.
Due to the area’s remoteness, onsite camping was pretty much a requirement for festival attendees. The tents, campers, cars, and sleeping bags that crowded the grounds gave the event a communal vibe more in line with the legendary festivals of the late '60s than those of the present day. Spotty cell phone service and a toned down social media presence were also refreshing benefits of the location, as was the pristine hiking trails and swimming holes scattered nearby.
Concertgoers could frequently rub elbows with the performers, who all seemed to be in awe of their surroundings. In 2011, members of Mumford and Sons spent their pre-show hours swinging from tires in a lake crowded with fans. With attendance capped at 20,000, the event was able to capture more genuine moments like this without the crushing claustrophobia of other like-minded festivals.
Wakarusa originally started on a farm near Lawrence, Kansas before moving south to Ozark. The past few years found Mulberry hosting a spinoff event in the fall called Thunder on the Mountain. Hosting more traditional country acts like Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan, the weekends were also huge successes, but interestingly, Mulberry Mountain is completely silent this year, as both festivals have been quietly canceled. Should the music find its’ way back to Northwest Arkansas in future years, devoted attendees will likely flood the gates once again.
All Good Music Festival and Camp Out
The All Good Music Festival and Camp Out (“It’s all good, maaaan”) was a pretty heady gathering for 18 solid years. Like Wakarusa,, though, its’ time has been temporarily halted. Though not completely closing up shop, the fest has been moved to a two-day affair at the DC-area, Merriweather Post Pavilion, a more traditional style amphitheater venue. In years prior, though, whether being held in Masontown, West Virginia, Thornville, Ohio, or most recently, Summit’s Point, West Virginia, attendees hit these Appalachian towns hard, partaking in jam-friendly acts like Leftover Salmon, Widespread Panic, and Les Claypool, and noodling down with pickers like Keller Williams, Sam Bush, and the Del McCoury Band. Mostly a legion of tie-dye and Birkenstocks, the crowd promoted positivity and utilized their collective energy towards environmental sustainability, political activism, and social justice issues in equal force alongside the music.
A true throwback to the festivals of yore in terms of ethos and musical match, it would be a shame to see the All Good fest either fall by the wayside or remain the tenet of a huge corporate setting. Perhaps 2017 can see a return to its roots over yonder.