(all photos credit: Natalie Rhea)
Year 18 of attending LJT rolled out like so many others. Not getting there until Thursday, FOMO from all the M-W texts, a breakfast taco for the road. Over the past 18 years, I’ve learned how to pack exactly what I’ll need out at Melody Mountain. The first year we attended we had nothing but Keystone and youthful exuberance. About 5 years in we packed as if we were moving to a new city for a week. Somewhere along the way we’ve discovered a happy medium of essentials. Obtaining all those essentials is sometimes a months long journey, but I had them ready to go when I picked up our rented motorhome to load up. I whisked it into the driveway to my kids’ amazement. “Daddy, you’re camper truck is cool!”. Indeed. After an hour of packing it up, she was ready to roll. Thursday morning dawned with the last great shower for 4 days and some breakfast taco nourishment. Hwy 6 to 281 here we come.
The rain reports had me anxious about driving a Winnebago into a mudpit. I had already mentally prepared myself to pre-emptively find the tractor tow. Snapchats and pics that had been rolling in from the first few days made me well aware of this likiehood. I was super bummed to have missed Tuesday night’s Josh Weathers/6MB reunion sets and Wednesday’s American Aquarium/Turnpike redux. I was determined to make up for lost time and get the rig set up as soon as possible. Pushing the RV past any reasonable speed limits, I was making good time. I wasn’t going to miss one second of LJT2016. Internally, I had been debating if this would be my last one and perhaps the crew and I should conquer new adventures. New festival perhaps? With that as the backdrop I was going to live it up at LJT2016.
Turning off 281, I still get anxious butterflies about what awaits. Even after all these years. I made the turn right behind the Wade Bowen bus and followed Art down the road and before I knew it I was through the gates. The check-in process gets easier every year (shoutout to Martha, Ann, Shelby et al!). As I eased down the main campground road toward my abode for the next 4 days, I noticed it was muddier than even I had anticipated. I found my turn off and approached my row with trepidation at trying to not get the big beast stuck. I turned the wheels slowly toward 9 o’clock and then gunned it. Sliding side to side a bit as I neared my destination. The rattle of a well-made camper behind my ears and the sprawl of a muddy LJT road in front of me. My short time as a dirt track racer youth enabled me to slide into my spot laterally in a manner that would’ve made Bo Duke proud. I spent the next 20 minutes setting up camp. Then I cracked my first brew. I began to amble around and get my bearings. Checking in with friends new and old. Around this time I arrived at radio row and the Shooter 929FM bus. Just as I was walking up to talk to Jennifer Allen and the gang, my phone began to buzz incessantly. A weird phenomenon at LJT due to the lack of consistent service that can be described as spotty at best. I pulled it out of my pocket to discover a string of texts and a couple phone calls alerting me to the death of Prince. It was a Haggard level gut punch. It’s been a rough year for this. As word began to spread, the only music I heard from campsites was from the purple one. People were mourning. The younger portion of the crowd really had no clue, but they were partaking anyhow. I overheard one young woman ask her friends…”Who was Prince?….I didn’t know Merle Haggard either.” Insert shocked face emoji. If nothing else, death lends itself to art finding a greater audience.
As I was starting to move to acceptance of Prince’s death I got a text from Geoffrey Hill inviting me to play washers with he and Brady. Those dudes are ringer pros so I declined participating, but did go watch them for a bit. I hit a few radio spots, did a few interviews, gave away a few GF16 tickets and settled in for LJT en masse. The Allsups stage was rocking with Cooder Graw by this point. The campgrounds were rather barren. Many, many empty spots probably attributed to the weather. As the day wore on, traffic and population increased significantly. You couldn’t have asked for better weather from Thursday morning on out. Blue skies and sunny daytime, full moon and clear nighttime.
As The Last Bandoleros strode onstage, I ducked backstage to chat with my friends in the Brandon Rhyder band. Lead guitar player Josh Barnard and drummer Justin Cogneato are two of the most talented young cats in this scene. Keep your eyes and ears on those two. I ambled back out front to watch the rest of the Bandoleros and the Rhyder set. The crowd at the Allsups stage trends older. People clamor for the few shade trees to be found. Our group luckily claimed one each day. The scene is one of all manner of shade devices (umbrellas, oversize cowboy hats, tents and characters of all color). A true spectacle. As the main stage kicked off with Parker McCollum and Mike Ryan, I watched most of their sets from the back. When Casey Donahew started, I left the stage area to clean up for the night and link up with the rest of our late-arriving crew. Loaded down with mini-coolers that hold 18 packs (which we’ve found to be way more efficient than Yetis on top of large wagons-pro tip), we proceeded back to the madness in time for Wade Bowen. I meandered backstage amid the musicians, girlfriends, band-aids, VIPs, radio peeps, festival workers, hangers on, schlubs like me and a menagerie of all sorts of folks. Running into old friends and toasting some Colorado High Vodka (thanks Abbey), I settled in for some WB action. A few songs in, I was summoned to a meeting of the minds on one of the tourbuses where I caught up with old friends, watched some basketball and drank more chilled Don Julio than should be allowed in one sitting. Soon thereafter I found myself sidestage screaming along to every great RRB lyric you can imagine. A few songs in, an emergency happened in the crowd and Randy had to abruptly and awkwardly stop the show. The crowd, not knowing what happened, grew restless very quickly and began chanting, yelling, throwing stuff etc. A few stern words from John Hollinger on the mic later and we were back in business. The EMTs helping the injured girl skirted out quickly and the jams continued. In a wave of tequila, vodka, beer and raw emotion I floated over to the campfires.
I soon landed at one near my buddy’s campsite that featured Wade Bowen, Josh Abbott, Brady Black, Matt Martindale, Charlie Shafter and one Jackie Darlene among others. Guitars were passed around. Jams were sung along with as if we were in an Irish pub. The clear, full moonlit sky was providing a sheath of chill, but spirits were warm all around by the time Jackie busted out Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” backed by a chorus of drunken dudes misfiring on the “if you don’t” chorus lines. In typical LJT fashion, it was 4:30AM before I knew it and I figured it was time to rack out to do it all over again.
After a solid 4 hours of sleep (which at LJT is akin to 12 in the real world), I sauntered about in search of caffeiene and sustenance. Breakfast inhaled, Spark consumed, hot shower on the horizon. I was a new man in short order. My voice was raspy, my head pounded a tad. Much like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, I thought “I’m getting too old for this…”. No time for self reflection. It was time to get it. Debauchery started en masse at around 10AM and by the time Walt Wilkins hit the stage at noon my sides hurt from laughing so much. I have some funny friends, but there is one that shall remain nameless that takes the cake. Funniest, craziest guy I know. Also the first person I’d call if I was in an emergency. He’s that guy. He’s pulled off so many shenanigans out there that I can’t list any of them until the statute of limitations runs out. Nothing illegal mind you. Just stuff you don’t want to cop to. I’ll unseal those adventures some day. But in the meantime, you just had to be there. Let’s just say this guy is the one that saw Johnny Manziel at Czech Stop on the way to the festival and invited him to come with him. Johnny Football said he’d think about it and probably be there Saturday. Despite his ongoing legal troubles, rumors did abound that he was signing autographs at the Allsups stage during LJTs set Saturday night.
As the sun beat down, Walt gave way to Mike McClure to Max Stalling. A trio of veterans with deep catalogs and the ability to put on a show. However, the true highlight of Friday’s daytime activities was the set from Shane Smith and the Saints. This exciting young band has been tearing stages up across the scene for a couple years and are on the verge of becoming big name headliners. They had the most energy out of anyone I saw onstage all week. They proverbially brought it. One of the only acts that could have followed them was the Snake Daddy and Ray Wylie Hubbard brought his groover’s charm with the same consitency and bravado he’s had for 50 years. As Tommy Alverson hit the deck to jam “Texas Woman”, we headed back to camp to chill out and get ready for the evening’s activities. Freshen up, grub up, load up.
As Bart Crow was ending a rousing set we posted up in our favorite front of house spot for what I knew was going to be a standout set by the William Clark Green crew. The buzz surrounding it had been palpable all day. WCG and his guys certainly did not disappoint. If there is a king of the current Texas Music scene, it is without a doubt Will. He’s a bridge from the Randy/Wade era to the future. Each album is bigger and his set was full of hit after hit after hit as well as rousing live staples like Tom Petty, 6MB riffs and of course the Beatles/Stones interlude. There is not a finer twin guitar attack in Texas than that of Josh Serrato and Steven Marcus. They’re the Perry/Whitford of OKOM. Groovy tones for days. Earlier in the day, someone in our group predicted that the circus chant at the end of “Ringling Road” would likely be a highlight. Little did we know what would soon take place. As the intro to the song started, a knife artist appeared onstage juggling and balancing blades as the band ripped behind him. WCG was officially bringing the circus to LJT. This is the type of production you don’t see these guys pull off at other venues/festivals. Soon a creepy stiltwalker sauntered out and began to rhythmically sway to the music. Before long the entire stage was chaos filled with all manner of folks singing along: other artists, other musicians, disc jockeys, random people that made it past security and even briefly Rita Ballou. The crowd was a mix of beer soaked bewilderment and pure pandemonium.
(still trying to find a complete video of this…the pic above doesn’t do it justice)
Kevin Fowler had a tough act to follow and despite his music not being my cup of tea, it’s hard to find a finer entertainer…plus Paul Eason is a badass. A rousing set of Fowler’s typical redneck fare blasted by rather quickly. Which brought us to the evening’s headliner Josh Abbott Band. JAB took their shots from us and other outlets earlier in their career, but Front Row Seat was a benchmark album and JAB is making the best music of their career. Tonight’s set would provide a nice mix of party favorites and deep FRS cuts. Abbott has become an adept master of ceremonies and knew how to whip the LJT crowd into a frothy frenzy. JAB’s encore was another true LJT moment. Earlier in the day I had heard someone soundchecking the riff to “Highway To Hell”. I didn’t know who it was and someone had told me they thought it was Fowler just goofing around. I was about to find out just what it was. As JAB’s diminutive and uber talented keys player, David Fralin, confidently strode to the mic front and center in front of thousands of throat strained party minded folks; Preston Wait, JAB fiddler, picked up a cherry red Angus Young Gibson SG and tore into that riff as if he was a Young brother himself. Fralin’s vocals nailed a midground of Bon Scott and Brian Johnson as the chorus was chanted along by entire crowd. In a true sign of his growth as an artist and person, Abbott took a backseat to his band and and allowed them the front row seat to showing off at one of the biggest gigs of the year. Very cool. It was an epic evening to a truly epic few hours of musical performance.
Now it was campfire time again. We bounced around some spots we’d heard were good to no avail. Without much luck finding a solid one, I led our group back to the Ranch spot. The Buffalo Ruckus crew was killing it again before giving way to Justin Frazell himself. Justin went right into Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and it was awesome! It was the one song I witnessed at a campfire that everyone joined in on. Soon I was back on the move and bouncing around. I found a few cool parties here and there…but by now my voice couldn’t even make a squeak. Around 4AM, I decided it was time to take it to the house.
Saturday started with a 9AM wake-up call. 5 solid hours of sleep was glorious. But, I awoke unable to communicate with the outside world. I was completely voiceless. I would rely on a makeshift notepad where I would write requests such as “hand me a beer” or “chicken on a stick please” to get my points across. In true LJT spirit, I was not going to let this setback deter me from a good time. It was Saturday. There was sunshine and music. I was going to partake.
Once again we located a nice shade tree out front of Allsups and found a paltry crowd for Aubrie Sellers. LAW’s daughter plowed through a cool set that found a listless, small, hungover crowd…but Aubrie is a total pro. Davin James employed his Bayou country prowess next before Dave Perez led his Tejas Brothers onstage for the Allsups finale. If you can’t have a good time and move your feet to Tejas Bros, then something might be wrong with you. The one adjective I can think of when describing that band is: fun.
The moment the Tejas Brothers finished it would be time for our LJT contest winners to have their private Dalton Domino show. Cell service made it damn near impossible to get all of it set up…but I was able to find Dalton (thanks again Shelby) no thanks to AT&T and get the party going. A dozen of us camped out under that same shade tree as people, diesels and golf carts blew by behind us. Dalton regaled the crowd with funny stories, heartfelt songs and endured some good natured ribbing. Dalton couldn’t have been cooler about making our winners feel special and going out of his way to make it a true event for them.
It was now time to rally for one last night of LJT2016. We gathered ourselves and headed to the mainstage for some Cody Canada. It’s so cool to hear Cody play these days. He seems happy for the first time in a couple years. The old Ragweed songs came right out of the chute as if they were fresh. Dalton hopped up for a duet on “Late Last Night” and Willy & Cody Braun joined Cody for a Merle Haggard tribute of “Are the Good Times Really Over”. The sound out front began to sound like it does backstage or sidestage at this point. There wasn’t much wind, so I’m not really sure why…but the sound was quiet and muffled for the remainder of Cody’s set. And it stayed that way throughout Reckless Kelly. Few bands’ catalogs lend itself to a rowdy music festival better than Reckless Kelly’s. Midway through a set of their own hits, they brought Cody back out to do a Prince tribute and they played a flawlessly cool rendition of “Purple Rain”. The generation gap between performer (me) and crowd began to be very evident during this timeframe. The young kids up front didn’t know many of the Ragweed or RK songs…and they seemed confused by Purple Rain. By the time Willy counted off “Crazy Eddie’s” it was truly puzzling to see the lack of response. Go buy Millican and The Day kids.
It was about this time that I had to have one of my buddies go order my voiceless self a wood-fire pizza. I didn’t want to walk over with my notepad.
Creager’s set at LJT the past few years has been earmarked for nothing but the beer sloshing that happens during “Love”. However, Roger holds the entirety of the place in his palm for 90 minutes. He showcases his band with cool covers, jams the piano and trumpet and flat out puts on a show. It’s something to behold. The man himself, Larry Joe Taylor, was up next to put a bow on year 28. His finale included a star studded rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that featured made up verses “Boys From Oklahoma” style. Dalton Domino would be the last official act of the festival over at TBirds. I popped in for a bit but it was hard to stay in there paying $4 beer when I had an abundance just outside. I love Dalton, but I think I’d only have paid for booze at that point if the concert was a Prince/Haggard ghost band.
It was time for one last aimless trip around the campgrounds. No voice and all. I popped backstage for a bit and whisper-chatted with a few folks before heading back out in the great unknown. Still unsure if this would be my last LJT trip. The festival is definitely not what it was all those years ago when we first started going. It’s a monster that has grown so large it’s hard to control. The focus on the music among a majority of the attendees fades a little more each year. And, admittedly, maybe I’m just getting too old for it. I have my plans in motion to go to Rhymes and Vines this fall and I’ll reevaluate my LJT attendance next year. The crowd reaction Saturday night during the Canada/RK sets were indicative of thoughts and discussions I’ve had with a number of folks. There are a number of new acts, but few transcendent ones. Everyone looks the same, sounds the same and follows the same playbook. Will is the leader of the next wave and Dalton plays by his own rules. They’re refreshing. I’m just not sure what’s left beyond that. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Nobody works harder to put on a top flight festival than the Taylor family. Their contributions to this music and this scene are commendable and amazing. It is truly remarkable the scope of the festival now. From a few dozen around a campfire in Mingus to 40,000 in a field over 7 days. It’s a cumbersome undertaking and I can’t imagine anyone else could do a finer job. I’m on the fence for LJT29…but after 18 years some habits are hard to break. Plus, as everyone knows…you can’t say no to Larry Joe. Until next time.