Key West, Florida is the stuff of legend. Pirates. Rum. Hemingway. Jerry Jeff. Buffett. Duval. And for the past three winters it’s been the stuff of Texas/Red Dirt legends. Jamie Lin Wilson’s transcendence. Mike and the Moonpies emergence. Wade Bowen’s genuineness. Willy Braun’s presence. Cody Canada’s gratitude. And so on.
It’s the tale of how two songs connected the entire week. Willie T’s is one of the more famous local haunts on Duval Street. For years, travelers and revelers have been hitting up this joint featuring approximately 16 hours of live music a day and the wall décor of George Washington greenbacks. People have been writing messages on the dollars and placing them on the wall for generations. What at first blush may seem like a trivial tourist trap, is upon inspection a thoughtful, cool bar that embodies the vibe of Key West. You bring your problems to the island and forget about them in the time you’re there. You can share a triumph or tragedy on a bill and staple it up for the ages. All while jamming tunes and enjoying a cocktail. Willie T’s is not an official Mile 0 venue, but along with Sloppy Joe’s, Hogsbreath Saloon and our favorite, the venerable Smokin’ Tuna…it’s a monument to everything that Key West is and will always be.
In a week of cool moments, two impressions truly stand out as I comb through the memories, photos, posts and stories. One being the growth of the festival. That first year it was rare to see someone with the armband on walking down Duval. Every bar you entered asked “What’s that armband for?” It was just a few mere months post Hurricane Irma and the island was still in recovery mode. Mile 0 2018 set the bar for recovery and laid a path forward.
Now, the Mile 0 armbands are omnipresent. It’s as if most of the rest of the island shuts down for us to invade. And signs of the festival abound everywhere. “Welcome Mile 0 family!” read a sponsored banner that hung on the porch of an early 20th century home off Duval St. Kyle Carter, Kimberly Brian and the entire crew behind the festival have done an amazing job of keeping the feel boutique and small; while generating economic and corporate sponsorships that pay for the party. It’s part of what makes this festival so special. It’s just big enough, yet small enough at the same time. When you’re overtaking a 2×4 mile island with tons of Texans and Okies for a week, it’s best to make friends with the locals and Mile 0 has near unanimous buy-in from Key West residents and hobknobbers. A truly impressive feat.
The second thing that stands out is the weather we encountered Friday night and the Randy Rogers Band’s response to it. For the first two years of the festival, we had avoided the typical Florida rain showers and Caribbean humidity that accompanies it. It had been a sparkling 68-72 degrees and sunny for 24 hours a day for the entirety of the festival. That would change on Friday January 31, 2020. The forecast was ominous, and was the main topic of conversation all day long. We all knew it would hit, just not certain exactly when. As Wade Bowen took to the stage, it quickly became apparent that the storm would unleash on the festival just about the time Randy Rogers Band was hitting the stage. The storm arrived a little earlier than that…it hit during the changeover.
But, Mother Nature waited until the band went into their first song prior to going full fury. Randy Rogers, Brady Black and Geoffrey Hill stood out front of the stage getting pelted by 50+ mph winds and pounding rain. It was a gnarly mess. Many fans left prior to the deluge, but just as many stayed with the band. It was truly a moment I’ll never forget being part of. “Damn the Rain” was no longer just a fantastic RRB deep cut, it was the weekend’s mantra. Hundreds of soaked festival-goers sought refuge in bars, restaurants, cars, tour buses, trailers, bathrooms, trolleys, campers and boats as they waited out the storm.
The community feel of the festival was tightened and emboldened by the fact that RRB got out there at all. And the lasting image is that of Randy Rogers leaning backwards, eyes closed, large raindrops forcefully falling around him, tight grin on his face…delivering an impish shrug that implied…”we tried.”
Despite this being the third year of the festival, we’re all still tweaking our manners of getting there, where we’re staying, where we’re eating and drinking. It’s almost as if we are colonists settling a foreign land. The more we learn, the better we get at it…but we never stop learning.
On the musical side of things, Mile 0 took things up a booking notch this year by snatching two of the largest touring acts related to this type of music currently on the road: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Whiskey Myers. They increased the overall number of artists and venues. They brought back favorites from the initial two lineups and added dashes of new and established artists to round out the lineup.
The result was the most diverse lineup on a Texas/Red Dirt festival. Everything from the swamp funk of Shinyribs to the strained honky-tonk of Kevin Fowler, and all manner of songwriters and country-rock-folk in between. The Tuesday Duval Street party exemplified this booking tactic in entertaining fashion as Charley Crockett kicked the festivities off dressed in his throwback Nudie-esque duds, moving like Hank Sr leading a party in a frathouse. Crockett was followed by The SteelWoods who rocked out with originals and Allman Brothers covers.
It all set the stage for Shinyribs. The Ribs show keeps growing in scope and size with each passing year. Kevin Russell’s a creative genius and he’s figured out how to cross genres and put on an Americana-funk dance party for the ages each time out. But, shutting down one of the world’s most famed party streets, setting up a stage and leading a party for thousands causes him to go next level and bring each of his tricks out of the bag. Russell’s set mined nearly all of his studio releases and was peppered with expertly crafted and chosen covers culminating with a rousing take on Rihanna’s “Better Have My Money”.
Drew Kennedy and Josh Grider, now also known as the Topo Chico Cowboys were Mile 0 Fest rookies, despite being music business veterans and longtime favorites of this here website. Unabashed homerism aside, as longtime fan and supporter of their music, it was beyond cool to see them connect with hundreds of fans on such a large scale. That first connection happened with a Drew solo show at The Marker pool stage on Wednesday morning. It continued at the Red River Songwriters Fest Reunion show at the Key West Theater on Thursday as the twosome was joined by Kelley Mickwee and Walt & Tina Wilkins. Friday found them performing on a catamaran for “Pirate Cruise” purchasers and winners. Saturday brought them a capacity crowd at Durty Harry’s.
With each performance you heard more buzz on the streets of Key West. The truth was also told at the merch stand where the Topo Chico Cowboys sold out of every stitch of merch they brought. Their caps and shirts dotted the island for the entirety of the week (second only to the Moonpies gear that we saw).
Three Mile 0 veterans were again everywhere you could imagine. Jamie Lin Wilson started her week by playing the Tuesday night after party alongside Mike Harmeier and his Moonpies. Wilson and Harmeier have become de facto mascots for the festival. Up for adventure, liable to be found on any stage with an easygoing, harmonious and inclusive vibe. Their 3rd wheel is Wade Bowen as Bowen has used the week the past few years to cement his Uncle Wade moniker. He shares his stage with anyone that wants to join and he can be found at just about any type of show you can imagine just being a friend and fan. Key West agrees with Bowen and it shows.
The amount of musicians you see out supporting each other at this event is truly staggering. But, in three years of attending I’ve never seen as many watching one act at one time as when Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit hit the stage Wednesday night. Pick a name on the show bill and they were here. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of a master at his craft. Several mentioned to me that they had never seen him because they are usually gigging when he comes through their neck of the woods. And they weren’t left disappointed. Isbell and company cranked through a set very similar to many he’s played the last couple years on this most recent album cycle. As he launched into “Elephant” it began to sprinkle and the moment was downright spiritual. It was the type of moment that would make nonbelievers of all types reconsider their affiliations and opinions.
Reckless Kelly had a similar showing of peers during their Saturday evening Amp set. Willy Braun had been all over the place the entire week. He could be found sitting in on drums with Jamie Lin Wilson or just hanging out at a show. While on he and Cody Braun’s catamaran cruise he detailed how the band had some formative years in Key West playing Hogsbreath and ran into a rowdy traveler. They let T-Bone crash on their floor after a night of revelry and woke to find him revving his Harley out of the driveway. A hastily scribbled note on the kitchen counter that read, “leave the rubber on the road and the blood inside. – T-Bone” Hence, the RK classic “Desolation Angel” was born. Reckless Kelly’s set was punctuated by their addition of Ryan Engelman (Turnpike Troubadours) on guitar. His melodic interplay on the big stage with Cody Braun was a musical highlight of the week. With Turnpike on the sidelines, it was cool to see Engelman remain one of the most dangerous dudes with six strings of electricity in his hands.
Prior to Isbell’s set, he had a heavy list of stage setters that included Flatland Cavalry, Shane Smith and the Saints and American Aquarium. Flatland started the evening with the right tone and mix of their bigger songs and laidback vibe before giving way to Smith. Smith brought the intense, harmony driven and roots music laden set that has become the Saints calling card. The set list was familiar and the result was consistent. People were blown away by the energy. Energy is the best way to describe the way in which BJ Barham and his crew take over a stage. Barham’s years of incessant gigging and touring have led to him being able to completely control a crowd and smile the entire time he’s doing it even when playing the sad ones.
Another Mile 0 first-timer that made his mark this year was Jonny Burke. Burke’s first set took place at Durty Harry’s after Isbell’s Amp closing set. He was playing a song swap set with RC Edwards. Durty Harry’s isn’t exactly a listening room, and it’s even less so at 11:30pm, but the songs cut through. Edwards played Turnpike hits and new songs. Burke became overcome with emotion as he played a new song that regaled how last year at this time he was behind bars and 12 months later he was sitting on stage in Florida next to one of his good friends and playing his songs to a packed house. Life is funny that way. Burke detailed that humor by playing his “Problems” that was co-written by Hayes Carll and following it up with reminding everyone that Jerry Jeff is the one that showed Jimmy Buffett Key West and not the other way around before launching into Walker’s “Derby Day”. Burke punctuated the Jerry Jeff performance with the anecdote that it was the first song he’d ever performed in public back when he was just 15 years old.
While Burke was basking in the glow of his first Mile 0 appearance, the reigning Mile 0 MVP, Jack Ingram was performing his only main set of the fest at Smokin’ Tuna. It proved to be one of the most popular events of the week. The Tuna was 1 in 1 out 30 minutes prior to Jack hitting the stage. This is the type of problem that had not happened in the first two years of the festival, but with ample alternatives the likes of Jonny Burke going on it did not appear that folks were too upset.
Speaking of MVP’s, we had a close race for this year’s trophy. Mile 0 newbie and new dad, John Baumann raced out to an early lead. Baumann was all over the place taking in the music. Always intently listening, smiling and soaking in every vibe Key West had to offer him. He was surpassed by Kelley Mickwee. Mickwee performed as 1/2 of the Shiny Soul Sisters during the Shinyribs street party before joining in on the Red River set and joining in on the 80’s ladies extravaganza at Cowboy Bill’s. Mickwee narrowly edges out Baumann for the 2020 trophy due to the breadth of her Mile 0 experience. She played a raucous street party, co-hosted an intimate songwriter round and topped it off by joining in on one of the coolest novelty sets of the festival. So, for those keeping score the Mile 0 MVP race has been scored: Jamie Lin Wilson (2018), Jack Ingram (2019), and Kelley Mickwee (2020).
Now, our very informal category has always been informed by lead performing songwriters and artists. Despite the efforts of Jamie Lin, Wade, Baumann, Mickwee, Kennedy, Grider, Harmeier and Courtney Patton playing on a sprained ankle, there is a special category to award this year. Biggest rock star. That goes to Omar Yoki, bassist of Mike and the Moonpies. Omar provided the moment of the festival when he was accosted online for looking like Fabio. He took the jab in stride and did what any good natured boss musician does…he headed to Uncle Bekah’s tent and had an Inappropriate Trucker Hat created with a screenshot of the slam and proceeded to wear it all over Key West. He also managed to jump off multiple stages, crowd surf, play several instruments, and possibly catch more sets by more artists at any stage. If this past week had a mascot, it was Omar Yoki. Cheers to you good sir!
There isn’t really a time where the community of Key West doesn’t shine. From sunrise to sunset and all hours of the day, there is something cool going on. Including the sunrises and sunsets themselves. The breakfast joints are mouthwateringly fantastic (shoutout Banana Café and Blue Heaven). The lunch and dinner spots are internationally renowned. Yet, it’s those late-night pizza and hotdog spots that are truly lifesavers. The first two years our late-night munchies were served by the pizza spot at the Rick’s/Durty Harry’s conglomeration. However, we found one this year closer to the quieter side of Duval that was slurrily and thusly reviewed by an overserved fellow patron at approximately 2am on the first night we were there. “It’s good if you’re f*cked up.” She’s doing them a disservice. That pizza would be good any time.
There were some attacks on Mile 0 for not showcasing enough female acts. However, given the cards they were dealt of Brandi Carlile’s event, the Outlaw cruise and offers that came back from booking agents unaccepted, the overall collection of artists was as good as one would find anywhere. The females truly shined. Be it the ever present Jamie Lin Wilson. The good natured smiles and harmonies of Courtney Patton spanning stages across the festival. Kaitlin Butts delivering the goods in solo spots at Smokin’ Tuna or jumping up to belt out “Life Where We Work Out” alongside Flatland Cavalry. Bri Bagwell stunning at the Sunset Pier and Outlaw pool party.
Or Juliet McConkey showcasing why she’s one of the most buzzed about artists currently on the come up. McConkey has an easygoing voice that belies that harsh realities that her lyrics detail. As she played a set at Southernmost beach, it was the perfect breezy, airy complement to the scene she was performing in front of. By chance or necessity, the females showed up and showed out for each other in greater numbers. They were at each other’s gigs. They were on each other’s stages. This sisterhood culminated in the 80s Ladies show. A rollicking free for all jam that found Cody Angel on guitar, Scott Davis on bass, and Willy Braun on drums as they backed up the costumed Jamie Lin Wilson and Courtney Patton. Wilson and Patton would be joined by a plethora of acts singing songs for the next three hours. It was one of those, this could only happen in Key West moments and perhaps the most fun anyone had onstage all week long. The support and bonds displayed during this raucous gig underscored just how precious the relationships in this scene are. And during the Kylie Rae Harris tribute, they were each other’s support in a different way.
Few events have shaken this music scene and industry in the way that the death of Kylie Rae Harris has. Her presence and style were an ingrained part of the festival the first two years of its existence. Kylie always went big. With a laugh, an outfit, a story, a moment, a performance. She had “it”. As Wade Bowen remarked at her tribute show, “I just knew she was going to be a big star. I’d have bet anything on it.” We all felt that way. She was the kid sister to everyone. And for many folks who had been unable to attend her memorial service back in September, this was a time to get together and grieve.
The Key West Theater is one of the best listening rooms I’ve ever been in. The acoustics are marvelous and the lighting is impeccable. It was the perfect place for this event. Sunflowers adorned the front of the stage and 9 chairs crossed the length of the stage to hold the performers and friends who had come to pay tribute to their departed sister in song. From R-L (Walt Wilkins, Tina Wilkins, Jason Eady, Courtney Patton, Kaitlin Butts, Jamie Lin Wilson, Wade Bowen, Wade’s guitar player, Bri Bagwell).
I took snippets of video amid tears and have chosen not to share them out of respect for the personal nature of the event. At least at this time. Maybe sometime down the road. But, that showcase was for us in the room. Those of us who knew her. Walt set the tone immediately with some remarks regarding love, anger, forgiveness, religion, spirituality, legacies and songs. Each artist followed suit by giving anecdotes, emotional memories of all varieties. What struck most, as pointed out by Jamie Lin Wilson, was just how great Kylie’s songs were and remain. She wrote what she knew. She wrote her life. Warts and all. And as Bowen added, “for most songwriters that’s how we’d all like to be remembered.” It was a powerful moment and a truly beautiful remembrance and performance. It’s one I was glad to be able to witness firsthand.
The songs go on. 48 hours prior to the KRH tribute show, the Key West Theater hosted rising Austin songwriter, James Steinle. Steinle has a new record coming out. His style sits somewhere in the realm of if John Prine had a residency at the Broken Spoke and bartended at the Mean Eyed Cat on his off days. His songs shone in the darkened dim of the theater. Standing on their lyrical heft and melodic touches. Another young artist that turned some heads at Mile 0 was Lucas Jagneaux. Jagneaux earned his spot on the Mile 0 bill by winning their songwriting contest. He solidified that win by stringing together some Louisiana soul that had dashes of the countriest sides of Marc Broussard. He’s a cat to look out for in the coming years.
At one point, I found myself sitting at Sunset Pier sipping on a frozen concoction listening to Senora May when a chain of events unfolded that ended up with me on a “Tipsy Tiki” boat. It was BYOB and Porter Union would be joining us. We’d be floating in the ocean and around some local islands, but mainly be parking near the Sunset Pier stage where Will Hoge and Hayes Carll would soon be performing. It was one of those moments where you realized how charmed life can be at times.
It was the perfect confluence of circumstance. (That could be a mantra for most things that happen in Key West).
Many times, life can be an extended Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, but there are the bright times that come around every so often just to remind you of how good it can be. This was one of those moments. Listening to two of my all-time favorite artists while floating in the aqua blue waters of Key West is about as cool as anything music related gets.
Music itself, without any simultaneous island tours can also be pretty great. That was repeatedly evidenced at the Truman Amphitheater with blistering sets from the likes of Whiskey Myers and Robert Earl Keen. The Thursday and Saturday headliners respectively, they each let the music do the talking. WM’s talk was loud, crunchy and jamming. Keen’s was subdued, relaxed and warm. They were each true to themselves and each proved why their names go bigger on the bill than most others. Acts ranging from William Clark Green to Adam Hood to Brent Cobb to Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis all showcased themselves in the ways in which first endeared them to this scene. Jason Boland and the Stragglers tore through the strains of their Pearl Snaps album on its 20th anniversary. Cody Canada found joy in the Ragweed songs he wrote that have remained standards and favorites. By leaning on the power of their music, the artists of Mile 0 showcased what makes all of this so great in the first place.
Independent music has exploded over the past twenty years due to the advent of the internet and the strength of the song. There’s a vast group of diverse fans out there seeking and craving songs with something to say. Something real. At least something that feels real even if it’s completely fictional. That real feeling is felt across the Mile 0 bill and was front and center this past week. It’s centered on the relationships fostered by the musicians and songwriters that collaborate to make this great music. It’s refined by the relationships and friendships between artist and fan. And it is bolstered by the connections created between fans themselves.
This feeling of camaraderie and togetherness is what Mile 0, Key West and Texas/Red Dirt music is all about. Us versus them. As Jack Ingram once sang, “we’re all in this together.” And as the Topo Chico Cowboys rejoiced in the song “Here’s to Friends”, the friends you’ve had for a longtime are as essential as the ones you just met. Especially when you’re bonding over the joy of music you love in a tropical locale. TCC had bookend songs that encapsulated the vibe of the festival, and music scene at large. They are now unofficial Mile 0 Fest anthems.
Here’s to friends y’all. The ones you just met (that couple from Kansas) and the ones you’ll never forget (Kylie Rae Harris). And everyone in between. It was a beautiful week in every sense of the word. A rallying cry for a music festival, a scene, a movement.