by: Storm Hoobler
(photo credit: Dave Hensley)
Red River Songwriter’s Festival. Red River, New Mexico. The teeth cutting Northern New Mexico town of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, Michael Martin Murphy and some other song makers with serial killer names. Elevation 8,671 feet. Quite a ways up for flatlanders and Texans alike. But, not so far west that the drive home is unbearable.
This festival is the brain trust of what I will refer to from here on out as the “Red River Brain Trust,” because that’s what I think they should be called. This trust is comprised of (originally, may be subject to additions) Drew Kennedy, Kelly Mickwee, Walt Wilkins, Susan Gibson, Josh Grider, Brandy Zdan, and Red River local, Mike Addington. Honorary members include anyone who plays, but especially Jamie Lin Wilson and Michael Hearne, and accompanist Michael O’Connor. The last mentioned being the unofficial-official MVP of the weekend. It was started six years ago during what, I assume, was a drunken night filled with magical voices and revelatory thoughts. And this time it sold out.
The little festival started in a tiny mountain town, with 24 attendees, has become one of the best festivals around. Especially, if you’re a fan of songs, virtuoso musicianship, and awesome crowds. (Read awesome as: “people who shut up and let everyone listen to the songs and let the song people sing their songs”) The attendance, unfortunately for people who aren’t timely ticket purchasers, is capped at 300. Which is the capacity of the infamous Motherlode Saloon (shout out to Clark and JP, the greatest bartenders in Red River).
I arrived a bit late to the first day, work sucks, but as soon as I had checked in to my room at the Copper King, I went straight to the Motherlode. The lead-off for my weekend was Michael Hearne and Slaid Cleaves. Not a bad start. Michael Hearne serenaded and lead the crowd in sing-a-long, and spirits started high for this Panhandle kid. The man does what he does, and does it well. A true veteran and an always engaging performer. Slaid walked up next to the mic stand. And, came out swinging like Tyson with “Drinking Days” and “Horseshoe Lounge”. If you don’t know those two songs, shame on you, but redeem yourself and listen to them. He then ran through quite a bit of his catalog. Reminding us again that, with the exception of Chris Knight, he is the working man’s poet. I felt like my dad wrote his songs. Two more bourbons and time for bed. Next two days were packed.
Friday opened up with a new addition to the Red River Songs set-up, Fireside Shows at the Motherlode. Drew Kennedy, Kelley Mickwee and Walt Wilkins opened up the day. Terrific set and setting, seriously. (If any of the RR Brain Trust reads this, keep that stuff.) The late afternoon shows took place at the Lift House Grill, right at the base of the mountain. Awesome setting, but the bar crowd is kind of a bummer. However, it’s not terrible, I just wish all the ski cats were there to listen to songs too, and not blast “Bad & Boujee” through their backpack speaker while they walk by. Brandy Zdan opened them on Friday and rocked more than waltzed as she always does. Stupendous rest of the afternoon by Kelley and Josh as well.
The Lost Love Saloon is the 4th venue for this festival, however, it takes place in Texas Red’s. Red River’s famous steakhouse that is hard to get into when there aren’t badass songsters playing there. Needless to say, I did not make it to these shows, but I talked to quite a few folks who did, and they were apparently as awesome as the rest of the weekend. So that is a plus.
Friday night was, personally, my big night. I’ve been a fan of one John Fullbright since Live at the Blue Door, and I’ve apparently been a terrible one, this was my first show. Jamie Lin Wilson played first, however, and she was magnificent as always. Her songwriting chops are top notch, and her musicianship as well. She brought Brandy and Kelley up to do a few Trishas’ songs. And I turned into a small child, because I love the Trishas. And if you don’t you’re wrong. Then, her and Drew Kennedy closed with a banjo laced duet of “Ain’t No Grave,” so that was neat too.
Then Fullbright stepped up to the mic, and did what he does. Just blow everyone away and hold their undivided attention for every note. The man is a fascinating performer and person. I don’t know how many of you have heard a musician accompany themselves, but John Fullbright does. I really have no other words. Just, phenomenal.
We all woke up the next morning (Saturday) and had Bloody Mary’s with Walt, then went to the Fireside again for Susan Gibson, Josh Grider and Brandy Zdan. Susan Gibson is my newfound songwriter of this festival, and I’m an idiot for not finding and realizing this sooner. She’s spectacular (more on that later). Grider is always awesome (support the new record! It’s gonna be awesome!). And Zdan went electric and scared a bunch of old people off, and I don’t hate old people, but I love rock ‘n roll and I’m glad it still makes some of them scatter. Lift House rocked again that afternoon, and the Lost Love was spilling out its doors all night.
Damn, now it’s wrap-up time, the Whole Gang is here. After a “sing by numbers” individual introductions, everyone was on stage. Song swap after song swap for around an hour and a half, Susan Gibson even made up two on the spot. Then, surprise, Fullbright stayed for the last night! So, along with the original seven and Jamie Lin, we got a 9th, the man from Okemah. The last night was the best, as it should be. The night was ended with a nod to one Mr. Guthrie and we all sang along to “This Land Is Your Land.” And there couldn’t have been a better sign off.
It’s a week or two late. But, Red River Songs made me slow down. And life isn’t as cool off the mountain. Love each other.