I’ve been attending LJT’s Texas Music Festival for over a decade with some of my closest friends. Over that time, the festival’s growth has mirrored that of Texas/Red Dirt music at large. Each year brings new and exciting additions and the crowd gets bigger and bigger without it infringing on anyone’s enjoyment. On a ranch the size of Melody Mountain, there is plenty of room for the growth without it seeming crowded…which is good! But, what permeates the entire experience each year for me is relationships.
Relationships with your best friends, relationships with the music you love, relationship with the folks who become your neighbors for a few days, and relationships you see within the LJT crew. Love of music and good times are found in every aspect of the festival. I think that’s what keeps it growing and becoming such a unique landmark of songwriting and music in an increasingly commercialized Texas/Red Dirt scene.
The past few years our group has arrived on Wednesday completely in tact. However, due to various reasons, our group arrived in staggered fashion from Tuesday through Friday. Personally, I arrived early on Thursday and got my camp set up as fast as possible. Once our humble abode was ready for the next few days of music and good times, I headed up to the stage area to survey what was going on and I ran into a bunch of familiar faces and friends. As I alluded to, the thing I always take away from LJTs is the sense of cammaraderie and community. Over 40,000 people pile into this field with RVs, campers, tents, trucks and everything else you can imagine and virtually triple the size of Stephenville overnight. Everyone assimilates into this one, big happy family vibe that rolls over the entire grounds. I think this easy transition is attributable to the very organized LJT staff. There is a great deal of order and calm which is a wonderful statement to the professionalism and hard work they pour into planning this large of a festival each year.
Anyhow, as I looked around the main music areas, I noticed some minor changes. Gone was the helicopter rides of ’09 and the Mandatory FM stage. The Mandatory stage was replaced by Stevie Ray and the great folks at Red Seven Entertainment. Over the course of the next few days they would carry the torch of what Shayne Hollinger started. Other changes I noticed were some new vendors and some smart structural re-designs to some of the buildings. Aside from that, it was like I had returned home after having been gone for a year. Crazy Ray’s Compound was set up for some of the finest acoustic jams you’ll ever hear, and Justin Frazzell’s Texas Red Dirt Roads had even set up shop to host an acoustic stage.
But, the coolest change I noticed by far was the addition of the Rusty Wier statue backstage. A piece of majestic metal art that wholly captured Rusty’s essence was placed near the load-in ramp. With the caption, “Make ’em dance, make ’em smile” it was a hearty reminder of the ultimate Texas showman for each band that went up the ramp to the stage.
As I was taking this all in, it began to mist. Not an uncomfortable mist, but the kind that is actually a welcome relief to Texas humidity. It was like God installed misters out at LJTs this year. The rain was never overbearing (in my opinion), it never ruined a good time or any music…it made us scatter for cover a few times but all in all it was all good. While I was feeling the mist for the first time, I began to zero in on the sounds that kept hooking into my ears. I realized it was coming from the acoustic stage courtesy of 6 Market Blvd. I’d heard of these guys and we hosted one of their songs in the GW Music Player for a time so I was somewhat familiar. They had a very organic and rootsy sound that reminded me of the tone Reckless Kelly established on their Live at Stubb’s acoustic album from back in the day. These cats were the first of several young acts that would turn my head over the next few days.
After a trip back to the campsite to further straighten up things and grab some supplies, I headed up to see the mystical Walt Wilkins. Walt has just delivered one of the finest records of his stellar career with Agave and did what you expect him to do on the acoustic stage. Walt commands a stage without being overbearing, and his talent is peerless as he has helped develop and refine a style that influences everyone from Pat Green to upstarts like Bobby Duncan.
I watched bits and pieces of Max Stalling and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s sets before heading to the campsite to check in. Max has a very unique style that bleeds over from his songwriting and into his stage show, it is always a treat to hear. While, Ray Wylie’s fantastic whether rockin’ it out or in an acoustic format. He’s a highlight set every year at LJTs and has been playing it since it started.
Upon resting up for a bit and refueling, it was time to head down to the mainstage for a jam-packed evening of music that was being kicked off by Micky & The Motorcars. I was really looking forward to seeing them because it had been a while and Kris Farrow has always been one of my favorite guitar players. He brings a jazz improvization style to his playing that stretches what would normally be a run of the mill MMC song and takes it to a whole new level. Tonight was no different, despite a relatively brief set.
The next artist to take the stage was Mike McClure. Mac has long been a Stephenville and LJTs favorite dating back to his Great Divide days and his set is always an LJTs favorite. Judging by the large amounts of bare breasts grazing past the jumbotrons on either side of the stage, the camera man and several dozen females were really into this set too. He even made a typical McClure sarcastic comment when he motioned toward the light rainfall that was coming down and said he hoped to get electrocuted because he’d always dreamed that he’d die onstage at LJTs. He reached into his catalog and pulled out crowd favorite “Yesterday Road” which began the first of many sing-along moments over the week.
Up next was Wade Bowen. Coming into his third year of performing at LJTs and armed with booming career growth, Wade was one of the acts I heard the most buzz about in the crowd. In a festival-size set Bowen and company managed to cram in a slew of great material including the coolest cover I heard onstage all weekend, as they tore into a rousing rendition of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and had the crowd singing “na-na-naaaa He-hayyy Juuuude” long after they’d left the stage.
Stoney LaRue strode onstage next wearing a black leather jacket and black cowboy hat that was a cool juxtaposition to his standard bandana just rode up on a Demented look. Rodney Pyeatt was back on lead guitar for Stoney on this run due to Kevin Webb’s wife giving birth and Rodney did not disappoint. Before they played, Rodney had told me that he hadn’t played any of the Stoney songs in years and was just going to wing it. Well, he winged it to 11. Rodney put on the most fierce display of guitar virtuosity that I saw all week. The last few times I’ve seen Stoney he seems re-energized and I hope this is a progression that leads to some of the new music he’s written with Mando Saenz and others to hit our ears! The hits have never sounded finer though and the crowd dug every second of this set.
Randy Rogers Band was next in line to rock thousands. Fresh off the ACM Awards experience and a short run with Willie, the RRB guys were stoked to be back at LJTs which several of the guys told me is in their top three favorite gigs each year. The rain had dried to nothing, but the wind was whipping at an extreme fervor which was causing the sound to drown out and drift off sharply toward stage right. This caused the folks on stage left side to feel like the show was hard to hear and the folks on stage right to hear an echo. But, it didn’t harm the overall performance as RRB tore through a blistering set of standards with a few new tunes thrown in for good measure including the new single “Interstate” which several in the crowd already knew the words too. Wade and Stoney came up for a Haggard duet and the mainstage was sent out with a bang for Thursday night.
As most folks know this is usually when the RRB hayride takes place. After waiting around for a bit to see if it was going to actually happen due to the weather expected to hit around 2AM, I decided to venture around on my own and see what I could find. My first stop was at the Red Seven stage. I never got the name of the folks I heard to a couple songs, but they were very cool. I then ambled over to Crazy Ray’s for a bit before not finding any familiar faces among the campfire glow and I decided to hike back to the Galleywinter Compound to see what was shaking.
I found a decidely more calm scene than I’ve found in the past when I stumbled back to our site in the middle of the night. No grassfires, loud music or overall debauchery. Just a couple folks sitting around our fire contemplating the amazing time they were having. After some fat chewing, I hit the rack as well. Apparently, we had some bad storms roll through, but I slept through it all. I woke up to slightly wet ground and some hungover hunger.
Me and a couple of the boys decided to head up to the new breakfast taco stand. We found a short line, hot coffee and relatively quick service. We also found Stoney LaRue still up from the night before with Miller Lite in hand and campfire ash on his black t-shirt from playing around campfires all night. He was recounting his night in a very funny and bewildering way to the owner of the taco shack and before I had even placed my order he had vanished on a Gator with a smile looking around at the empty beer can graveyard left in front of the mainstage from the night before.
Aside from a must-see trip to the acoustic stage around noon to see The Trishas, most of the day was spent helping our buddies who were just arriving set up shop and enjoying some tunes at the campsite. Blues was the flavor of the overcast morning that led into a gorgeous afternoon with Seth James and Stevie Ray Vaughan leading the charge. The Trishas set was one of the most packed early sets I can recall, and with good reason. Each time I see these young ladies they blow me away. They were made for a listening room audience, even if that audience is comprised of a lot of folks who had their first Keystone Light at 7AM that day.
I passed a guy in a chicken outfit and a guy in a mariachi outfit that was about 3 sizes too small. This doesn’t happen elsewhere. Here’s a picture of Stu with the chicken guy.
After a couple of trips to the day parking area to pick up the last stragglers of our crew, it was time for Chris Knight. I’ve never seen a larger crowd at the acoustic LJTs stage than I did for this set. It probably couldv’e been moved to the mainstage and there still would have been an overflow crowd. Chris was in rare form as he tore into a gritty set from his acclaimed catalog. He was joined by a picker that I never caught the name of who played lead on guitar and some sort of electric mandolin that added a powerful punch of music to match the heaviness of many of Knight’s lyrics. This was one of the sets of the week, by far.
It was grub time after Mr. Knight finished so we were back at camp grilling up some goodies during Rich O’ Toole and some other acts. I wanted to see O’Toole play because people either love him or hate him and it had been a while since I’d seen him play. Plus, old Galleywinter fav, Adam Svoboda (Ryan Turner) was on lead guitar duties. By the time we ambled back up to the stage, Josh Abbott was in mid-set and had the thousands strong crowd in the palm of his hand. Charla Corn even joined him for a duet of their song “Good Night For Dancing” much to the delight of the male members of the crowd. He gets the Randy Rogers Jr. tag, and I’ve thrown that on him myself…but the kid is growing and coming into his own. He gave a rousing performance that was topped off by a “She’s Like Texas” singalong the likes of which I’ve never seen at LJTs. Not even for things like “Carney Man” or “Everclear”. Kudos to Josh for sticking to his guns and unabashedly doing his thing. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for him.
Rain was starting to drizzle down a little once Roger Creager came onstage. It was a typical Creager show and it really got the crowd hopping. The only atypical twist was the inclusion of Paul Overstreet (hit songwriter and singer of things like “Forever and Ever Amen” by Randy Travis and “When You Say Nothing At All” by Keith Whitley). Overstreet’s inclusion was another nod to the fact that LJTs is above all a songwriter’s festival. As Ray Wylie once put it onstage…it’s a literate party.
Reckless Kelly was up next and the rain was getting a little more furious, not unbearable…but Mother Nature was letting you know she was there. After just a few songs, it started coming down hard, although I don’t remember RK ever stopping the show. Hundreds of us bolted for the cover of the abandoned acoustic stage and enjoyed watching people mud wrestle and the unfortunate souls who had too much to drink and were busting their rumps on the slippery terrain. After about ten minutes, the rain subsided and there was a mass exodus back toward the mainstage. Around this time, “Seven Nights in Eire” was blasting from the stage and we began singing along but to the tune of “Seven Nights at LJTs”.
Before we knew it, the show was over and we headed back to our campsite to party while it rained some more. Our shade tents provided a dry spot for guitar pickin’ and joke tellin’ until about 3AM. Due to the rain, there weren’t a whole lot of big campfire songswaps going on, so we made our own. I seem to remember some neighbors busting out some outlawed fireworks and shooting roman candles into the nightsky. It was one of the most fun moments of the week.
Saturday morning beckoned after just a couple hours of shuteye. We’ve been attending for 13 years, but until last year had never really partaken in the Chili Cookoff portion of the event; other than juding some drunkenly a couple years back. Last year we didn’t place, but this year, our head chef Justin Dickey was confident that we would at least get Top 20. I grew up with a grandfather who ventured to Terlingua every year, so I knew this was virtually impossible for novices, but I remained optimistic. Upon turning in our entry for Redneck Woodstock Chili Co sponsored by Galleywinter and enjoying a good cold Bud Light for breakfast, we meandered back to the breakfast taco hut. On this day the line was extremely long and it took an eternity for us to get our food. But the long wait was worth it when this happened. The taco place sold fresh tortillas for folks making their own campsite breakfast…and the following is quoted direct.
Man to high school aged girl working stand: “Yes, I need 18 tortillas, please.”
Girl: “Uhh (looking around confused before finding her boss)…do we sell 18 tortillas?”
Boss: “We sell them in dozens and half dozens.”
Girl: “Sir, we only sell them in dozens and half dozens.”
Man without mising a beat, but all the while chuckling to himself gives slight pause and says: “Okay, then give me a dozen and half dozen.”
I don’t know if it was a you had to be there type thing but that cracked us up for hours.
11:30 AM snuck up on us quick and I hate that we missed the traditional Mike Mancy breakfast show at Crazy Ray’s but I was focused on gearing up for Josh Grider Trio. As everyone who frequents this website knows, I’m an unabashed Grider homer. I’ve loved the guy’s music for many years, he and his lovely wife sang at our wedding, and I’m proud to call him a friend. A couple years ago, when he first got the call to perform at LJTs, I was beyond proud and excited for him. He owned the stage that first year, then returned last year with his trio co-horts and delivered a rousing set that was the talk of the festival. I was hopeful he would go 3 for 3, I just didn’t know he’d hit a grand slam. Grider and the boys had made a late night trip over from playing Blaine’s in San Angelo, arriving at the festival around 5AM. After about four hours of sleep, they hit the stage cold beers in hand and with a statement to make. Josh and the boys drew the largest early crowd I saw at the festival all week. I think the LJTs folks were smart to put Grider on at 11:30 because it got everyone out of their campsites and down to the stage early. Upon an introduction from Tommy Alverson, JGT ripped into the most fiery “acoustic” set I’ve ever seen. The only thing acoustic about the set was the instruments…the energy was pure honky tonk rock n’ roll. By the time the band reached the epic groove of “Dollar Tree” they had an entire listening room dancing.
After receiving two standing ovations, Grider had left the bar set very high for Terri Hendrix & Lloyd Maines and Davin James. Terri’s a favorite of mine dating back to my time in San Marcos and seeing her at the Meridian LJT festivals. She has a witty way of writing songs that far too few females emulate. Plus, Lloyd is like the Godfather of Texas Music due to his production and steel guitar work. Any chance to see Lloyd is something not to be missed.
As the afternoon grew closer, it was chili turn in time and time to chill at the campsite for a while. In years past, our day would’ve centered around Rusty Wier’s performance. Yet, as it were we headed up to the stage in time to hear Rusty songs courtesy of a jam that worked around the gritty set provided by Matt Martindale and Charlie Shafter. Nobody can replace Rusty, but it was a valiant effort that was much appreciated by all in attendance including a guitar-wielding Coby Wier. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Bruce Robison in a full band setting, but with much longer hair and a beard, Robison resembled Willie right around the time Red Headed Stranger took off. I was only able to hear a few songs, including “My Brother and Me” before heading over to the chili-cookoff winners announcements. Unfortunately, Redneck Woodstock Chili Co did not place…but we’ll be back!
The Tejas Brothers were up next. A few years ago I kept hearing buzz about them and I didn’t really know what to make of it. I mean I loved me some Doug Sahm/Freddy Fender Texas Tornado flavored Texas music…but I thought it was impossible to recreate and reinvent. That was until I first saw the Tejas Brothers. These guys are the best entertainers working in Texas today. They are always a nice pick me up amongst a sea of solemn songwriters and soundalikes…and this was no different. These guys brandished matching Nudie suits and got the party going in a major way! They realized where they were at and catered to the sunsoaked and beer-drenched crowd. Their original tunes mingled with excellent cover choices like “Just The Good Ol’ Boys” made them an easy standout of the mainstage performers.
Upon grubbing out a bit, the stage was hit hard by Brandon Rhyder and crew who primed the crowd with a grooving mashup courtesy of the band Rock Sugar (thanks Twitterverse) that featured equal parts Journey “Don’t Stop Believin” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”.
Rhyder, Charlie Richards and crew followed this supremely cool intro with a hard-charing set heavy on the songs the crowd wanted to hear. Johnny Cooper was next onstage and from the moment the crew began loading his gear in you could tell that something interesting was going to happen. Gone was the kid with the old guys backing him up with the Ragweed-esque riffs replaced by a younger backing band including a DJ on the turntables. Some of the older folks were bristling at the inclusion of the turntables…but the young girls in the crowd enjoyed shaking their hips to it and I must give the kid mad props for having the balls to pull such a divisive tactic at a large songwriting festival. Somehow, he made it work though.
As always, the last set was the Larry Joe Taylor led jam session that culminates with a traditional “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” that turns into an unorthodox jam of artists free-styling their own, new verses of the classic song. It is always a perfect way to wrap up the weeklong festival as it contains all the elements that make LJTs so unique…songwriting, partying and relationships. Good people, good times and good music…it doesn’t get much better.
Photo credits: Joni Beard, Dave Hensley, Stu Huffman, Gary Scroggins, Kyle Smith and Raylee Walker.