What follows is my personal, annual post-mortem of LJTs.
5,000 words of what stood out to me.
Year 23 for the Larry Joe Taylor Texas Music Festival and Chili Cookoff was another monumentally successful collection of days full of music, memories, food and friends. The LJT experience usually breaks down into three stages. 1. A year’s worth of planning. 2. Actually being there and enjoying it for about a week. 3. Recovering for a couple weeks.
So, let’s begin with the planning. As we sat around the campfire last year on the last night of the festival we began to kick around ideas for this year’s event. We wanted to be more involved in all aspects. So, this year, Galleywinter increased our presence at the festival by being a sponsor, co-hosting an afterparty stage and doing our Ultimate LJT Giveaway. We hope to expand on all that next year. It was lots of fun.
Aside from the website coverage, there are tons of other logistical plans to make. Camping arrangements and groceries top that list. Let’s just say my local Sam’s Club is happy to see me the week before LJTs. The first year we camped out we ran through all our supplies on night one. Then the next few years we overpacked. We’ve been pretty streamlined for a long stretch now and it sure helps the whole week run much smoother. Calculating the perfect amount of alcohol, eggs and beef to bring to LJTs is no exact science, but after nearly a decade and a half of attending we’ve finally got it down to a near perfect degree.
This year we were based in several locations. We had some spots in Section G, we had some spots in the electric camping area, and of course we had our post-up spot at the Red 7/Galleywinter acoustic stage. This enabled us to see the days and nights pass by from various viewpoints and really get to witness a tremendous cross-section of the festival.
*Ed. note-I did not arrive until Thursday morning, but I will cover all five nights of the festival in this article based on interviews and video coverage.
Part of our crew began arriving on Tuesday for the Radney Foster headlined kick-off songwriter show. By all accounts it was as amazing as one would expect it to be. Radney played for nearly two hours and mixed in new songs with the hits and had plenty of great stories to share. At one point, Josh Abbott, who was there two whole days prior to his performance slot just to soak in the festival, presented Radney with the award for Song of the Year that Abbott had just won last month. A very cool show of respect and one Abbott should be commended for. I heard some compare it to when Garth Brooks did a similar thing at the AMA’s one year by giving his award to Hootie and the Blowfish. Different in scope and in the fact that Garth did his AT the ceremony…but still very cool.
A group featuring Larry Joe Taylor, Deryl Dodd, Matt Martindale and Dave Perez of Tejas Brothers followed Radney and performed a rousing set that was highlighted by a rendering of Rusty Wier’s “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance?”. As I’ve written about before, Rusty Wier’s spirit is something you can’t escape at LJTs. You can feel it in the music and you can just feel it in the vibe. So, it’s fitting that you can never get too far away from Rusty at LJTs and it’s very cool that LJT and company keep honoring his memory by performing his songs and repeating the mantra of “God bless Rusty Wier!” throughout the festival.
Wednesday is a day when the festival starts grinding toward full steam. More folks start pouring through the gates and everywhere you look you see more campsites being erected. Around this time is when Melody Mountain Ranch starts to completely transform itself from a barren cattle ranch into a town of thousands of like-minded music fans all hanging out in one Woodstocky peace and love community. Exhibit A of this was our neighbors arriving in a huge RV and telling my buddies they’d brought some extra food and ice just for us because “hell, that’s what neighbors do for each other!” This doesn’t happen at other festivals.
The big buzz of this day since the moment the performers line-up was released was Pat Green’s return to the LJT stage for the first time in 11 years. I still vividly remember the last time Pat played LJT’s. It was still in Meridian and the crowd was probably 1/10th of what it is now. Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines performed right before Pat and he proceeded to climb up on that stage and burn it down. This was Pat in his prime. “Take Me Out to a Dancehall” was starting to get radio play and the charisma he had onstage that night was palpable. Over the next few years, LJTs grew just as Pat’s career did. Each spring when the line-up was released we pined for Pat’s name to be on it one more time…and it never was. Until this year. So, the Wednesday night showcase had a bit loftier expectations than in past years because nobody really knew what to expect from Pat. I wasn’t able to be there in person but from everyone I talked to (lots) it was a magical show. But, before we delve into what trasnpired during Pat’s set, let’s look at the earlier musical offerings of the day.
As I said in our LJT preview, Turnpike Troubadours are easily our favorite new band of the moment. I was happy to see them included on the bill. I wish they could’ve played to more people, but it’s a foot in the door and exposure to many folks who had never seen them before. Rich O’Toole and Bart Crow are having career type years five months into 2011 and each of them said that this is their favorite festival to play.
After Bart is when the mainstage started to get interesting on this Wednesday. Kevin Fowler was made for an event like this. Much like Pat, he had not played the event since it was in Meridian. Based on what I’ve seen on YouTube and the folks I talked to, Fowler had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the get-go. His redneck anthems played right into the party vibe and the crowd was near fever pitch by the time Stoney LaRue hit the stage. Stoney is a longtime LJT favorite and apparently he continued his trend of playing new stuff at his shows. He’s re-tooled his band a bit, but still has the best drummer in the business, Jeremy Bryant, laying down the beat.
Soon, it was time for the man everyone had come to see whether they would have admitted that or not. For many of the college kids in the crowd, this would be the first time to see the master at his craft. They’d all heard the stories of the late 90’s and wanted to see if it was true. There were some reports of “Nashville sucks!” and “Sellout” chants prior to the set starting, but that sort of ignorance was washed away by the first few chords of “Carry On” and Melody Mountain Ranch was put in a time machine back to the year 2000. By all accounts, Pat played a blistering set of revival and redemption. It is good for LJTs to have him back and it is good for this scene overall for Pat to be back.
Waking up early like a kid on Christmas morning, I hit the road as soon as possible. I encountered hardly any traffic on the drive in, but did notice the amplified police presence. The line to check in was relatively quick and within minutes I had my credentials and was setting up camp. It’s always fun to drive through the grounds and arrive at your spot. It truly is like coming home when you’ve been in the same place all these years. It’s like a family reunion of 45,000 people. There are people I only see or hang out with once a year at LJTs that I consider close friends. Not to mention the neighbors that you bond with like the one’s I mentioned above.
After getting everything squared away at the campsite, I began to roam. I wanted to see what was new and check everything out. I immediately headed to the stage area. First, I checked in with Stevie Ray and all the good folks at our sponsor partners Red 7. He told me I’d been missing some amazing late-night picking as if I didn’t already know. Thanks Stevie! Max Stalling was onstage and the crowd was really into it. Max is a very underrated songwriter and performer. He has a unique style and many of his songs are so rich and full of character that they read like mini-novels.
By the time he ended with “Runnin’ Buddy” and had the crowd on its feet and singing along with him, I’d located all my favorite spots on vendor row. I’m convinced that Katie’s Cafe has the best patty melts on planet Earth and the chicken on a stick place saved my life more than once this year. One guy in line at the chicken place jokingly told me “The music is good, but I only come for the chicken on a stick…it’s that good.” Exaggeration aside, his devotion to the chicken is not far offbase…it is in fact that good. I also had some delicious fajitas and heard many people raving about the new gyro place.
After scoping out the food, I returned to the acoustic stage to watch the end of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. They played off each other like a musical Desi and Lucy…but when the time came for poignancy, they pulled that off too. You sometimes forget how many truly great songs Bruce has written until you sit down and hear him pull a deep track out.
As they finished I headed back to camp to clean-up and get ready for that night’s main events. Unfortunately, this led to me missing Kyle Park. Although, I didn’t get to see it, I could hear him and the approving roar of the crowd from our campsite.
As I heard him wrapping up his set, we frantically locked up our campsite and headed to the stage for The Departed. Along the way we passed an ATV comprised of LJT, Randy Rogers and Rich O’Toole touring the grounds and stopping to hang out with fans. That’s another facet of this festival that makes it unique. The personal connections that are made between artists and fans. Earlier in the day Geoff Hill and Brady Black from the RRB made their way through the campsites playing washers with all takers. Geoff had tweeted a challenge that they could not be beat and to hear them tell it, they held up their end of the bargain.
It was now time for the Departed. I’d seen some stuff on YouTube and heard some rave reviews, but I needed to see it for myself. The crowd was highly anticipating this set and there was a big buzz moving throughout the crowd during the set change. Once the band strode onstage and began ripping into tunes, some in the crowd didn’t know how to respond. Some idiots were yelling for “Carney Man” and what not. Sadly, I don’t think it was clear to them that it wasn’t Ragweed onstage. I really dug the mingling guitar tones and runs between Cody and Seth. I even enjoyed it a little bit more when Seth James sang lead…but it definitely left me wanting to see more and put my hands on some studio stuff which is coming out soon. As they tore through a ferocious cover of the late Mel McDaniel’s “Stand Up”, they left me convinced that they are going to be just fine…not that there was ever any doubt. Seeing them live and in person just confirmed it.
Love him or hate him, Josh Abbott is the hottest name in Texas Music right now and there are clearly way more of the former than the latter. Each year, the response he’s gotten from the LJTs crowd has been bigger than the year before. Last year, “She’s Like Texas” had just started it’s climb and this year it was as if each female in the crowd sang along when the band broke it down and let the girls lead the way.
Abbott works hard and he’s honing his own sound. He even debuted a new song called “My Texas” that will be a summer duet with Pat Green. Based on the crowd reaction, he’s got another monster hit on his hands.
During the last bit of Abbott’s set, I ran into Randy Rogers who played me a few brand new songs he’d just written. As he explained, they are more character driven and story based than a lot of his previous stuff. As usual though, they were all good and you can look forward to hearing them during the Hold My Beer and Watch This tour.
Wade Bowen hit the stage next. His band is one of the most impressive in the scene and his voice is so distinctive and powerful that collectively they are a wonderful live act. The crowd really dug the tunes and I enjoyed getting to see Ross Smith’s versatility by playing acoustic guitar on “Matches”. By the time they reached their set crescendo with a cover of “Born To Run” the crowd was downright explosive.
As Wade and company exited stage left, it became Randy Rogers Band time. As someone who has seen RRB so often over the past 11 years, it has been fun to watch them evolve into such great live entertainers. The guys commanded the stage for well over two hours and flawlessly played countless songs. An entertaining highlight was when Randy began trading hats with people in the audience. Once people saw what was going on, hats rained down upon the stage and Randy did his best to oblige each hat tosser by wearing each hat for a brief second. In a cool nod to his past, Randy called up his godfather Steve Shick to join him on guitar for “Stay Here and Drink”. For those that don’t know, Steve was instrumental in getting the RRB started and executive produced the Live at Cheatham Street record. So, it was very cool to see it all come full circle in front of 40,000 screaming fans.
Some of the best fun to be had at LJTs is after the mainstage shuts down. The Galleywinter/Red 7 acoustic stage was rocking along with a nice crowd. Meanwhile, Shayne Hollinger was hosting his own campsite shows again in a different location. At one point, he had Wade Bowen and Josh Abbott onstage. There was an empty stool when up strode a tall, brash guy with a cheap guitar from the crowd. In Shayne’s words…”this guy probably had no idea who was onstage, he just saw people with guitars and joined in…that’s how raw and good he was.” Turned out the kid’s name was Jesse Felder and he was in fact so good that the other guys ceded the stage to him and enjoyed standing back and just watching as fans. He was the talk of the festival from that moment on and Shayne will in fact have him on his Vault radio show on the Ranch on Sunday May 15.
Check out Mr. Felder:
Moments like this is where the hit and miss cell service of Melody Mountain Ranch comes into play. Trying to connect with friends and artists and keep up with all the cool stuff going on all over the place is tough. Wade tried to find the Galleywinter/Red 7 stage all night long before locating it at 3AM and jamming over there for a while. Poor cell reception hindered us from getting him there sooner.
While I was enjoying all of this, I got a frantic report that someone was shooting off fireworks in our camping section…in the midst of a burn ban. I rushed back there to make sure everything at our spot was okay and thankfully it was. By now it was really late, so I just pulled up a chair at our site and hung out til near sunrise.
After a few hours of shuteye, it was time for breakfast and recapping the previous night’s events. Sitting around and trying to remember all the crazy stuff that happened the night before is one of the most fun aspects of LJTs. I really missed not having a smoldering, leftover campfire to hang out around in the mornings. It was also a bummer to see everything so dark at night with no solid communal meeting places at the campsites like campfires. Hopefully, this won’t be the case next year and we can get back to the campfires!
Breakfast tacos are life savers at LJTs and none more so than those that contain chorizo. Something about the grease is a hangover reppellant. Some of our last arriving buddies arrived early Friday morning and once we got them all set up we began showering and getting ready for the day’s events.
It was extremely windy and one of our pop-up shade tents bit the dust early in the day. The wind was twisting and snapping stuff all around. Almost to the point of being unbearable in any other situation…but the nirvana of LJTs dominated anything Mother Nature threw at us, including late Saturday night rain showers.
After a few hours of battery recharging in the shade, it was off to the music. I was excited to see Ryan Beaver get his LJT shot. He’s a great young singer/songwriter and his record is one of the best of 2011 thusfar. The crowd seemed mostly unfamiliar with his material, but warmed up to him by the end of his brief set. Beaver was followed by three impeccable veterans: Bob Livingston, Michael Hearne and Tommy Alverson. Livingston is often referred to as “Cosmic Bob” and had as great a hand in shaping 70’s Outlaw music as anyone. As the bass player for Jerry Jeff Walker among others, Bob played on some of the most influential records to ever be released in Texas Music. Meanwhile, Alverson is a mainstay of LJTs and the greater DFW cog of the Texas Music scene. His ability to mix serious songs with his party repretoire has made him a longtime favorite. Today was no different.
Chris Knight was up next. Knight’s always a must-see because you never know what you’re going to get from him performance wise. It could be brilliant or it could be crazy…but one thing’s for sure it’s never boring. Knight was brilliant on this day. Self-deprecating humor mingled with the murder ballads as Knight held the largest acoustic stage crowd I saw all weekend in for the entirety of his set.
Six Market Blvd was kicking off the mainstage as soon as Chris Knight wrapped up, so I headed back to the site to clean up for the evening’s shenanigans. That was a mistake. As soon as I hit the welcomed embrace of the a/c inside the rv, I was done for. I didn’t get up for well over an hour and by the time I headed back to the stage Mike McClure Band was ripping through their blistering cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and I realized I not only missed 6MB, but I’d missed No Justice too. Big time musical fail on my part…but my body thanked me for the brief air-conditioned respite. I heard that 6MB killed it on the mainstage and I can’t say I’m surprised since they were in front of a rabid hometown crowd.
Johnny Cooper had the next slot and that kid sure knows how to put on a show. I’ve never been a really big fan of his music, but the kid continues to grow and get better teach time I see him. Cooper had the crowd whipped into a damn frenzy by the end of his first song. By the time he reached “Texas To You”, it was downright beautiful to watch the crowd reaction he was receiving.
During this time, me and the 6MB guys were scrambling to get the LJT Ultimate Giveaway concert locked down for later that night. The sketchy cell service was doing us no favors. But, eventually we got it all squared away and some 75 people showed up at the campsite jam to watch 6MB jam out for the contest winners. A good time for sure.
Cooper gave way to Roger Creager. Much like Kevin Fowler, Creager’s music and stage show were made for events like this. I hadn’t seen Roger since last LJTs and he put on a spectacular show. I know for those who’ve seen him a lot recently, it was nothing new…but to hear him bust out the crystal meth tweakers song from The Hangover and do a bit of Journey on the piano during the middle of his set was something to behold. Of course, the Mike Ethan Messick penned “Everclear” had 40,000+ screaming at the top of their lungs by the time this set reached its peak.
I must point out that by now the gushing wind gusts were making enjoying the music a challenge. Unfortunately, due to this, I wasn’t able to catch but the first 3rd of Reckless Kelly’s set prior to heading over to the Galleywinter/Red 7 stage to get it ready for the rest of the night’s festivities. With the wind beating everything to a pulp more or less, we had to hastily remove all the banners and signage from the stage before it blew to Kansas. The wind didn’t hurt the crowd and by the time Reckless finished we had a crowd a dozen deep awaiting some unplugged goodness. At one point, some dude brazenly stepped in front of the guys onstage and began playing his own song in the midst of one of theirs. Fisticuffs were narrowly avoided, but once cooler heads prevailed…the mantra of “it’s all for the music, man!” ruled the night/morning.
I sauntered off wandering around the campgrounds trying to take in all the parties of the evening, and ended up back in Section G where I found a crowd gathered around a 16 yr old kid belting out some cool Ragweed and Stoney covers in a very bluesy voice. I never caught his name, but he was amazing. I’m sure we’ll hear from him again.
As it was rapidly approaching 4AM, I hit the sack.
After a few hours of sleep, it was once again time for a greasy breakfast to set the world right. I ventured down to the mainstage area in hopes of getting that time honored photo/video of all the beer cans from the night before, alas they’d already been picked up.
The chili chefs in our group had gone to bed early the night before and were up at 6AM getting things ready for their entry. They had their 8AM chef’s meeting and were busy preparing their chili by the time I was fully awake. We were sure our entry was going to win an award this year, but it didn’t. We’ll have to try better next year. We might even compete for the showmanship award if we could get our hungover butts up in time to do something cool.
Music kicked off at the acoustic stage with Joey Green. Joey’s been a Galleywinter favorite since the first time we heard “Natchitoches Blues”. He’s been knocking around the scene for years and is super talented. It was cool to see him get an official LJTs slot after years of campfire picking. Within minutes of his first song starting I came to the realization that there must be something about the initials JG and making your LJT debut on the acoustic stage. Just as Josh Grider had done a few years prior, Green owned the moment. The crowd was warmly receptive and he seemed very genuinely moved that they dug it. He’s got a new record coming out soon and is someone to keep your eyes on moving forward.
Walt Wilkins was up next and Walt’s gentle vibe and weighty songwriting took center stage and captivated the crowd for nearly 45 minutes. Hearing the crowd sing along to “Poetry” was one of the most moving musical moments of the week.
I checked in on our chili progress while Richard Leigh regaling the acoustic stage with his presence. By the time I returned, Ray Wylie Hubbard was tuning up. Ray tore through just about every song you’d expect for him to play and grooved so hard that people’s heads were bopping and their toes were tapping involuntarily.
After one more trip to the campsite during Charla Corn, we hit the mainstage back up during the first song from the Tejas Brothers. We’ve often called them the best entertainers in Texas Music and today was no different. Dave Perez and company had the crowd rocking, and by the time they busted out a squeeze-box infused version of “Cotton Eyed Joe” it was darn near hysteria at Melody Mountain Ranch. It was the funnest musical experience we encountered all week, and thousands agreed.
In the words of Robert Earl Keen, the great Joe Ely arrived on stage next. Ely is no paper legend, he’s still as intense as he was during his Clash-touring heyday. He even threw in his cover of Keen’s “Road Goes On Forever” for good measure. Once his set was over, there was little doubt who was the baddest man to command the LJTs stage this year.
Deryl Dodd perfomed next and ran through a cool set of his hits before giving way to Brandon Rhyder. Last year, Rhyder gave what was one of the sets of the festival. This year he had his revamped band behind him complete with Matt Powell on lead guitar and Keegan Reed on bass. With talent like that it’d be hard to mess anything up…and they didn’t. They played all of Rhyder’s staples and although his vibrato was more grating at times than I’ve heard it in a while, it was still a killer set. Thousands of people singing along to “Freeze Frame Time” never gets old. Some old hippies in front of me were having a downright spiritual experience during this tune.
Jason Boland and the Stragglers brought their ferocious brand of honky-tonk to LJTs next. They kicked off with “Blowin’ Through the Hills” and tore through a set full of the hits and then some. Jeremy Watkins returning to the band has the Stragglers at their Billy Bob’s era zenith sound wise. It was a marvel to watch them truly enjoy their time onstage as much as the crowd was digging it too. One of the only bands of the week to display this sort of emotion. The highlight of their set and possibly the week was when Joe Ely and Dave Perez joined them onstage for “Gallo del Cielo”. Best version I’ve ever heard of one of the best songs in the Texas Music canon. A truly monumental moment.
Larry Joe himself closed out the mainstage as usual. Friends joined him for LJT original classics and cool covers that ranged from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” to a redux of “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance?” in honor of Rusty Wier. The crowd lingered as LJT approached the last song not wanting the week to end. But, as the last notes rang out from the large PA, the after parties and campsite guitar pulls kicked into full gear for one more time in 2011.
I began my night back at the Galleywinter/Red 7 stage where I ran into Joey Green and some other friends. It was there that a friend introduced me to a very cute girl holding a guitar. I was introduced to her as “Hey Brad, this is Sam from Amsterdam!” She said she was really enjoying LJTs because it reminded her of home. I thought that was hilarious. Turns out she came to Texas less than two years ago partly because of the music scene. And, now here she was about to jump up on the Galleywinter acoustic stage and rip it up. This girl had no fear. She was our very own Jesse Felder find. After she wrapped up at the GW/Red 7 stage, we trekked across the festival grounds and took her to Shayne Hollinger’s pickin party where there was one helluva jam going on. Roger Ray and Jeremy Watkins were there playing along with all comers. Up stepped Sam from Amsterdam. She opened her mouth and belted out some big notes and everyone grinned and nodded approval. Soon a light mist began to fall and everyone split in a flash.
Meet Sam From Amsterdam:
We returned to our homebase and waited out the rain. It was fast moving but we heard there was some big, bad stuff coming behind it. Being that it was now 3AM or so, we decided to wind down at our own campsite and call it another successful LJTs.
After purposely grabbing very little sleep so I could wake as early as possible and hit the road home, I woke up to find our chili cooks up early again and cooking breakfast. I declined, popped some ibuprofen, chugged a Gatorade, gathered my things and crept toward the exit of Melody Mountain Ranch. As usual, the disappointment you feel having to leave is equal to the excitement you have upon entering. I limped home down Highway 6 recalling the good times of the weekend and thinking of how to do things even better next year.
And, it’s safe to say, we all had a better year than this guy (NSFW):
All photos courtesy of Dave Hensley.