For the 14th year in a row, some of my best buddies and I packed up our best camping gear, put strings on what needed strings, rented what we didn’t own but could use, bought out half of Sam’s Club, battened down the hatches, made the roadtrip to Stephenville and had a wonderful time at the 24th Annual Larry Joe Taylor Texas Music Festival and Chili Cookoff. As always, what follows is my journal/memoir of what I experienced. Since I was only able to see a fraction of what happened, I encourage you to share your experiences in the comments section.
The comparisons to festivals like Bonaroo and Coachella are completely apt. This thing grows more massive every year. Thousands of people show up to Melody Mountain Ranch to hear over fifty artists perform over five days. Yet, the Texas/Red Dirt scene is still underground enough that when some co-workers asked me who was going to be playing at this “thing you’re going to”, they were only familiar with two of the dozen I named.
That is one of the things that constantly amazes me about the power of this type of music. It’s still underground enough that a majority of folks have never heard of most of the performers…yet it’s popular enough to draw 50,000 people from all over the world together for five days of music and camping. Powerful stuff.
The festival officially kicked off on Tuesday, but due to prior obligations our crew wasn’t able to arrive until Thursday morning. Based on people I talked to that were there for the entire duration, it seems as if The Dirty River Boys stole the first couple days.
While Josh Abbott Band solidified their place as the hottest thing on the scene and current top Texas draw by headlining Wednesday night. Folks also mentioned Cory Morrow’s set as being rather outstanding and The Great Divide reunion as something everyone should check out if given the chance.
Unable to sleep like a kid on Christmas Eve while all that fun stuff was going on, I went to bed early Wednesday night but still woke up about 4:30AM full of adrenaline and anxiety. After last minute stops and fueling up, we were on the road by 8AM. We pulled into the grounds about 10. When you first make that turn off the highway onto the tiny FM road that heads to the festival your anticipation starts growing immensely. By the time you reach the top of the hill about midway down and see the mass of humanity, campers, tents, stages and hoopla awaiting you just moments away…it’s pure jubilation. You’ve made it another year and so have thousands of your friends.
For the second straight year we pulled up to our campsite to find someone squatting in it. A huge Prevost bus was in our spot complete with a Harley trailer. After a couple hours and golf cart rides with camping staff, we located the owner and had our spots back. Quickly plugging up the camper and unloading three days worth of party supplies was no easy task, but in our eagerness to get the LJT experience underway, we were rather efficient.
Our first stop was the acoustic stage. The music had just started with Zac Wilkerson and Chuck Pyle on the acoustic Allsup’s stage. One of the first things you have to do at LJT, even if you’ve been there every year is get your lay of the land. Survey new carney food options on vendor row, locate the friends you only see once a year etc. During this process we ran into Geoff Hill and Brady Black from Randy Rogers Band doing the same thing.
After a trip to the Chicken on a Stick stand (gotta put the cajun seasoning on it), we all headed back to camp to toss some washers. Sidenote about the Chicken on a Stick. They were $7. After my buddy was handed his first one and told it was $7, he asked the guy if that was because the stick cost $5. The guy did not find this as funny as everyone else in line.
After Brady whipped everyone for about an hour, we determined that we know how he spends a great deal of his downtime between shows. If he ever stops fiddling, he’s got a secure future on some sort of washers/horseshoes tour.
After a couple hours of just chilling, we ran into Brant Croucher and The Grievous Angels from Houston. They came by with their guitars and played some tunes for about an hour. Brant’s one of my favorite young singer/songwriters and the Angels sounded a lot like The Trisha’s. Both have bright futures. And, the coolest thing is they kicked off what is my favorite LJT thing…the small acoustic campsite jam. If you stumble around out there long enough you’re going to bump into a guitar pull that just might change your life.
Soon it was time to fire up the grill and make dinner before heading to the stage in time for Turnpike Troubadours. As usual, these guys did not disappoint. Blazing through old favorites like “7&7″ and “Long Hot Summer Day”, they also peppered their set with blistering takes on new songs like “Gin and Smoke and Lies”. The crowd was at a fever pitch for Aaron Watson, but I didn’t catch any of his set. I took this opportunity to go see what was happening in the NFL draft. Thanks to a buddy, I was able to plop down in front of the tv just in time to see the Cowboys jump up in the draft and pick Morris Claiborne from LSU.
AT&T cell service was so hit and miss out there, that had I not seen this happen on tv, I may not have found out about this pick until June. The cell service was the worst I’ve experienced out there. It was some sort of cell phone deadland. Which isn’t bad for being off the grid, but makes finding your buddies or communicating with folks you need to catch nearly impossible. Sprint customers were down and out too. But, props to Verizon because those folks were rocking and rolling all weekend long. Anytime I needed to desperately call or text someone I borrowed a Verizon phone. Shout out to Blam-O.
About this time, it was Wade Bowen’s turn on the big stage. The sun had completely set behind the drum riser and things were starting to pop off in a figurative and literal sense. Bassist Caleb Jones energy was a nice match for the raucous crowd as the WB crew had the crowd engaged early and often in a set that featured hits and new stuff. The entire band was decked out in some sweet black shirts and ties in honor of Mark McCoy. A somber reminder of the lives lost recently in this scene and a beckoning to soak up the LJT atmosphere for everything its got.
Thursday night at LJT has meant one thing the past few years…a headline set by Randy Rogers Band. Randy’s grown a lot over the years. From timid singer/songwriter playing with a patched together band…to a confident showman and entertainer completely at ease as he leads thousands of people in a bouncing, rollicking party of off rhythm fist pumping, inane beer tossing and off-key scream alongs. The festival’s growth over that time mirrors RRB’s growth. Once just a singer/songwriter haven it’s turned into the biggest thing around and has gotten pretty good at throwing a party.
As the last notes reverberated through the hills of Melody Mountain, a campsite tour was already being planned by Josh Abbott. Soon, Larry Joe was piloting a convoy of ATVs and golf carts that had Randy, Geoff and Brady from RRB, Abbott, Evan from Turnpike, Dave from Tejas Bros, Courtney Patton, good ol’ Lovey and about half a dozen lucky fools like me. We wound our way through the friendly confines of the campgrounds singing tunes, telling jokes and swapping stories.
Down bumpy gravel roads that jostled your beverage like a roller coaster and around each sharp turn we were met with a welcoming chorus of “whoooo’s” that would’ve made Ric Flair proud. When LJT saw one that looked particulary inviting or cool, he’d pull our train of good times to a halt and we’d pile out around a campfire as a few pickers would be plucking out something.
The confused look of amazement on the inebriated faces we encountered at the campsites was pure gold. At first, they just recognize Larry Joe, then they slowly notice the roster of talent standing in front of them listening to them sing. Their face is a wash of bewilderment, embarassment and pride. Pretty soon guitars are handed over to the pros and before you know it Evan is busting out “Long Hot Summer Day” for the second time today. Except this time he’s joined by Dave Perez playing the melody on his squeezebox and a chorus of scratchy throated backing vocalists.
Campsite jam (Photo credit: Brad Beheler)
As Josh Abbott wraps up his very cool take on Fun.’s “We Are Young“ you know the folks at that campsite have a story for generations. The time Randy Rogers and Brady Black played songs on their guitars at their campsite. It doesn’t get cooler than that. It just doesn’t.
Through a few more miles of campers, motorhomes, tents, trucks, boats and even guys sleeping under the stars to the hum of generators it becomes bus call for a few of the guys and our night has come to a very memorable end. As we stumble back to our campsite around 4AM, I think to myself…LJT 2012 has already exceeded any expectations I may have had. If I left right now, it wouldn’t get any better.
Internal clocks don’t understand the concept of moonlit guitar pulls that last until 4AM, so we were up around 8 cranking out breakfast tacos and shoveling down caffeine like a miner in West Virginia pulling a double. We were awake but moving slowly. Upon having a shower so cold that it made the Guadalupe River seem like the Hot Springs of Arkansas, I was ready to tackle the day. It just so happened to be time for the Damn Quails to kick off on the acoustic stage. Soon, I was parked under a shade tree center stage with about half the crew while the other half decided to “power nap”. Power naps that lasted until 3PM…they’d be sorry!
The Damn Quails set up their full contingent onstage. They brought some ferocious passion to the early proceedings, but it wasn’t until they brought out their big radio hit “Fool’s Gold” that they had the crowd’s full attention. From the first measure, you noticed the crowd beginning to nod their heads and sing along. By the time he said “turn it around”, everyone was a buyer on Damn Quails…as they should be.
Next up was Josh Weathers. Quite simply he put on the set of this festival or just about any other festival. After having talked to his road manager the night before I knew we were in for something special as Josh knew this was a big opportunity. I’ve been a fan for a while now, so I was interested to see how folks would respond to his rootsy, bluesy, funky soul style in a setting that resembles a NASCAR infield during the day. Luckily for us, the acoustic stage is a haven and Josh Weathers delivered the set of a lifetime.
Decked out in an unassuming blue checkered, longsleeve pearl snap shirt and featuring a wafting pompadour atop his head, Weathers strode to the microphone with a yellow Tele strapped on and a grooving band behind him complete with saxophone. From the moment the first note left his mouth and guitar, all of us there knew we were in for one hell of a ride. The acoustic stage is a listening room, but he wasn’t into his second song before people were unknowingly dancing, swaying, bopping, clapping…and before you knew it he’d gotten a standing ovation after his second song.
Josh has been a veteran of the DFW scene for a while, but in the past few months has begun growing his audience outside of those constraints. He attained some renown back in February after the passing of Whitney Houston when his cover of “I Will Always Love You” became one of the most shared in Texas Music social media circles. I wasn’t sure if he’d choose LJT as a place to perform this song. But, much like with Sean McConnell and “Dirty Diana” it has become a signature song. Owing to his DFW roots, Josh cleared the band off the stage and began a moving anecdote about the late Joe Avezzano. He said, “Coach Joe was really excited about us finally making it to LJT and was planning on being here with us today. But, as you all know…he couldn’t make it. This one goes out to him.”
And with that said, he proceeded to do this:
As good as it sounds on that video, it still doesn’t do it justice. Chill bumps and an ovation that lasted for nearly three minutes. He played a couple songs after that, but it was all a blur at this point. Josh Weathers had made a statement.
I had to return to camp to recover after such a mesmerizing set. As I was relaxing and contemplating a nap myself, I began to hear the unmistakable strains of a Max Stalling song and immediately bolted back to the acoustic stage. Max is one of my favorite songwriters and the opportunity to hear him in what was now an electric environment thanks to Mr. Weathers was too much to pass up.
Mentor, veteran and role model to just about every guy in the Texas scene, Radney Foster was up next. Foster regaled the crowd with the tales behind his biggest hits. There were two standout moments during Radney’s set. The first being “Angel Flight. I saw an older gentleman in a tattered Vietnam Veteran’s cap standing at attention on an artificial leg throughout the song with tears streaming down from behind his sunglasses. The other moment that sticks out was much more lighthearted. Radney had been witness to Josh Weather’s greatness earlier in the day and brought him back out. Like all the rest of us, Radney was so blown away he wanted to hear more.
As the crowd hopefully rumbled about a guest vocal appearance from that night’s headliner Pat Green, Radney popped a couple strings on his guitar. He then said something to the effect of “I’ve always dug the Clash and the Sex Pistols…so here’s the punk version of ‘Texas in 1880′…on 2 strings.” He proceeded to make it through the entire song in the most unique way I’ve ever heard.
By the time Radney was finished, it was time to head back to camp to fire up the grill one more time for some grub and freshen up. We were on a time crunch to get all that done and get down to the mainstage in time for Six Market Blvd. Luckily for us, we made it.
Six Market Blvd strode onstage also paying honor to Mark McCoy with white shirts and ties. They would later tell me it was quite the adventure to find matching outfits on short notice…but was the least they could do. The first song of their set was their latest single, “Say It” which can be heard on The Drop. These hometown boys had a huge fan contingent on hand. They’re very entertaining and probably my favorite younger act on the scene. Watch for them as this new release nears street date and throughout the summer. I predict they’re about to hit that vaunted next level.
Mike McClure followed 6MB with his second trip to the mainstage. This time he was playing in his familiar trio format after having done the Great Divide reunion show earlier in the week. McClure is sober and sharper than ever. His songs are a nice match for the LJTs environment and crowd.
Another guy who is tailor made for an environment like LJT is Roger Creager. It seems to bring the best out of him and reinvigorate his set. The one thing serious music fans want to watch out for during Creager’s LJT set is beer being sloshed around so fast and often that it seems like a fire hose is being sponsored by Anheuser-Busch.
Reckless Kelly were obviously the closest to Mark McCoy on the bill and they paid tribute to him with the shirt/tie idea. I’ve seen bassist Adam Odor perform in various bands in numerous settings, but this might have been the craziest set I’ve ever seen him play. Crazy in a good way. He was doing jumps that would make vintage David Lee Roth question the safety of it. I got sucked into a conversation during the latter half of RK’s set and freed myself just in time to see Pat Green.
Hogleg & Stu (Photo credit: Stu Huffman)
I was with a couple friends who hadn’t seen Pat Green in over a decade. And the fact that brother Hogleg had made the trip up from New Braunfels for the spectacle was fuel to the anxious fire. While PG’s live sound isn’t the same without Brendon Anthony on the fiddle, his band still knows how to hit you with an enormous wall of sound. The setlist seemed to ping pong between early album classics (“Carry On”) and late album yawners (“Baby Doll”). The crowd seemed to mirror this. On certain songs they were super intense and on others they backed off.
At some point during Pat’s set a few idiotic kids that couldn’t handle their liquor decided to square off and audition for the UFC. Pat’s sage experience helped him calm the situation down before it turned into a riot. He stopped the band down, and said “Hey fellas…we’re trying to have a good time up here…you should too…ain’t no place for fighting out here…let’s love each other.” Soon, the PG g0od times were back in full swing and he blazed through the rest of his set with abandon.
Now it was time for our Ultimate LJT Giveaway campsite concert. A manufactured version of what I’d just bore witness to 24 hours earlier. Featuring Six Market Blvd, Josh Grider, Courtney Patton, Nick Verzosa and some surprise guests that got lost, it was quite the event. At one point the crowd was 6 deep around the jam. But, some of the folks around our winner’s campsite weren’t very neighborly or obliging. Generators on full blast and a location right off a main road made hearing things difficult unless you were in the right spot.
Galleywinter Ultimate LJT Giveaway Campsite Concert (Photo credit: Nick Hammond)
By now the wind had picked up to an uncomfortable degree and everyone was getting drenched with dust or smoked like bbq from the campfire. Josh Grider even changed the words to “Smoke on the Water” to “Smoke…in my eyeballs…makes me want to cry…”. The party was a good hike from our campsite, so around 2AM and on 2 hrs of sleep in the last 45, I hit the bricks back to our place to wind down. I encountered a party roaring at full blast. I had one last sip and hit the hay.
After slowly rolling out of the rack on Saturday morning and eating whatever we had leftover from the past couple days for breakfast, it was time to venture up to Crazy Ray’s campground for Mike Mancy’s infamous Saturday morning wake up show. It wasn’t long and the clock had hit 12 and it was time for Josh Grider to crank out the jams and kick things off for the final day of LJT 2012.
Grider’s Saturday morning shows are quickly becoming LJT fixtures. While I’d love to see him rock a mainstage slot, his acoustic stage spot his hard to beat. With a full band behind him, there was nothing acoustic about this wake up call. Despite the fact that he got shocked a couple times by a faulty mic, Grider tore through a set that had people amped up and clapping their hangovers off over their bloody marys. “Dollar Tree” brought him yet another standing ovation and long merch booth line.
(photo credit: Quinda Smith)
I spent the next few hours playing catch up with old friends and doing a couple interviews. Before I knew it, Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros were onstage. Walt’s show is a hill country preachin’, soul stirring tour through the American west. His music speaks to people that are familiar with it just as easily as it does to newcomers. The Mystiqueros just might be the coolest band to have played LJT this year.
(photo credit: Dave Hensley)
Before rounding up for one last trip to the mainstage it was back to the campsite to prepare. If you’ve been to LJT, you know it takes quite a bit of preparation to make sure you get to the stage with all the necessities. We weren’t planning on coming back to the site until late, so we missed the start of William Clark Green. But, the songs we heard were rather good and the growing afternoon crowd was digging his sound. I even had some chicks come up to us after his set and randomly ask us if we knew where he’d be later that night. Sorry ladies! But even more so, sorry WCG…they were hot!
Cooder Graw was due up next and were quite possibly the most anticipated show of the festival. Matt Martindale and the gang hit the stage with reckless abandon and left little doubt why they were such a big band in the formation of the modern Texas scene. There was very little evidence of rust as they tore through hits like “Llano Estacado” and “Dirty Little Hometown Girl”. It was a treat to witness this reunion and it made me excited for what’s in store.
Over the past few years, the Tejas Brothers have established themselves as one of the preeminent live acts in Texas. Never is their show more awesome than at LJTs. After a week spent playing campfires and jamming with other folks, Dave Perez was in fine voice as he led the thousands of LJT revelers through a medley of toe tapping hits. From Doug Sahm’s “She’s About a Mover” to their own “Say It Again”, folks were eating up every second of it under the scorching Texas sun.
Despite the severe wind and dust, people were still having a good time. There were girls pole dancing and hippies playing hacky sack during the entirety of Tejas Brothers performance.
I caught a bit of Brandon Rhyder. The Rhyder crew was pulling double duty with another gig a few miles away. They had the record for fastest tear down and load out I’ve ever seen at a huge festival. Kudos to their man in charge, Eddie Kloesel for getting that crew down the road like a pro.
Jason Boland & The Stragglers hit the stage next and seemed reinvigorated since the last time I’d seen them live a few months ago. The rowdy, five day old buzz that most folks had was not stale yet and as Boland powered through a charging set of his best, the zenith was when he reached into his backpocket to pull out their excellent cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Thunderbird Wine”. It was like a foot-stomping bomb went off as thousand of people were dancing like Jesco White for about four minutes straight.
Jason Boland & The Stragglers (Photo credit: Dave Hensley)
To close out the festival, it was time for the man of the hour, or 5 days to hit the stage. Larry Joe Taylor and his band brought their brand of third coast country music to the stage and were joined by friends like Deryl Dodd, Tommy Alverson, Dave Perez, Roger Ray, Jason Boland, Jason Eady, Kylie Rae Harris and more. There isn’t a better way to end the festival’s music.
As the LJT show was still going on, we headed back to camp to gather our things and prepare for an early Sunday exit. After some time picking around the fire and playing tunes, we were told by security that there was a burn ban due to the wind. So, we did what any good rednecks would do and started partying around some Christmas lights somebody had plugged into their RV. Soon, folks around us were shooting off fireworks and just generally raising all kinds of good natured hell. Around 2, we called it an early night and racked out as we faced the looming shadow of reality creeping up on Sunday morning. Another year of planning finished, another 5 days of memories and ideas for next year tucked away. We sadly crept out of Melody Mountain Ranch in a long line of RV’s around 8AM and by the time we hit Hico on 281 we were ready to turn around. Alas, we have to wait about 360 days.
Top 10 Takeaways from LJT 2012
1. Bass players had the most fun onstage no matter what band was playing…by far.
2. The fajita tacos were the clear best in show of the vendor food this year.
3. Verizon should be proud of their cell towers near Melody Mountain Ranch. AT&T and Sprint need to step their game up.
4. Chicken on a Stick isn’t always the tastiest option, but is definitely the cleanest since your beer drenched, dusty hands don’t actually have to touch the food.
5. Picking the right port o potty is harder than winning the lottto.
6. People that throw whole beers at bands are wasteful idiots.
7. Generators don’t like acoustic song swaps.
8. Josh Weathers is going to be a star.
9. Some of the redneck engineering that goes into the contraptions out there would make Einstein proud.
10. Either I’m getting older or the front mosh pit is getting ridiculously violent and rowdy.
How was your LJT 2012?