It’s a little over a month until what, for me, is the premier summer music festival of, if not the Midwest, than at the very least Southern Indiana. River Roots Festival (formerly known as the Ohio River Valley Folk Festival, which was a mouthful, but locally known simply as the folk festival, a name which you may find me relapsing to at times) is in its 7th year, which means the festival has been in Madison for about as long as I have.
I can say with certainty that River Roots is the most eclectic of our local music festivals. Depending on your perspective, this is a good thing or a bad thing. Ribberfest in August is all about the blues (this year’s headliner is Robert Cray). River Roots used to be called the folk festival, and there was sometimes a great deal of confusion about exactly what that meant, given the spectrum of groups you were likely to see over the course of the weekend. I heard a board member once describe folk music this way–“It’s music made by folks.” This definition works just fine for me; I’m all about mixing up my music, as long as it’s all good.
At the River Roots festival you’ll hear some straight-out old-time music. I’d put Uncle Earl, one of last year’s groups in this category. You’ll hear some solid bluegrass music. Sam Bush, also a former performer at River Roots, would go in this category. And then you’ll hear some stuff that’s a bit harder to place. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are old-time music–they’re inspired partly by the tradition of African-American string bands. But their sound is probably not what a lot of people think of when they hear “old-time music,” unless your definition of old-time music is broad enough to encompass some hip hop influences. And then there are groups like The Greencards, who were told at one bluegrass festival, “Your stuff is weird, but I like it.”
It’s always interesting to me when I download an album on iTunes what shows up in the “genre” spot. Neko Case’s album with the Cowboys, Furnace Room Lullaby, is “country,” but Middle Cyclone is “alternative.” Uncle Earl is “singer/songwriter” even though most of the songs on their album, She Waits for the Night, are traditional songs like “Ida Red” which they did not write. Jubal’s Kin, a fantastic brother and sister duo out of Florida, are “country and folk,” but The Decemberists, whom Jubal’s Kin covers, are “alternative and punk.” Did anyone listen to “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Again)” before they decided that’s partly punk? Anyway.
Hayes Carll shows up on iTunes as just plain old “country,” and that’s pretty accurate to how he sounds musically speaking. Carll grew up in Texas, in a suburb of Houston, and went to college at Hendrix College in Arkansas (shout-out to liberal arts college graduates) where (my husband would insist I include) he majored in history. So he has authentic country credentials. And he definitely has the voice for the country genre. Songs like “Chances Are” sound exactly like someone sitting on a bar stool, crying over their beer and lost love.
Now I have to interrupt here for a brief confession. For most of my life if you asked me my least favorite kind of music, the kind of music which I would possibly choose to go deaf in order to avoid having to hear, I would have said country music. Forgive me, but I grew up during the height of Garth Brooks dominance. I came of age with The Dixie Chicks, yes, but also with all the flack they took from the country community for not conforming to the dominant political views. With wisdom and perspective, I’ve come to the realization that before Elvis, almost all the music I listen to now probably would have been called “country” music. Maybe trying to put a genre on music is itself a misguided endeavor. At any rate, I no longer reject everything with the “country” label or even a country-ish sound.
To get back to Hayes Carll, this is all to say that given my tendency towards country music aversion, I quite like even Hayes Carll’s songs with the very highest amount of what you might call “twang quotient.” I’m not sure if I would like Hayes Carll quite as much if not for the particularly unique direction in which he takes that twang.
First, there’s what you might call the “tongue in cheek twang,” or maybe that should be “twang in cheek.” On his newest album, KMAG YOYO, I would put “Another Like You” in this category. Carll’s website describes this as a “depraved” love song in the “he said/she said” tradition. Well, “Islands in the Stream” this is certainly not. Here’s just a sampling of the lyrics:
Woman: Well you’re probably a Democrat.
Man: What the hell is wrong with that?
Woman: Nothing if you’re Taliban.
From another country artist, you might take these lyrics seriously. But one listen to the title song off this album, KMAG YOYO would quickly change your mind, which I’ll get too in a minute. One of the first Hayes Carll songs I heard is also in the “twang in cheek” category–”She Left Me For Jesus.” Here’s the chorus:
She left me for Jesus and that just ain’t fair
She says that he’s perfect, how could I compare?
She says I should find him and I’ll know peace at last.
If I ever find Jesus, I’m kicking his ass.
Now that’s some country music I can get behind.
As you can tell, Carll’s not afraid of politics or religion, and his take on them probably isn’t representative of your typical country star. KMAG YOYO is military slang from the recent war in Afghanistan which means, “Kiss my ass, guys. You’re on your own.” So it’s the new version of fubar (fucked up beyond all recognition) or snafu (situation normal, all fucked up). You have to appreciate the American military’s master of the snarky acronym, don’t you? The title song on KMAG YOYO has been described as this generation’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I would add to its musical lineage “Alice’s Restaurant.” There’s not much I can say about this song that isn’t best said by just listening, so check it out here. KMAG YOYO also reminds me of (Antichrist Television Blues) from Arcade Fire’s album, Neon Bible. It sounds nothing like it, except in the urgent sense of fear and, well, shit gone wrong. Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own.
So, in conclusion, I am very excited about seeing Hayes Carll in person in May, along the banks of the beautiful Ohio River in Madison, Indiana. Could you guess, readers, how much you might have to pay to see Hayes Carll, along with eleven other musical acts, including Cincy band Over the Rhine, The Band of Heathens, Charlie Parr, Roosevelt Dime, Carolyn Martin, and The Black Lillies, just to name a few? Would you guess $75? At least $50? A mere $26 will get you in for three days of music at River Roots, and if you buy your tickets before April 30, you also get 10 free food and drink tickets. Did I also mention that the New Albanian Brewing Company sells beer at the festival? Well, they do.