Words by Caleb Calhoun
Photos by David Simchock
“So, if you remember any of that, that is my first impression of Billy Strings.” – Brendan Bower, guitarist Emma’s Lounge
The truth is, there is a reason I brought my damn typewriter to this thing. French Broad River Fest is, at it’s very most basic, a massive Asheville family picnic on acid, and I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only one having their memories erased even as they were made.
This is my second time attending the festival and last year it rained all weekend. Not that that dampened anyone’s spirits, but I am excited to see perfect weather slated this time around. I head up there early Thursday for my other job as a produce delivery man (yes, our clients are all hippies) and after the drop off can barely bring myself to leave.
The vibe at that campground this time of year is so friendly, so unbelievably chilled-out, that I just want to pop up a hammock and lay there, listening to the river gurgle and bubble and the creak of the branches of the old growth trees overhead.
But alas, I make the drop-off and head home. I’m ready for Friday to come. I’m ready for my first festival with photog David Simchock. I’m ready to let loose.
I try to get Simchock moving early but he is a scheduler, it’s 1:30 when he arrives and he isn’t totally sure what he has gotten himself into. We are less than three miles up the road when I start trying to feed him my special, happy gummy bears, and with a forty minute drive through the mountains he declines. Not that it slows me down.
When we get there we find out that we have been given VIP status – a huge bonus as journalists and photographers because we can spend time in the green room around the musicians and the free beer. Did I mention the free beer? Truth is, I don’t waste any time getting into the spirit of the festival.
There are already bands on when we arrive, but my first goal is to mingle. This is forty minutes outside of Asheville, my home-town, and if I know one person here odds are I know 1000. I swing by Bearly Edible and check in on the guys I brought food to the night before. I smoke a little reefer and drink a complimentary Busch Light from a friend. I head down to the river to collect my thoughts and run into Lyndsay Pruett of Jon Stickley Trio.
We head back to the press tent to chat about the new drummer, the festival experiences, and picking in general.
“Me and Stick (Jon Stickley) have been doing this for a long time,” she tells me. “Deacon has toured, but not a lot of festivals so we are introducing him to it… the Bender Jamboree in Vegas was insane.”
And I imagine it was. I’m hoping tonight can make a run at it but she informs me that: 1. Stickley will not be sitting in with Billy Strings or vice versa, and, 2. She is the only member camping.
“We don’t really sit in, we definitely pick though. The other guys aren’t camping but I came ready so I could pick tonight,” Pruett informs me.
As she is speaking I mark the idea in my head that I need to find her campsite later. But that is all for later, right now we are done talking so I grab another free beer and hustle my way over towards the flood stage for Sirius B. Billed as a Hot Club Swing band their Balkan influenced music is supposed to be a blast. I get distracted on the way by a woman I used to work with… we will call her “Janis” for the sake of protecting peoples identities, and so I stop to smoke another bowl and do a little more lucy. We are half-way through doing our thing when I mention Sirius B is playing and she takes off like a rocket.
I follow her to the stage but even as I am approaching I can hear almost nothing. When I finally arrive I figure out why. Whoever is doing the sound for this stage is struggling, and looks like they may be on more shit than even I am. With nothing working the guys have said “fuck it” and stepped off stage and are now playing in the middle of the crowd.
There is a circle of hippies sitting around them, and “Janis” is dancing right behind the fiddler. I sneak over to her and dance a bit, enjoying both the professionalism and the bravado of a five-piece acoustic band whose response to bad soundwork is just to leave the stage. It’s hot outside and everyone is sweating, but it’s early enough in the season to be mosquito free. I convince “Janis” to let me smell her armpits and when I look up Simchock is standing there grimacing. I grin at him and keep dancing… this is fucking Asheville after all. We don’t have to hide how weird we are here.
As they finish up I am getting giddy. The rest of the night looks like this, Emma’s Lounge>Jon Stickley Trio>Billy Strings. Or to put it another way, Brendan Bower>Jon Stickley>Billy Strings. I am literally about to watch three of the best guitarists going and I can’t wait.
Unfortunately, I have to. The sound-guy for the flood stage still can’t seem to pull it together. Emma’s Lounge is on stage and looking ready at 7pm. At 7:45, frustrated and tired of watching five band members stand around while someone plays with an IPad I give up and head over to the main stage. Stickley Trio is already on, and still one of my favorite bands.
I walk in on Rice Dream and don’t need to lose my shoes because they are long gone. The sun is just setting behind us and I can feel the basalt and micah in the sand sifting through my toes as I dance to my favorite song. Or songs, as the case may be, as they take the ethereal Rice Dream into a Weezer tease, dropping just enough of the notes of Say it Ain’t So to remind us that they grew up in the 90’s as well.
After percussionist Hunter Deacon leads us in some Whale-Grass it hits me that when it comes to JS3, it is just what it is. My expectations, shattered, once again. Every time I think I have these guys (and lady) figured out they blow me away once more. These songs, these standards as they are, are hardly even recognizable from the tunes I heard them play last year. Deacon is a beast, a completely different animal than Armitage was, and his jazz background suits them perfectly.
“I think our dynamic range got wider,” Pruett had explained to me earlier, and listening to them play tonight it is hard to argue. Seriously. I have been following this band closely for almost two years now and in that time I have seen them play perhaps ten times. Tonight, by the river, in Hot Springs, North Carolina I am reminded of one thing:
No matter how good you think a JS3 show is going to be, they will always do you one better.
I take a breather in between the sets and find Brendan Bower of Emma’s Lounge. He has never seen Billy Strings play before and I am ready for this math-rock wonderkid to see the metal side of bluegrass for the first time.
I can tell immediately that he is enjoying it, as Strings come’s out smoking with a burning Turmoil and Tinfoil. Bower, and his long time girlfriend Goldie, are dancing with me in the front row, shaking their hips and their heads along with Strings, the permutations and computations about how to incorporate this style of music into his math rock band KUSA floating like a neon sign above his head.
I’m lucky to know this kid, lucky to be along for the ride. Prodigious in every sense of the word he is a complete genius when it comes to picking a guitar. I got in early and did my research and impressed with my first interview and so now I have far more access than I would ever expect to him.
Or more appropriately to them. Because truth be told Strings is a few years in the future, but Bower is not that far behind, and I am beyond grateful for the relationship I have with both.
When Strings takes a set break I head back to the green room with Bower to get an interview. I want to hear his knee-jerk reaction to hearing Billy Strings for the first time, and I do, but my typewriter fucks up and I don’t notice. When the entire conversation is over the only legible words are:
“So, if you remember any of that, that is my first impression of Billy Strings.”
The truth is, I don’t remember any of it. But I do remember Billy coming out with a solid Slow Train to begin a powerful second set that most of us didn’t even know was coming. They blow through a solid twelve song final set, finishing it out with a dirty Meet Me at the Creek followed by an On the Line>45 that melts whatever was left of this audience.
When they finish, I make my way like a fan-boy side stage for one chance to tell Strings how incredible he is. Bower comes with me. Greatness recognizes greatness, that’s how it becomes more than good.
I swing back through the green room for one more beer before Brendan and I head to the Emma’s Lounge van to find it locked with his acoustic inside. Still wanting to jam he mentions that he has a melodica in his mom’s car, and so we snag it and head into the darkness of the night.
We don’t follow our eyes, we follow our ears, and we find the best jam we can. Bower, a savant on any instrument, plays slide guitar on the melodica for a while before switching out for a Martin Dreadnaught. The other players are true pickers as well, maybe not quite to the level of Bower or Stickley or Pruett or Strings, but certainly more than hobbyists like myself.
Still, I’m wondering where “Janis” is, and so after a few songs I bid my friends adieu and head to her campsite.
No one home I keep moving, looking for more of the party. There is a tent with tapestries and rugs and really good dj music coming from large speakers and I head into there and sit down. I am given weed, offered whites, and poured wine and am thinking that Little Feat would be proud when “Janis” walks in. I feel like the entire universe is scheming in my favor right now… a broken heart two months ago and I haven’t let myself enjoy my feelings since. I feel like tonight is the night.
As the morning breaks through the river’s fog we are sitting on top of a train car just off property. The tequilla is long gone, replaced now by box wine and pbr and Marlboro 27’s. She lights another cigarette with the hot end of mine as the sun peaks through and illuminates her straight brown hair. We realize we need to leave before we get in trouble, but we have very little motivation to actually make a move.
When we finally do we head back to the main stage where we are greeted with mimosa’s and hugs from complete strangers. We lay in the free hammocks provided and talk to Drayton from Sirius B. We laugh about the night we had and the day left to come.
Then Simchock shows back up. He has a conference he is teaching at, I need to be back in Asheville to work for my favorite songwriter of all time. I’ve said it before. We realize we need to leave before we get in trouble, but we have very little motivation to actually make a move.
I run to the green room and pour some wine. Simchock and Drayton and “Janis” wait for me, ready to share what I bring. Then it is running low. Then it is running out. Then it is time to be professionals, it’s time to go home and do the job. I pack up my hammock and we are off.
“Is this the first weekend of May every year?” Simchock asks me as we pull out of the festival grounds.
“Yeah man, I think so,” I answer as I try not to nod off.
“Well then I’m marking on my calendar for next year,” he adds. “This is a fucking blast. Did you see…”
But I’m already gone. Gone and dreaming about “Janis” and Billy Strings and Lyndsay Pruett and Sirius B. Gone and, in my head, already attending next years festival. Gone and remembering later where it all started. Remembering that there were so many memories that I had already forgotten. Remembering, as I read my notes, Brendan Bower’s quote from before:
“So, if you can remember any of that…”, and the truth is, whatever we didn’t write down, whatever we didn’t film, even at 6pm the Sunday after, we can’t.