In 2018, like a breath of fresh air, The Byrd’s Creek Music Festival swept into the bustling Americana and bluegrass music scene. With the event recently announcing its return for 2019 and its move to summer dates—July 11 through 13—we thought it would be a good time to look back on the festival’s inaugural year and give a quick preview of what’s to come.
The 2018 Festival:
Byrd’s Creek is almost the antithesis of the overdone, overplayed, modern festival scene. Among the common complaints about most festivals is the fact that the lineups make you wonder if the industry’s booking agents got too zealous with the copy and paste shortcut keys. Even as a diehard festival fan, the cliché “it used to be about the music” has slowly crept into my conversations as glitz and commercialism pervade the scene. Only a short drive from Mother Church Pew’s home of Nashville, nestled in its rural residence Crab Orchard, Tennessee, Byrd’s Creek is on a mission to prove that music should still be the star of a music festival.
Arriving on the festival grounds after sunset on the first day, I did not get to appreciate the full rustic Kinkade-esque scenery until the next afternoon. However, it was impossible to miss how the festival’s sky was brightly lit by a canopy of stars that we rarely get to see in the city. To its credit, the festival accented the natural beauty of the grounds, eschewing heavy lighting and gaudy decorations. In lieu of a looming fabricated stage, the festival hosted the bands on a store-front porch, creating even more of a down home pickin’ party atmosphere.
While Byrd’s Creek may have been new in 2018, it certainly wasn’t timid with its scheduling and booking. The artists spanned the corners of the Americana and Bluegrass scenes and were an attention-grabbing mix of national and regional touring artists. One of the smartest things the festival did was putting each night’s headliner in a time slot that was early enough everyone could enjoy the set while also being late enough that you still knew the artist was the star of the evening. When scoping out the lineup ahead of time, my attention and love for bluegrass music were immediately drawn to Friday night’s headliner, the legendary Larry Sparks.
Whether you remember Sparks as a guitarist for the Stanley Brothers or for his over 50 years recording and touring with his own backing band, The Lonesome Ramblers, he’s one of the household names of bluegrass and gospel. With the festival providing its headliners extended sets, Sparks had plenty of time to work through his lengthy catalog of hits and to make the show special for those that were weathering a chilly fall evening to see him perform. The largest applause came with his classic, “Tennessee 1949,” but he also won fans over by opening the floor to requests. For the last half of the set, Sparks did his best to play through the list of shouted song names, even joking at one point that if he didn’t remember one of the requested songs, the band would “play something so close you won’t know the difference.” This led to many memorable moments including a live version of “White Christmas” from his holiday album.
Switching from the classics to the raucous, the festival next welcomed bluegrass rockers, Old Salt Union to the porch. It only took one extended, standup bass-thumping, quick-picking jam to bring a toe-tapping crowd close to the stage. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, the band took the chill off the night with a set packed with fiery riffs and foot-stomping rhythm on fan favorites “Tuscaloosa” and “Where I Stand.” It was the kind of set that inspired hand clapping, rowdy shouts, and even pockets of dancing.
Not ready to call it a day just yet, Byrd’s Creek took on a more folk-rock feel with Roanoke, Virginia’s Monster Atlantic. With a Wilco-meets-Nothing is Wrong-era Dawes sound, the band boasted enough head-nodding, guitar fronted energy to keep the crowd on its feet and pushing into the early morning hours.
After a good night’s sleep in neighboring Crossville, Tennessee, I was recharged for another life-affirming day of music. Arriving back at the festival site during the daytime, I was finally able to appreciate the fall colors and rolling hills.
And after a stroll around the grounds, I had just enough time to settle in, local craft beer in hand, to be introduced to the nostalgic indie folk sound of Knoxville singer-songwriter Travis Bigwood. From the melancholic ache on his single, “Paw’s Place,” to his nod to one of his inspirations, Elvis Presley, with “Don’t Be Cruel,” Bigwood showed off a range of vocals that demanded we stop and take notice.
Reaching across the coast, Byrd’s Creek welcomed Sunny War. Combining a soulful blues voice with a folk singer delivery, her sound provided a welcome change of pace. With her song topics ranging from social justice to politics, all supported by her impressive acoustic guitar work, War had an outlaw feel with a twist of modern awareness.
With a twangy folk backbone and contemplative lyrics delivered over ear-catching harmonies, Guy Marshall took over the festival stage. The band’s slow-burn, country-inspired guitar riffs had the crowd slow swaying along. A highlight and crowd favorite was a sneak peek from the band’s upcoming album with the song “West Virginia.” More up-tempo, but still with plenty of down-home charm, it inspired the audience to clap along with its rootsy rhythm.
As the sun set and campfires started sending sparks into the night, the scene was set for Saturday’s headliner, Joe Pug. With a touch of gravel in his voice and a traveler’s soul behind his lyrics, a hush fell over the festival crowd as it listened to Pug spin his musical tales. While his works often delved into weighty issues, the audience easily connected with Pug’s wry sense of humor between songs. With his smile-inducing guitar riffs and storytelling manner, along with a relaxed crowd sitting around roaring fire pits, the set had the easy feel of a backyard campfire with friends—assuming one of your friends is Joe Pug.
Accurately self-described as “country-ish rock twang with honeyed harmonies,” it was time for me to bring the weekend to a close with a high-energy show from The Craig Brown Band. Signed to Nashville’s famous Third Man Records, the band filled every inch of the stage with rocking fervor and pulled people away from campfires with their head nodding rhythms.
A few weeks ago, the Byrd’s Creek Music Festival announced that it will be bringing its Americana and Bluegrass party back to Crab Orchard, Tennessee on July 11 through 13, 2019. Featuring friend and favorite of Mother Church Pew, Lilly Hiatt, the boisterous picking of Lost Dog Street Band, as well as the return of the rowdy Old Salt Union, we are already excited about the growing success of this truly independent festival.