HARRIMAN, Tenn. — Mucklewain is a name that fans of the current rock scene in the South should know. Several thousand agreeable people converged on Whicker Park near here on Saturday (Aug. 19) for a full day of mostly rock music under mostly clear skies and plenty of good vibes all around.
The new, one-day festival erected its two main stages in the valley of the picturesque park located 35 miles west of Knoxville, Tenn., so you could plant yourself on the gently sloping hill all day long or stroll back and forth across the grass between alternating sets from artists such as Steve Earle, Todd Snider, Will Hoge, Scott Miller & the Commonwealth and other working bands from the region. No jam bands though, at the decree of Mucklewain co-founder Joie Todd Kerns.
Among a variety of music biz jobs, Kerns once worked for Earle’s E-Squared label and generously gave Earle the festival’s longest slot — a full hour in the late evening. It served as an intermission of sorts. Nearly everything up until then had been boisterous, as a rock festival should be. Earle started out with a vengeance on “F**k the FCC.” Afterwards, he noted, “Just get that one out of the way right off the bat.”
Then he returned to many of the eloquent songs that solidified his reputation as a notable songwriter, such as “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” “Now She’s Gone,” “Goodbye,” “My Old Friend the Blues,” “Someday” and “Fort Worth Blues,” among several others. He briefly returned to current affairs prior to “Rich Man’s War” by saying, “Just to be crystal clear, I believe in supporting our troops — by bringing them home now.”
But other than that, the bands focused on packing their relatively short sets with music. In Nashville, you never have to choose between the more recognizable bands on this bill because the local bookers are smart enough to spread the wealth across several weeks. But at Mucklewain, it’s pretty much an ideal situation for those people who spend most Saturday nights at a local club checking out the bands. Some good ones showed up, too. Nashville native Will Hoge draws on R&B and rock in his original songs, Scott Miller charges straight ahead with compelling lyrics and big guitars, and Todd Snider is easily one of the wittiest and most engaging performers on the circuit — and with his full band, so much the better.
The afternoon boasted several musical highlights as well. The very likeable Garrison Starr overcame some brief guitar glitches (a rarity at this particular festival thankfully) to offer an upbeat set with songs like “Beautiful in Los Angeles” and “Superhero.” The Tennessee Rounders, from Chattanooga, Tenn., brought fine traditional country music to the party, singing twangy tunes about women, beer and trucking. Patty Hurst Shifter, a band from Raleigh, N.C., performed only a few songs but were among the most melodic rockers of the day.
Finding the park isn’t difficult, but it’s not really on the way to anywhere. As a result, the people who attended Mucklewain were more than just casual music fans. The situation is beneficial for both sides. Hungry artists can play to open-minded audiences who find music beyond conventional radio stations. Likewise, eager fans can discover a dozen new bands without paying 12 different cover charges.
Plus, the founders (Kerns and Johnny Mark Miller, both of the band Less Honky More Tonkies, who also performed) chose to keep prices reasonable. Tickets were $30 in advance and $45 at the gate. You could get cans of beer for $2. Area vendors sold barbecue, ice cream, roasted corn, veggie quesadillas (if you were early enough) and bean burritos. The most popular food item appeared to be fried shrimp from the wagon at the top of the hill, but even the longest lines rarely lasted 10 minutes.
At the rear of the property, several modest tents were selling original artwork, used books, homemade soap and jewelry. A songwriter stage offered sets from Allison Moorer (who played unplugged for fear of electrocution when the weather seemed rather ominous), Malcolm Holcombe, David Mead, Cary Hudson, Cory Branan, Webb Wilder, Suzy Elkins and several more.
After a full day of music, the crowd snaked back along a very dark path to the highway, with only the LCD glow of cell phones to light the way. From there, school buses shuttled them back to the parking lot. However, that was really the only inconvenient aspect of the event. There were certainly enough shady areas, friendly folks and good weather to make the whole day a fine way to pass the time.