When John Henry and Steve Pohlman cooked up the Open Highway Music Festival seven years ago, the pair intended to bring light to a niche of country music called "red dirt." Like their forebears Willie and Waylon, red-dirt practitioners mix classic country signifiers with roots-rock verve. Henry says that the style of music was, at the time, popular around its epicenters of Oklahoma and Texas, but many of those acts weren't coming through St. Louis.
But while the genre grew in popularity — look to the success of bands like the Turnpike Troubadours for proof — Open Highway found itself readjusting its initial mission over time, broadening the type of acts booked to play the festival, which spans four days at Off Broadway.
"Over seven years we've expanded to include all genres, and not that particular one," Henry says of the festival's red-dirt roots. "One of the things we've focused on is putting artists that might seem too big for the venue and letting fans see them in an intimate setting. Another focus we've had is getting these bands on the way up as they transition into a major act."
To wit, a few of this year's headliners are more likely to be booked at 800-seat venues rather than those like Off Broadway, which holds 400. The marquee acts include alt-country pioneers Old 97's and Son Volt alongside piano-thumpers J. Roddy Walston and the Business and Missouri natives Ha Ha Tonka, with a bevy of locals (including Bruiser Queen, Karen Choi and Town Cars) playing supporting slots.
Along with an increased variety of acts playing Open Highway, the festival itself has had to weather a changing marketplace for live music, one that increasingly prizes multi-day concert experiences. That has happened nationally with behemoth events such as Coachella and Bonnaroo, and it has affected the local market as well — and not just with LouFest's continued growth.
"I feel like, in all honesty, when Steve and I started the festival, it was before this festival boom that happened," says Henry. "I guess we had a lack of awareness that festivals were gonna become a thing where everyone has one."
Throughout the years, Henry and Pohlman have adapted the initial design of Open Highway to cater to both crowds and festival-level expectations. In 2016, locals Pokey LaFarge, Jack Grelle and Bug Chaser closed out the weekend with a street party on Lemp Avenue. But when Henry sought to repeat the feat, the stormy August weather didn't exactly cooperate.
Last year's Saturday set found local acts Sleepy Kitty and Essential Knots playing to light crowds under drizzly skies, which continued for Chicago garage-rock quintet Twin Peaks and glam-rock outfit Foxygen. Henry and Pohlman called an audible and retreated back inside Off Broadway for the Sunday night show, which Henry prized for its intimacy.
"When we moved Son Volt and Nikki Lane indoors, that ended up being a great experience in its own way," Henry says. And the kicker? "The severe weather we were supposed to have never happened."
Henry views the setbacks as part of the growing pains of a festival that has continued to redefine itself every few years. "As things get bigger, there's obviously more risk with these types of things," Henry says. "Turning it into an outdoor event is something I would like to continue to do, but with the current festival climate, that makes it difficult to do due to rising costs. There are radius clauses or a band is routing a tour in the fall."
For 2018's edition, Henry notes that Son Volt's return to the Off Broadway stage is the first time the festival has repeated a booking. Jay Farrar's long-running group, along with the Old 97's, stands tall among the alt-country movement's forebears.
St. Louis does not lack for a summertime roots-rock festival — Twangfest is well into double-digits, and the more local-focused Americana Festival just capped its second year. Henry says that the chance to book two long-time fan favorites was just too good to pass up.
"I tend to care less about the genre and more about, is it something that is very high quality and something people will enjoy seeing," he says. "It just so happened that this year we got a couple of those bands that were in that mold."
But as the bookers behind Open Highway look down the road, they hope to keep the festival vibrant and focused on memorable experiences for music fans. Henry also hopes that, in its own way, the festival serves as a beacon of culture and creativity in St. Louis.
"This business in general can be stressful, but it's something I've really loved and am trying to get better with it," Henry says. "It's important in the city of St. Louis — I'm a firm believer in action and trying to do things that are good. I care about doing something positive where people can come and feel positive about the city."
The Open Highway Festival runs from Thursday, August 2 through Sunday, August 5 at Off Broadway (3509 Lemp Avenue; 314-773-3363). For full listings, visit www.openhighwaymusicfestival.com.