Since 1997, Twangfest has pursued its amazing, quixotic and inimitable errand -- and somehow the four-day music festival keeps getting better, cooler and more adventurous. If you doubt, as well you might, that "alternative country" signifies more than the No Depression catchphrase "whatever that means," you've likely missed -- or perhaps you sought out tickets too late -- these mostly sold-out June explosions of honky-tonk, roots-rock and bluegrass.
Masterminded via a Net listserv by a bunch of musicians and fans, Twangfest remains a volunteer-staffed, non-profit organization and a festival that, if not nearly as large as South By Southwest or CMJ, rivals both for pure musical pleasure and surpasses both for the sense of community it always inspires. You may not recognize every name on the 20-band bill, but the range and depth of music is unmistakable. Consider the following: a gospel legend (Calvin Cooke), a famed guitarist and producer (Gurf Morlix), a country giant (Billy Joe Shaver), a rockabilly/honky tonk master (James Intveld), a brilliantly eccentric singer/songwriter (Tommy Womack), a heart-stopping vocalist (Kelly Hogan) and a hellacious force of rock (Slobberbone) -- all somehow make sense together at a single, small-club festival.
If you still doubt Twangfest could live up to its notices, past or present, there's really only one way to find out. Go, and get your tickets early. -- Kasten
Calvin Cooke and the Sacred Steel Ensemble
11 p.m. Friday, June 7
In the late '30s, the steel guitar, long associated with Hawaiian, blues and country music, took a new, fantastic turn. Two brothers, Troman and Willie Eason, brought the steel guitar to their House of God church in Philadelphia and gave birth to a radically new style. The electric steel guitar may have adorned country gospel in the past, but it never sounded with the rapture and ecstasy of a soul touched with fire.
For more than 40 years, Calvin Cooke has been playing the sacred steel and has become a musical force in the House of God church. As a boy, Cooke spent summer vacations and winter holidays on the road with members of his church, learning from them, and playing for assemblies and conventions. Though gospel communities have long separated secular and sacred music, Cooke, like many of the sacred steel men who came of age in the rock & roll era, absorbed sounds his elders might have considered profane. "I'd come home from traveling," he says, "and I'd listen to the Ernest Tubb Show and then the Grand Ol' Opry on the radio because they played steel. And then a cousin turned me on to rock. Coming from a strictly religious family, we would sneak and listen to it. One of my favorite groups was Yes, because of the drive and the sounds they made, and one of the guys played steel. I loved the Who because they were hard driving. Coming from a Pentecostal Church, and the way we played, I related to that."
Since he retired from Chrysler in 1998, Cooke has been bringing the sacred-steel gospel to an ever-widening audience and has recently finished recording his first CD, due out in September. At Twangfest, his band will include his wife and singer Grace Cooke, guitarist Jay Carver and drummer Ivan Shaw. Their performance at an alternative-country music festival will be, quite simply, historic. "I've played with the church all my life," he says, "now doing this, the excitement that people give, the warm feeling, the appreciation and the acceptance of us and our music is very gratifying. It doesn't matter what kind of venue it is. It makes us play harder, because the people give back every time. They accept the gospel music; no matter what other music is playing. Anybody that's touched by what we're doing, that's even more gratifying." -- Kasten
9 p.m. Saturday, June 8
One of the great strengths of Twangfest is its generous definition of music twangy enough to be invited. Christy McWilson draws some influence from classic country music, to be sure, but her forte is pop with a distinctive rock flavor. There may be some chord changes taken from country or the occasional guitar lick inspired by Buck Owens or Merle Haggard's players, but McWilson isn't looking to fit any rootsy profile.
This unorthodoxy hardly matters to anyone who cares about music that resonates with warmth and humanity. Starting out in the more conventional alt-country outfit the Picketts, McWilson has moved into a more expansive style with her solo albums, The Lucky One and the brand-spanking new Bed of Roses, the first cut on which just might be the best thing she's ever released. The song, "Life's Little Enormities," is based on the chugging, pounding, straight four/four beat that she obviously loves, having used variants of it on several songs. Fans of '60s garage-rock will have no trouble figuring out how to dance to this. Her clear, husky alto is placed right in the center of the drums and a whirlwind of trebly arpeggiating guitars. For a couple of verses, the song just rocks along, a hummable melody of just a few notes range insinuating itself into your brain. Then, it shifts gears, changes keys from the minor or modal thing to a bright, shiny major chorus with positively Beatlesish harmonies. This happens a couple times in the song, and each time the effect is scintillating.
Nothing else on the album is quite up to that level of brilliance, but nothing falls too far below it, either. McWilson's albums feature playing by Dave Alvin (her producer), Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey (her husband), Greg Leisz and Chris Gaffney, all of whom sublimate their natural styles to the needs of the songs. Although none of these luminaries is touring with her, expect McWilson to be one of the many highlights of Twangfest's blockbuster final night. -- Pick
Billy Joe Shaver
Saturday, June 8, midnight
As the senior member presiding over this year's Twangfest, Billy Joe Shaver has well earned the midnight slot on the last night of the festival. Though Twangfest's Americana tag hangs comfortably on Shaver, his roots go far deeper than a lot of those wearing the label. Shaver wasn't simply influenced by the greats of traditional country and western music, he was writing songs for many of them during country music's renascence in the '70s. His name may not ring a bell, but his songs have been performed by countless of the greats, from Roy Acuff to Waylon Jennings to Willie Nelson to the Man in Black himself.
But it isn't just Shaver's songwriting that merits our veneration; his own performances have, over the years, established him as the ultimate interpreter of his own songs. A songwriter for Bobby Bare in the late '60s, Shaver began his recording career as a founding member of the outlaw movement, telling his honky-tonk stories of poor upbringing, hard living and momentary salvations. Shaver, like the movement, has gone on to produce a body of work that encompasses the sounds of gospel, blues and metal.
Shaver has suffered more than his share of tribulations over the past three years, losing his mother and wife to cancer and his son and long-time collaborator to heroin. To boot, Shaver himself isn't in the best of health, all of which combine to lend a sense urgency to his performances; when he sings about life, love and moving on in a voice that knows of which it speaks, he demonstrates incredible artistic resiliency and, just maybe, the transformative power of art itself. Unnaturally optimistic (a trait he credits to his grandmother's rearing philosophy), Shaver believes that all of it -- critical instead of economic success; loss of love; illness and death -- serves a purpose greater than his own. For listeners, this translates into a subtly textured performance. Those folks who precede Shaver on stage this year, and those of us in the audience, owe him a colossal debt. -- Brooke