Twangfest, which celebrates its twentieth year with a four-night festival at Off Broadway starting Wednesday, June 8, is a St. Louis celebration of Americana — that amorphous genre that mixes elements of folk, country, blues and rock & roll to create something new and vital.
It's been a long road to get to this point. Twangfest started as an independent festival in 1997 and remained so for a decade before partnering with KDHX for the following eight years. Before last year's festival, the two parties made a mutual decision to go their separate ways, so Twangfest 20 will be the organization's second year in its second term of independence.
"It was an amicable split," says Rick Wood, a longtime Twangfest board member and current lead booking agent. "Not much has changed from the festivalgoer perspective. The main difference now is that we're in charge of the entire process of booking performers, which begins by compiling wish lists from each board director."
Those "board directors" are all actually seven unpaid volunteers. They include radio hosts, musicians and business people all united by a passion for the St. Louis music scene. Wood, for example, is an architectural modelmaker, but he and his wife, Nancy, host monthly concerts in their home. The other two veterans are John Wendland, who works as a purchaser of telecom equipment by day but also plays in the St. Louis roots band Rough Shop and hosts KDHX's Memphis to Manchester program, and Roy Kasten, a writer and teacher who hosts Feel Like Going Home, also on KDHX. (Kasten is also a frequent RFT contributor.) Kasten was on board for the very first Twangfest and Wendland joined a year later; Wood is a relative newcomer who joined the board just prior to Twangfest 8.
Judging by this year's lineup, the septet's wish lists led to some A-list booking. James McMurtry will take a break from his Wednesday night residency at the Continental Club in Austin to kick off this year's festivities with classics such as "Choctaw Bingo" and "Just Us Kids," as well as songs from his recently released album, Complicated Game. J.D. McPherson headlines the Friday ticket as he returns to Off Broadway after lighting up that same stage last October, treating the audience to an assortment of songs from both of his solo albums as well as a few from his earlier days leading the Starkweather Boys. Saturday night's finale includes a full night of local favorites, starting with the Sovines and the Waco Brothers (both of which include members who played at the inaugural Twangfest in '97) and finishing with Alejandro Escovedo, who has worked extensively over the past decade with Tony Visconti, a longtime producer for the late David Bowie.
But the supporting cast, too, shines, clearly indicating the festival's commitment to embracing a wide range of genres. The parameters of Americana can be "nebulous," Wood says. "It's important that we're including all kinds of music."
The Thursday night lineup includes country singer Nikki Lane, who worked with the Black Keys' frontman Dan Auerbach to produce her most recent album, All or Nothin'. And opening for J.D. McPherson on Friday night is Nikki Hill, whose sound blends Southern soul with hard-driving rock rhythms.
Jon Langford, co-founder of the Waco Brothers, played the inaugural Twangfest and has been impressed by the festival's continued success. The collective of artists, he says, is "probably less badly behaved than [they] were in the early days, but not by so much you'd really notice." The level of camaraderie among the musicians borders on fraternal. "Personally I look forward to giving Alejandro Escovedo a firm little hug," Langford adds.
The Waco Brothers will give a house concert Saturday afternoon at the Woods' home in addition to the band's show that night at Off Broadway: The four-night "Friends of Twangfest" pass, which includes an invitation to an opening reception plus VIP seating throughout the festival, will function as a ticket to the afternoon show. Langford is also a renowned visual artist, and his paintings inspired the Twangfest 20 poster, as well as designs for Dogfish Head beer bottles.
The Sovines' co-founder Matt Benz, whose band also played the inaugural festival, was a Twangfest board member for its first eleven years. He remembers when it began in 1997 as just "a get-together of friends with some bands." The fact it's still going strong two decades later is "a testament to its true strengths, that of music and community," he says. It helps, too, that its organizers understand that "success may not be defined as getting the bigger venues and chasing expansion."
Twangfest hosts a few other events each year in addition to the festival. In 2016, that's included a February Neil Young tribute show at Off Broadway, as well as a full day of music at an Austin venue as part of South by Southwest. The organization's weekly Saturday Sessions kicked off for the year on May 14 and will continue through October, bringing local and national artists for free shows at the West Pool Pavilion in Tower Grove Park.
In its twentieth year, the festival hasn't quite reached legal drinking age, but don't expect that to stop fans from enjoying some cold beverages — musicians definitely included. Benz, for one, admits that he "might even stay up really late all four nights."Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about when John Wendland joined the Twangfest board. It was the second year, not the first. We regret the error.