You would be forgiven for thinking that Twangfest operates its annual Americana-centric showcase like clockwork. Now in its 23rd year, the homegrown festival has shown longevity, consistency and flexibility — traits that are hard to come by in an ever-shifting live-music landscape, especially for a festival that was initially built around alt-country music. It's a slippery and hard-to-define genre, and as the festival has grown its organizers have made a push to include many styles of guitar-driven American music.
In fact, the "Twang" in Twangfest has caused no little consternation, especially since this year's marquee names — Craig Finn and Superchunk — are acts that have more punk than cowpoke in their roots.
"We've been saddled with that name from the beginning, and we even thought about changing it eight or nine years ago," Rick Wood says. He's president of the "Twang Gang," a nonprofit that plans the festival (as well as its showcase at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the weekly sets at the Tower Grove Farmers' Market).
"President is a funny title," Wood says of his office. "It's very democratic. I do all the booking of the touring bands and make all the inquiries." And while that is, inarguably, the central focus of Twangfest, Wood is part of a seven-member board of volunteers.
"It's kind of like the Scooby Doo gang," Wood says. "One of the guys is really good with backstage gear, someone is good at social media and our internet presence." (Roy Kasten, longtime Riverfront Times music writer, also serves on the Twangfest board.)
While Wood says the booking of each year's festival starts in the realm of fantasy, the Twangfest board takes a largely practical approach in choosing acts that will fill up Off Broadway each night while representing the breadth and diversity of the genre.
"In a way, it becomes a happy accident of who we get — young and old, male and female, hard country and not," he says.
Twangfest 23 officially kicked off Wednesday with the Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn headlining, with the Delines and St. Louis' Rough Shop warming the stage. But with three nights still to go, Wood was kind enough to walk us through the rest of the lineup.
Thursday, June 6: James McMurtry, The Burney Sisters, Cara Louise
"James McMurtry played Twangfest 19," Wood says of the Austin-based troubadour. "We know he's a good draw and has been around for a while; he's a favorite at Off Broadway and the Bottle Rockets have backed him at times."
Two (mostly) local acts will open the show: South St. Louis' Cara Louise will perform a set of Americana-inspired songs, backed up by a band that includes her husband Adam Donald on guitar and pedal steel. And Columbia, Missouri, natives the Burney Sisters — Emma and Olivia, neither old enough to drive — will continue their streak of playing sets and winning hearts across the Midwest.
"[McMurtry has] been around for a while, so when it came time to fill in the spots, the Burney Sisters seemed like a good fit, kind of a point/counterpoint to James' old, kind of crusty style," Wood notes.
Friday, June 7: Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters, Kevin Gordon
If Twangfest has its roots in alt-country, Sarah Shook is a perfect 21st-century continuation of the sound that inspired the fest in the first place. Her backing band, the Disarmers, can summon the ghosts of barrooms and dive bars with bluesy pedal steel, and her bruised, no-bullshit lyrics stand out like a chipped tooth. Amanda Anne Platt takes a gentler, more tuneful approach, and Wood sees the pairing as the yin and yang of twang.
"Both are twangy, Sarah in a hard-living, hard-drinking way, and Amanda more in a clean, acoustic, wholesome way, so it will be interesting to see them side by side," Wood says. Kevin Gordon, who channels juke-joint R&B with his overdriven grooves, will open the show.
Saturday: Superchunk, Wussy, Essential Knots
While much of the festival is booked on bands' availability and tour routing, the closing night is marked by a pair of one-off performances by critically lauded bands.
Superchunk has skipped St. Louis on so many recent tours that institutional memory cannot place its last local show, so the appearance of these indie rock lifers is reason alone to celebrate.
"They were on the list, and we were thinking it was out of the question — they're so legendary and don't tour that much," Wood says. "It definitely expands the definition of what we do."
The other main draw will be a set by Wussy, a critical favorite that has played the festival before. Chuck Cleaver, who fronts the band alongside Lisa Walker, has been sidelined by some health issues, Wood says, so this will be the band's only concert in 2019. Essential Knots, the local quartet fronted by Seth Porter, will dole out power pop and mellow, melodic rock in its opening set.
Hopefully fans acted fast for the Saturday night show, as general admission tickets sold out two weeks back. If not, there's plenty of music to go around on Twangfest's other nights.