“Be good to yourself, be good to each other, protect your mother, love your brother” – Deadhead Productions
Several weeks ago, approximately three thousand enthusiastic fans flocked to a pristine, pastoral place in Arkansas called The Farm with that mantra in mind. The Farm is a sprawling 160 acre multi-purpose campground/concert venue near Eureka Springs, Arkansas nestled in the fall foliage of the foothills of the Ozark Mountains abutting the Mark Twain National Forest.
These festivarians came to see a truly impressive lineup of bluegrass and progressive string music. The lineup included national luminaries such as Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Fruition, Yonder Mountain String Band, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, and Old Salt Union, as well as several popular local and regional bands including Dirtfoot, Opel Agafia & Sweet Nothings, Sad Daddy, Mountain Sprout, Arkansauce and The Squashers.
Welcome to the 2017 Hillberry Music Festival – a joint collaboration between Deadhead Productions and Host Band Railroad Earth.
It was four straight days of magnificent magical musical moments that created a true sense of community amongst those who came. As Kristal Kuykendall of the music website Arkansounds.com so aptly described it: “there was nothing but smiles for miles”.
So using my frequent flyer miles, I purchased a free ticket to Kansas City, then booked an amazing deal on a rental car and formulated my plan to get to Eureka Springs. I was arriving pretty late on Wednesday night, so my plan was to grab my Rent-A-Car and make the 4 + hour drive to Eureka Springs and hope to find a place to crash before I headed to the festival the next day.
I was sure glad I made this deal with “Popper” because the last two hours of the drive were through fog shrouded, serpentine, rural roads that began in Southern Missouri and continued into Northern Arkansas. Popper knew these roads well. Phew.
We rolled into Eureka Springs well after midnight, so Brandon’s friend and part-time Elvis impersonator, Dusty Warren Duling, left us a key to our hotel suite in the historic Victorian-era Grand Central Hotel. And “Sweet” it was. It was if I had stepped into a time portal to the 1890’s. I highly recommend this hotel.
I rose early on Thursday morning, and after I hunted down a breakfast of biscuits and gravy in the historic downtown area of Eureka Springs, I packed my stuff and headed off to the festival. The drive from Eureka Springs to Hillberry was beautiful. It was a sunny fall day with temperatures in the mid-70s. The Fall foliage was popping – especially when juxtaposed against the beautiful light grey Limestone Cliffs as my drive took me through rolling hills and valleys and along windy roads.
As I drove up to the entrance of The Farm about noon, I was greeted by a group of those ubiquitous stacked stone sculptures and a large sign that welcomed us all to The Farm. I drove up the hill a short distance to the check-in area to get my press credentials. The staff was friendly and the check-in was speedy and efficient. I got my press credentials as well as my DHP volunteer t-shirt (I often work as a volunteer at music festivals as my way of giving back to the music community). In past years I had been a Saint Bernard, this year I was on parking detail.
Once I was checked in, I headed up to the area just off of “Jerry Way” where I camp with a fairly large bunch of friends that I’ve made over the past 7 years that I’ve been attending festivals in Arkansas. We got to camp just below the crest of a ridgeline that overlooks the main stage area.
As I set up camp, my friends came over to greet me and more and more friends kept rolling in. There were many hugs and kisses (and yes the occasional butt slap) – it was great to be home. Once I got set up and I was finished visiting with my friends, I took a short walk down to “Shakedown Street” to scope out all the vendors and to see what was up. As is typical for a DHP show, the selection of food and merchandise vendors was diverse and awesome.
As 5 p.m. approached I headed over to my parking shift on the corner of Shakedown Street and The Golden Road which is a short distance from the activity tent. My job was to direct incoming festivarians to their appropriate place to camp and/or to park. But after an hour or so, it was apparent that my job was more like 1/3 traffic cop, 1/3 security guard, and 1/3 hospitality and information booth. At 6 p.m. a regional band called Sad Daddy started playing in the activities tent.
Fortunately the sound was great from my vantage point. Sad Daddy is Brian Martin on guitar, Melissa Carper on bass, Joe Sundell on banjo, and Rebecca Patek on fiddle. These four Arkansas-based musicians brought their own unique styles together to play a moving 90 minute set replete with soulful vocals and a beautiful blend of old-time folk and Americana roots music that made everyone take notice. These folks are great.
As the sun set and darkness descended upon the Festival grounds, I continued my parking duties, directing traffic using a large handheld flashlight to illuminate the way. Mountain Sprout was the next band up in the activity tent. This Eureka Springs based Psychobilly bluegrass band is a mainstay at every Ozark Mountain music festival I’ve attended the past 7 years. Their bluegrass music is tight. Their lyrics are anything but politically correct and typically express a fondness for whiskey, womanizing, hard living and an intolerance for authority. They’re not for the meek or someone easily offended. They’re raunchy, shockingly funny, politically incorrect and thoroughly entertaining and as usual their set was awesome.
Right after Mountain Sprout finished up, my shift on parking duty was over. So I headed back to camp. After 5 straight hours on my feet, I was glad to take a load off and make a nice stiff vodka and tonic. As I sat around drinking and chatting with my friends Brittany (a.k.a “Snacks”), Sydney and John along with Nick and Iris, I could hear Horseshoes and Hand Grenades start their set in the Activities Tent.
After listening to about 30 minutes of their great Bluegrass punctuated by the crowd’s hooting and hollering, we decided to head over to the activity tent to join in on the fun. Using my press credentials, I stood backstage and had a really good view the band. The tent was packed like sardines – sardines having a good time. After a few thigh slapping songs, fatigue caught up with me, so I headed back to camp and closed out the night chatting with my friends. It was fun catching up. The highlight of the night was watching “Snacks” do a rolly poly tumble backwards into her tent (it wasn’t my turn to watch her). When I woke up late Friday morning, I realized that I’d had too much to drink. I was hungover, dehydrated, my head was throbbing and I needed to go do a parking shift in less than an hour. Oh boy. That shift was a long dusty, busy, five hours.
It was pretty much a blur but here are some highlights: Sparky and Julie Bollin rolled in from Kansas. Sparky jumped out of the car, holding up traffic, to give me a big hug and said how happy he was to see me. That was nice.
Vince Herman and Andy Thorn of Leftover Salmon walked by and asked me where the General Store and shower house were. I used that opportunity to get my photo taken with them. We also shared some laughs because Vince was my neighbor at last year’s Strings & Sol. We also reminisced about all the wild times we shared at Strings & Sol over the past 5 years. That was fun.
Just to complicate things and add to my stress level, at exactly 2 PM, Opal Agafia led The Kid’s Parade right through the traffic filled intersection. I had to be especially attentive and vigilant in keeping the children shepherded and keeping traffic from running them over. Next year I hope they choose an alternate route for the kids parade.
Since the shuttle stop was also right near my position, I helped keep people informed about why the shuttle was running late (it had broken down). As a result, I got to meet a lot of friendly, smiling people and take some nice photos of them.
My shift ended at five, about a half hour into the first act on the main stage, The Squarshers. Making my way past bubble blowers and hula hoopers, I hustled down to the main stage area to check them out.
The Squarshers are Patrick Calaway on upright bass, John Henry on acoustic guitar, Brennan Johnson on drums, Chris Crovella on Banjo and Dylan Hawf on fiddle. The Fayetteville Arkansas based band calls their style of bluegrass “Arkansas Groove Grass” and Groovy it is. With their funk and jam influenced foot stomping southern grooves, fast-paced fiddle and breakneck banjo, The Squarshers can really throwdown.
As Sunset approached, Railroad Earth held a “meet and greet” at the Ozark Beer company beer tent which was to the left of the main stage. It was a lot of fun getting to schmooze with the band members. Many selfies were taken and RRE fans got their photos taken with Todd Schaefer, Tim Carbone, Andrew Altman, John Skehan III, Andy Gosling and Carey Harmon. I got selfies with each of the band members myself. Photographer Brandon Cale was particularly happy to get the hang out and talk photography with Tim Carbone.
And just for good measure just to the right of the meet and greet, there was a giant flame-throwing banjo shooting columns of flame into the air as dusk approached. Next up on the main stage were Keller Williams and the Infamous Stringdusters performing “Grateful Grass”, a tribute to the Grateful Dead. And a fitting tribute it was as Keller and The Dusters covered one Grateful Dead standard after another. Some of the memorable covers were Cumberland Blues, They Love Each Other, Jack Straw, Tennessee Jed, Scarlet Begonias and a killer version of new Speedway Boogie. Nicely played guys.
Just a little before midnight Leftover Salmon took the stage. I’ve got to say that was one of the best Leftover Salmon sets I’ve ever heard along with a spectacular light show as I watched from the ridge line overlooking the field. Some noteworthy songs were The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag” and Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” as well as their always popular crowd-pleasing song “Euphoria”. Oh and did I mention that the farm has an incredible Shrine dedicated to Jerry Garcia up in the hills overlooking the festival grounds? The late-night sets are performed up there at “The Jerry’s Shrine Stage”.
Friday’s late night set was by up-and-comers Julian Davis and the Hay Burners. Julian is a seventeen-year-old flatpicking guitar and mandolin phenom who hails from Lawrence Kansas. In his short career, he’s won numerous music awards for his flatpicking and mandolin prowess. He and his band also appeared on season 11 of America’s Got Talent. Sounds like pretty solid stuff right? I heard it was, but sadly I didn’t make it up there. Ugh. Unfortunately for us that night, my friends and I were camped adjacent to the Wook Patrol camp. Why “unfortunately” you ask? Not only were they the loudest most obnoxious drunkards at the whole festival (which is tolerable), they also set off fireworks from just after the end of the Leftover Salmon’s set (around 2 AM) until almost sunrise. These weren’t firecrackers and bottle rockets mind you, these were M-80’s and professional quality rockets. Every time an M-80 went off, I could feel the concussion through the ground and in the air. I felt like I was being bombarded. Yup, The Wook Patrol had gone full-blown Wook and it wasn’t fun for anyone camped around them. This too shall pass. After a full night in the war zone, Saturday morning came way too early, but it came anyways. I awoke in desperate need of a cup of coffee, so I stumbled down to Jerry’s Way in search of a cup of java.
I spotted Steve Edmundson and R&V Coffee. Steve is a mainstay at these Arkansas festivals. His coffee is a dollar a cup and hits the spot. He’s always got a crowd first thing in the morning. He’s got an interesting little booth with a set of steel “truck nuts” hanging over the kitchen area. I got the full story on how he earned those truck nuts and it was pretty funny. Ask him next time you see him.
Saturday morning on The Farm can only mean one thing: Chompdown! Chompdown is a communal breakfast put on by friends of mine from the Kansas / Missouri / Arkansas area. This was my eighth Chompdown in six years. At Hillberry, Chompdown takes place in the activities tent. It starts about 9 AM. Festivarians donate whatever food they choose to donate. My friends work really hard, cooking it all up for hours on end as they serve breakfast for the entire Festival. They keep cooking as long as food is donated and people are still eating. It’s truly a fun time. My contribution to this year’s Chompdown was two-thirds of a bottle of Pinnacle Vodka (for the Bloody Mary bar), a jar of Pace extra hot picante sauce, garlic salt, black pepper and styrofoam bowls. Chompdown is also accompanied by live music.
Historically, Louisiana-based Stomp-grass Band Dirtfoot played at six of the Chompdowns I’ve been to. Last year Arkansauce played. They were all memorable. This year it was The Squashers’ and the Dumpster Brothers’ turn to provide the musical entertainment. Before the music started, long-time Chompdown participant and Saint Bernard field marshall, Kyle Blomenkamp (a.k.a. KB) took the mic and gave a detailed history of how Chompdown came about. The history lesson ended when everyone gave a rousing round of applause for all the chomp down cooks. Thanks KB!
With awesome, upbeat bluegrass music to set the mood, it’s such a great feeling of community when hundreds of people contribute and share in this communal breakfast. The spread included scrambled eggs, home fries, sausage, pancakes, fresh fruit, muffins, biscuits, flour tortillas, cheese and crackers, pasta salad, picante sauce and bacon – lots and lots of bacon, all served with a heaping portion of love.
After Chomp Down wound down I realized I had the full day to myself. It was then that I heard some familiar music coming from the main stage area, so I hurried down there to see what was going on. It was Greensky Bluegrass doing their sound check. Just like last year, they played a couple of songs to a mostly empty field. Because I had press credentials, I could go into the photographer’s pit area and even backstage if I wanted to. As I stood in the pit area, it was great to see them and be up so close – just like the old days when you could see them in a Santa Fe bar with 10 or 20 people and not be crushed. I made eye contact and waved to each of them and each of them acknowledged my presence with a nod, a wink, a wave or a “Hi Gary”. It was pretty cool.
Next up on the main stage was Arkansauce. Arkansauce is Ethan Bush on mandolin, Zac Archuleta on guitar, Tom Anderson on bass and Adam Collins on Banjo. I first heard these guys last year at Hillberry when they played at Chompdown and I immediately became a fan. They play everything from bluegrass to country, blues and funk. They’re are up and coming and they’re tight and so was their set. After Arkansauce, Louisiana stomp-grass Band Dirtfoot was scheduled to play. I was excited to see Dirtfoot because they’re one of my favorite bands. The only times I’ve been able to see them live is when I go to a festival in Arkansas. They’re always a lot of fun to hang out with and I’ve camped with them five or six years in a row at Wakarusa on Mulberry Mountain.
Shortly afterwards The Shook Twins took the stage. The Shook Twins are an Indie folk-americana band hailing from Portland, Oregon. The Shook Twins are: the twin sisters Katelyn Shook and Laurie Shook, Niko Slice on electric guitar, mandolin and vocals, Barra Brown on drums and vocals, and Josh Simon on bass, vocals, electric guitar, and synthesizer. The Shook Twins’ sound has a wide range of instrumentation including banjo, acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass, mandolin, electronic drums, beat-box, glockenspiel, ukulele, and their strange looking, giant “Golden Egg” which sounds like a set of Maracas when shaken or tossed into the air.
My friend Snacks, who had seen them in the past, calls it “going down the rabbit hole”. It’s pretty darn cool whatever you call it. They weren’t the Louisiana stomp-grass I was hoping to see but they were really, really good. I particularly enjoyed their cover of “Son of a Preacher Man”.
I grabbed my chair and plopped it down next to Sparky and Julie outside their tent, right below the ridgeline, overlooking the main stage. My chair was feeling pretty comfy and my vodka and tonic was tasting pretty tasty as the Hillberry Music Festival’s host band, Railroad Earth took the stage.
As I sat in my camp chair enjoying their first set and amazing light show, along with my equally amazing vodka and tonic, while hanging out with Sparky and Julie, I thought to myself “how fucking cool is this” as I let out a happy, relaxed, sigh of joy. It was one of those moments of pure bliss that every festivarian lives for. After a short intermission Railroad Earth came back on stage for their second set.
As they started out playing a hauntingly beautiful version of “Bird in a House”, I was suddenly inspired to get up from my chair. I was then drawn toward the stage as of I was in a magical, musical tractor beam. I picked my way through the crowd and made it up to the rail area off to the right of the stage where Tim Carbone and Andrew Altman play.
What an amazing set! They played the killer version of one of my favorite tunes, “The Hunting Song”. Soon someone came through the crowd sticking playing cards in people’s hands. Shortly thereafter Greensky Bluegrass dobro player Anders Beck joined the band on stage as they played one of their crowd favorites, “Elko”.
As any “Hobo” worth their salt knows when the song reaches the chorus: “I need a card! I need a card!”, You throw the band a playing card. I’ve never seen so many playing cards in the air at one time during Elko. It was pretty cool.
It wouldn’t be a music festival in the Ozarks without some extreme weather and this year’s Hillberry did not disappoint. As Railroad Earth wrapped up their magnificent second set with a killer version of “Captain Nowhere”, word came down that “some weather was on the way”.
As their subsequent encore concluded, there was an announcement that the Fruition set scheduled for the main stage at 12:40 AM was being moved to the Activities Tent. As the wind suddenly picked up, there was a minor stampede as people on the festival grounds scattered every which way. Some headed back to their camps, and some to the activities tent. I hustled back to my campsite to batten down my hatches. I was just in time. As I got the last of my gear stowed away and as I stuffed my folding table and chair into my tent the deluge began. I dove head first and half soaked into my tent and zipped it up.
As I lay on my back in my tent with the furious wind gusts and the sound of the heavy rain pounding my rain fly, I could hear Fruition playing over at the activities tent. They sounded great. At one point I even thought of making a break for the activities tent but instead I poured myself another vodka and tonic and kicked back. I was in for the night. As I lay on my back dozing on and off, l listened to the pounding of the heavy rain and the banshee-like howling wind gusts. I was hoping my tent would make it through the night. Thankfully it did.
It literally poured buckets from 1:00 AM until about 5:30 AM and the wind gusts must have been at least 40 miles an hour. As I dozed off I thought to myself “at least it won’t be dusty in the morning”. When I awoke Sunday morning, the sky was clear and the Sun was shining. The moist smell of dust free freshness was in the air.
Sunday was my last shift on the parking crew, so I went over to the Saint Bernard area and mooched several cups of coffee from Cory’s and KB’s coffee pots. Once I had a sufficient amount of caffeine in my bloodstream, I headed off to my post on the corner of Shakedown and Golden. On my way there I stopped by the activities tent where John Henry’s picking contest was taking place. The contest had separate categories for flatpicking guitar, mandolin and banjo with each paying a $250 first prize.
The contest judges were Railroad Earth band members Carrie Harmon, Andy Gosling, Andrew Altman, and Tim Carbone. You could tell they were taking their task seriously as they listened intently and stared stoically as each contestant took their turn. I hung out for a couple of songs, snapped a couple of photos and headed off to my parking detail a short distance away.
Believe it or not Sunday was my busiest day on the corner of Shakedown and Golden. A lot of people were coming in with day passes for the last day, while a lot of people were leaving early. Thus I had to be traffic cop for the entire time I was there. It’s a pretty cool job since I get to talk to virtually every single driver that comes or goes from the festival grounds. The good thing about being busy is the time went by pretty quick.
Since we were short-staffed, I worked an extra hour until 6 PM. Sadly I missed two of the Sunday main stage bands: Handmade Moments and Old Salt Union. I did get off in time to see Yonder Mountain String Band’s set. I made it right up to the rail. At one point early in their set, couple of gusts of winds kicked up. Fiddle player Allie Kral, who was wearing a cute skirt, said “I hope I don’t have a Marilyn Monroe moment”. From the other side of the stage banjo player Dave Johnston wryly quipped “wouldn’t that be called a Marilyn Monro-ment?”. Dave’s stage banter is pretty funny.I don’t know if the previous night’s storm had thrown off the stage lighting , or the stage plot wasn’t set up right, but the lights weren’t shining perfectly on the musicians during their set. Eventually it seemed to straighten itself out. But it was kind of distracting for me, at least in the beginning. Regardless Yonder’s set was awesome.
As we started to head into the home stretch of the festival, Railroad Earth came on for their Sunday night double set. I listened to each set from the comfort of my camp chair, tending and stoking a little fire pit that we had in our compound.
When Arkansause started playing, their music filled the entire valley. I could hear it as clearly as if I were up at the stage. And oh my God what a great set! In homage to Jerry Garcia, their are entire set seemed to be Kick-Ass Grateful Dead covers. It was as if they were channeling Jerry Garcia himself. What a way to end the festival! Thanks guys.
I woke up the next morning knowing I had a 7:30 PM flight out of Kansas City, so I could pack and break down camp at a leisurely pace. I took a quick walk around the festival grounds taking photos and saying goodbyes to the people I had met. It’s always bittersweet at the end of any festival as people hug and say their goodbyes. I particularly love this group of people I hang out with and that I’ve become friends with over the past 6 years of attending festivals in Arkansas. So there were lots of goodbye hugs, high fives and parting photos / selfies taken. As I tried to yank out my tent stakes one of my tent Corners irreparably ripped. On the bright side, my packing got a whole lot easier.
So I added my trashed tent and added my trashed 3 year old Birkenstocks to a large pile of nearby trash as an offering to the Gods of the Ozark Mountains. It was the third tent and second pair of Birkenstocks I’ve left in Arkansas over the past 7 years. My friend Eric Critten a.k.a. “Critter” needed a ride back to Kansas City. I was happy to oblige him and grateful for the company on the ride back. Well that’s about it for my experiences at Hillberry 2017. I’d like to thank all the photographers who contributed their work to this piece including Brandon Cale, Jamie Seed, Phil Clarkin, Asherlee Marshall and Sydney Paschall. Without their contributions I couldn’t have told this story.
Thanks for reading this I hope you enjoyed it.
“I’ll catch you on the rail”.