Floydfest Highlights Part 1: Folkies and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers on Day 1

So you might be thinking… why a 4 day music extravaganza in Floyd County, Virginia, Population: 15,279? (The county seat of Floyd has 432 people.)

A couple things make the Republic of Floyd interesting. (That’s their nickname, by the way. You can buy shirts at the Republic of Floyd emporium.) Just as Highway 61 helped blues songs travel up and down the Mississippi Delta, the Blue Ridge Parkway helped bluegrass songs travel through Appalachia, including small towns like Floyd and other counties in southern Virginia. Now, the town is located on the Crooked Road, a road that runs through all the counties of southern Virginia up to the border with Kentucky. If you’re interested in bluegrass, the Crooked Road will take you to historic sites of bluegrass and venues for the music all through the southern part of the state. Floyd, itself, has become known for its Friday Night Jamboree, where you can see a show in the general store or just walk the streets and hear bands playing until 9 P.M. (It is still farm country after all, so don’t expect a late night if you’re a city slicker.)
Perhaps because of its musical legacy and its rural setting, Floyd County became a site for the counter-culture in the  60s and 70s, and home to a number of communes. Today, Floyd is home not only to music but numerous artists and galleries. All of this made Floyd a logical place for Floydfest in 2001. The festival is now 11 years old, and initially started as a one day bluegrass festival, but as its reputation has grown, it has expanded its reach to a wide variety of genres.

Sara Watkins kicks off the evening right.

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But for now, let’s start with the music that made its reputation. The first concert I saw was a good one: Sara Watkins, formerly of “newgrass” band Nickel Creek. Ms. Watkins’ most famous project, has gone on hiatus, and she kicked off her solo career with a solid album  in 2009, produced by accomplished mandolin player John Paul Jones. (Oh he also played bass for a band called Led Balloon or something like that. It’s catchy stuff.)

Watkins’ new album Sun Midnight Sun is more polished than anything she’s done, experimenting with indie pop flourishes and even a drum loop or three. Watkins herself doubles not only on fiddle but also guitar for the album. Artists like Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne joined in for the album. And Browne himself jumped on stage for a performance with Ms. Watkins. Her brother also plays guitar for the band.

Here’s Watkins’ hit from the album, You and Me.
Jackson Brown brings the crowds to the mainstage

So Jackson Browne eagerly embraced the festival format and brought tons of guests onstage for the show. Sara Watkins returned the favor by joining him for most of the set on fiddle (she is his opener on this tour). Singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson and California-based pop rock band Dawes also took over for large portions of the set.

The show started late, as Browne frantically put arrangements together with multiple musicians. Yet it worked out. And while Browne’s voice is a bit thinner than it used to be, his earnestness, as always shines through.

I first heard Browne thanks to a teacher I had sophomore year in high school, for a class on study strategies. I remember nothing I learned in the class, but I did remember that Mr. Huminski had great musical tastes and wore hoodies. H-Bomb if you google your own name, I hope you see this! Many thanks for introducing me to one of my favorite albums, Saturate Before Using.

Highlight of the evening: Veteran singer Susan Cowsill jumped onstage with members of Dawes and Sara Watkins’ band for a heartfelt tribute to Warren Zevon on Mohammed’s Radio.

Well that’s all I can do for now. The school year is peaking around the corner so I’d best get some college recs written.

Peace, love, and music from Mr. Universe

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