It’s Kentucky fashion to complete a hello with a ‘y’all’ and as my East Nashvillian roommates have been making sincere efforts to incorporate ‘eh’  into their dialect, I’ve been reciprocating by honouring local slang as well. It’s a thin line between acceptance and offence, where an accent can throw the tone of the greeting in either direction. As a species we have an innate ability to detect cynicism and sarcasm but a genuine smile will crush any view of insincerity. My greeter’s display of the small Saskatchewan city has me beaming through my usage of the southern vernacular. Hoping to bond geographically, my expectations fall short as the Moose Jaw shirt reveals no recollection of purchase and is worn based on its hip design. It does look good, well done Moose Jaw. The departure of my assumed Moose Javian is replaced by a brotherly welcome from an individual I recognize from the entry gate.

Zack Walker has a spring in his step and is headed back stage, a loose rope barrier separates hundreds of attendees from a handful of guitar pickers and porch swingers. The stage’s rear steps exit onto the front yard of a home. A house tucked into the baseline of the trees; a backyard, seemingly endless national park. The abode is quaint and hospitable – musicians coming in and out as a wedding party would. I break my walk with Zack as my liaison to the entrance and find where I belong. I am back stage, therefore I belong backstage.

Since the dawn of celebratory Rock n’ Roll status, “getting backstage” has been the conquest. An elusive lair of misconduct, debauchery, and special treatment where societal norms do not apply, illicit drugs spur stories of legacy and all sexual fantasies are granted upon mere suggestion. But mostly, just an area that ensures peace and quiet. The unwritten rule that if you make it backstage you are welcome backstage. A realm of respect and conscious action. Don’t drink the band’s beer unless offered. Don’t fan-out, don’t request pictures, don’t ask for autographs. Just be. If you are backstage you belong backstage. The harder the entry, the greater the conquest – dodging security, lining up inside access. However, slyness will always come second to confidence. My backstage acquisition is consistently achieved by walking directly up to security, thanking them for a job well done and asking if I can bring them anything back, walking in immediately as they answer and heading directly out of view. They teach visualization in sport. This is a sport – visualize.

Kickin’ It On the Creek is slightly less stringent. And by slightly, I mean substantially. I nod a hello to a group of bearded brothers who are clearly the upcoming act and walk side stage as they resume up the steps. An introduction that is nothing short of loving refers to the band as family, again supporting the communal vibe throughout the festival. A master of ceremonies in a ball cap, relaxed and off-the-cuff. I experience a subconscious recognition as the band is introduced, at some-point some-where I’ve heard the name The Horse Traders.

Patrick Stanley stands centre stage attracting a motley crew of enthusiasts. With the opening measures, listeners that were once sitting, rise and gravitate towards his energy. From the casual to the emphatic. The characters of the festival are exactly that – unique in their attire and personalities. One can only assume it’s exaggerated through alcohol consumption. A couple bear a sign warning onlookers of ducks. A comedic display complete with costumes; wigs, an orange Stihl chainsaw cap counteracting a forrest green floral dress.  She drags a fowl hunting decoy on a rope and he wields a Commonwealth of Kentucky Flag tied to a branch twice his height. Stanley takes pages from The Drive-By Truckers, Gin Blossoms, and Ozark Mountain Daredevils – he’s an intentional writer. The melodies are what should be on the FM dial and the content connects. I moved away from writing about love due to its complexity and mundane representation; Stanley approaches it head on.

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A couple mid tempo rockers lead into a hit, unofficial, but none-the-less. If what preceded “Hey Carolina” in the set urged a 90’s mindset, it is now further back in the chronological influence two more decades. Travis Egnor runs a telecaster through a Fender Tweed and sits his vocals a fifth above Stanley’s. Snaps undone half way down his chest and sunglasses atop his head, Egnor is more loose in appearance than performance. Jeremy “Wood” Roberts pushes snare/symbol, snare/symbol, matched by Brandon Mooney’s low end – Stanley sings of the crowds in San Antonio. Solo. Big Chorus. The Kentucky Flag Bearer and his Duck Strangling better-half are leading the dancing charge, now joined by an Ash Punk; a member of a group of travelling fire spinners from Louisville.

Roberts counts in the Bluegrass standard, “No Ash Will Burn” – the congruency as the fire spinner sways to the 6/8 swing. His black denim is covered in soot, he bums a cigarette off of his fellow dancers. It burns just like West Virginia coal. The Horse Traders control the flow of the festival furthering into their show. Stanley writes songs for his wife – in a crowd of a thousand, it’s obvious who she is. Sitting on a blanket forty feet from the front, fixed on her husbands delivery. He receives the reaction he anticipates as he calls the lap steel a cry stick, Egnor sits and whines underneath the lyric: ‘We’ll be home soon’.

The tempo picks up and more Kentucky characters come to their feet. Short brimmed tan felt hat with a pom pom, beaded band, a resemblance to stoner piano rocker Leon Russell. Four leaf clover throat tattoos, t-shirt tattered removed of sleeves and sides draped like a poncho, muscular and strung out. Elderly, netback cap and overalls, crippled and cane in the air. Halter-top bare back, devil horn hand sign, vine-like “tramp-stamp”. Tie dye upon tie dye upon tie dye, joints to cigarettes. Volunteers in peach orange. Straw-hats, hippies and hoola-hoopers. Bandanas and beer-bongers. Shirts: ‘Heaven Must Be a Kentucky Kind Of Place’, ‘Got Agriculture Hemp?’, ‘Wooks’ and ‘Colter Wall’. Fellow Saskatchewan Songwriter, Wall, is amidst a perfect storm of successes and making home in Bowling Green, Kentucky – yet to have seen him, his merchandise beats him to me. The black shirt with a coyote smoking a cigarette, his name and ‘Imaginary Appalachia’ – I request a picture.

The Horse Traders come to a close. A new song as introduced: “Watch Your Speed”.

Ian Thornton of William Matheny and The Strange Constellations meets Mooney on stage. Mooney’s skull and crossbones bass strap is badass, Thornton is right. The MC returns to the mic, not after hugging Stanley. Quick strip of the stage and the crowd is still applauding. It sits in my gut – knowing that my departure from home was meant to lead here.

Patrick Stanley, Travis Egnor, Brandon Mooney, and Wood Roberts have lured the Spirit of Country Music. Rocky Tonk. It approached them like a mare to foal, gentle and willing. The band is blatantly rock but refuses to reject the southern accountability, bending licks and drawl delivery. Their content is simplistic and digestible, what we want of the mainstream – an accumulation of Wilco’s Summerteeth, Neil Young’s Harvest, and The Trucker’s Southern Rock Opera. Everyday-man emotion and humility rooted in quality. The Horse Traders are what should dominate radio waves. And will.

The Ash Punk puts his cigarette out on his own pants.