The Jenkins Twins summon a roar from the crowd with a lyric; “Nashville…I can’t trust a word you say.” The epicentre of aspiration fraud lies 245 miles due southwest, close enough for a quick-fix yet easier avoided. However, there’s no denying the symbiotic relationship between Kentucky’s talent and Nashville’s machine as proven at the Hall of Fame days ago.
The harmonies of Trevor and Trenton Jenkins shared a womb and they’re keeping me from being fully present in my conversation with Emily and Mooney – every line is sung together and I can’t tell if their interval choices are from innocence of no outside assistance or conscious dissonant decisions. Either way they are spot on and causing me to twist my neck in interest. They take the liberties of rendering “Mama Tried” – an homage to the original but with the half-time feel that The Grateful Dead incorporated into the chorus, throughout. Haggard covers are two for two today.
Our trio conversation has evolved to a tetrad and the new contributor is approaching Canadiana. As if I were being set up for a prank reality television show, my reactions are in kind. Yes, I’m a Hip fan; yes, Gordon Downie’s condition is heartbreaking; yes, he’s a warrior; yes, I dig the Weakerthans; Yes, Jian is fucked. Nathan Thomas is the music director at 88.1 FM out of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia and a remarkable hub of passion. He’s unassuming, charming and an obvious resource to pull regional music knowledge. Like the jar in Hesiod’s Works and Days opened by earth’s first woman, Pandora, the localities escape Thomas like evils. West Virginia: The Fox Hunt, Coyotes in Boxes, Sean Knisely. Kentucky: Nick Dittmeier and The Sawdusters, Quiet Hollers, John Moreland. Canadian transplant: Kaia Kater. Oh, and obviously, Tyler Childers.
Tyler Childers. Both Emily and Mooney interrupt at the mention of the name. I’m asked if I’ve heard, heard of, Childers. A similar familiarity to that of The Horse Traders but nothing that can be pinpointed. I answer with a no and am responded to with shock. My ignorance to Childers’ music releases a flood of adjectives from all parties in listening distance of my answer describing their own takes on everything from his voice to presence. He’s elevated quickly in the insights. The personal connections are obvious but the praise comes off as unbiased. Emily, Mooney, and Thomas are laughing amongst themselves in disbelief that I’ve never been exposed to Childers’ sound and are calling dibs on who gets to stand beside me as I take in his headlining set in a couple hours. Like the devil, He appears.
Somber and with swagger. I suss two obvious particulars from Childers appearance: Seattle fashion circa 1993 is analogous to Appalachia 2016 and The Red Headed Stranger causing excitement outside the Sturgill concert in Ashland is standing before me. He imparts wisdom spurred by the green bottle in my hand opposite the one shaking his and suggests a couple shots of Evan Williams bourbon in my Ale 8. Kentucky Mouthwash. The adoration for the man continues as Emily’s husband joins our circle, again, in disbelief towards my naivety and furthers the personal connection to Childers with pride that the young songwriter stood in their wedding party. Expectation, high.
I’m wanted at the stage. Confused by the random request from birthday boy, Kenton, I hear a ‘where is he’ from the speakers opposite side of the homemade bandstand, see a few side-stage volunteers point in my direction and, out of nowhere, am hustled to the back steps. Unbeknownst and confused, I take one step at a time as a festival crowd applauds. Byron Roberts is a man to give recognition and through an appreciation for my distance travelled and mission committed to, upholds his gratitude publicly. It’s surreal. Like a scene from a medieval revelry, I’m centre-stage. ‘All the way from Sas-kat-chew-wan, Canada,’ Roberts’ annunciation of the syllables are strong through his southern delivery, finalized by an endearing rhyme with ‘yawn’. The acclaim is welling and felt in my throat – complete strangers in a rite of adoption.
My journey to hunt out the Spirit of Real Country Music. A pathway that continued to present itself with every mile travelled and pliant with the flow. A commitment to the wind and being open to guidance, relying on intuition. It culminates with an unknowing cast of celebrants playing into a storyline of importance to nobody but myself. I overlook a mass of proponents in a place where the soul of country music arguably originated and if I were to pay heed to the instinct and knowledge that has presented itself throughout my journey, I could confidently claim the Spirit was undoubtedly conceived in these hills. I found it, the heart. Roberts is pursed-lipped and gives all respect through his eyes, nodding in his clutch. The sentiment and setting is larger than anybody understands and in this moment I award myself a victor.
Roberts meets me back at my previous perch with a continued appreciation for my attendance and in the same manner as Patrick Stanley was informed, is told that I am a virgin to the sound of Tyler Childers. Roberts is lavish.
“He’s got Dylan and Prine beat, unlike anything you’ve ever heard. He’s a walking legend to be.”
I’m filled with pulled pork, beans, Ale 8s and gratitude. Digestion and decompression from the intake, I excuse myself. The collective hail for Childers alters my view of him as we cross paths on my way to spend a few minutes alone – if anything, a testament to his family, friends and fanbase. As I approach my vehicle I continue to be welcomed to Kentucky, singled out mere minutes ago. My pork rind supper replaced by an opposing quality cut, I indulge on a few salty dry wafers and finish off the last of my jugged water. Having only visited half the artisan tents I move towards completing the round and am drawn to a jeweler.
The canopy covers a collection of homemade trinkets, charms and totems. An amulet stands out and calls to me like Frodo’s ring. A bracelet, leather strapping with a horse head locket. In its completion, an image with a striking resemblance to the eternal snake. Another spiritual symbol offered in my travels. The Equestrian Ouroboros of Gnosticism and enlightenment. Egyptian in origin and a predecessor to Christianity. I purchase the talisman as my symbolic Holy Grail and have it placed around my wrist.
This signals my return.