Where the barks and bellows for Angela Perley and The Howlin’ Moons end in round vowels, The Wooks have the crowd stretching hard ‘Es’ through yips and yaps. What seems a much more regional tone to appreciation. If there’s been a doubling of filled mason jars, there’s been a tripling. Personalized gallon jugs of moonshine have been included in each bands compensation, one per member, and are all being opened simultaneously, shared among the collective, as well. A dedication to sobriety is weakening as the cherry and grape fragrances taunt my decision. A bottle of the clear elixir sat as a forgotten gift in the freezer at the family ranch rediscovered in the early stages of my alcohol usage. I remember taking a pull of the homemade booze as a primer resulting in a night of haze. Recalling a taste of fossil fuel, the current fruity redolence in smell could only salvage the memory and replace the experience with the real thing. The adage of Rome couldn’t ring truer to the moment and I’m seeing the importance of sharing it with my new brethren – passing on my abstinence to bond and celebrate with drink. I give the possibility a Catholic perception as one would share in a chalice of the blood of Christ, passing it onward in the communion. Nathan Thomas takes another pull from The Horse Traders gifted gallon jug, passes it to me. And with Catholic guilt, decline.

Arthur Hancock wears Muck boots on stage. Ideal for feeding cattle in the softening spring-time combination of manure, frost, straw and dirt, walking winter distances through the Canadian prairies, and apparently, playing the banjo. I kept Muck’s Arctic Pros in the old diesel band van for winter touring, a broken heater system sent the engines temperature to the floor vents in the front passenger seat only creating ‘the hell seat’, the rest of the vehicles occupants would freeze. My Mucks became part of the touring identity, not without ridicule from techs during load-in and sound-check. My personal connection to Hancock’s attire makes me love his approach that much more. The Wooks are trucker hats and flannel. Galen Green, mandolin, flannel. Roddy Puckett, doghouse bass, flannel.

Wookies Unite – The Kentucky Flag Bearer, The Duck Strangler, Ash Punk, Neck-tat Irishman. New characters emerge including the Bud Light Balancer. Shirtless, front row engaged in a full-body bluegrass thrust all while intricately balancing full cans of beer on Hancock’s monitor, releasing his hand from the alcohol once it’s placed to stay – this seems to not bother the banjo vocalist. The Balancer grabs both sexes, dancing ferociously, breaking to reach for his beverage that defies the laws of gravity – now lighter, he sets its contents back on the top ridge of the monitor wedge and rejoins the movements of his fellow Wookies.

Roberts is among us, we make eye contact and in true fashion checks in on my experience. ‘Incredible, isn’t it?’

“…I read it in the paper fifteen years ago. We’re all driving rocket ships and talking with our minds and wearing turquoise jewelry and standing in soup lines.” The Wooks on Prine.

Winners of the 2016 Rockygrass Competition outside of Boulder, Colorado, They defend the award with a stage presence that is unparalleled. It’s a kitchen stomp that goes instrumental – originals as strong as the material interpreted. Hancock expresses worry for remuneration from Cousin Byron if they don’t play any Grateful Dead and start into a groovy southern delivery of “Franklin’s Tower”.  This explains the skull on the festival signage en route through the hills, The Grateful Dead image appearing on their “Steal Your Face” album in the mid-seventies doubling as a logo for the Appalachian festival – minus the lightning bolt. With one rendition comes another, a crowd erupting with the opening lines from Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”. As the festival sings along to the anthem of organized crime I leave my post and make my back to the van for another quick fix of pork rinds. The Wooks have taken Angela Perley’s elevated crowd and furthered it into its euphoria.

Photo by Tim Benko - www.benkophoto.com
(photo taken by Tim Benko at 2016 RockyGrass Band Competition)

I reconnect with an early welcomer, by chance, at the back of the grounds, a dim luminance from the peripheral of campfires light the face of Zack Walker. Without hesitance we throw our arms around each other’s shoulders and continue in stride. I feel safe in my reasoning that he’s had his share of the moonshine being passed so freely, and as it does all of us, the indulgence of alcohol brings out a philosophical tone to Walker’s response when asking how I found myself in his neck of the woods. He declares it the work of God. I refrain from the pretentious correction that in the Book of John the crowd asks Jesus what they must do to do the works God requires – Jesus bluntly states that ‘the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’…but I feel what Walker is saying – I’d argue it’s a little more Blues Brothers than Biblical, but a mission developing into a spiritual quest. A freeness, open to signs, constantly rewarded through synchronicity, thoughts manifesting into realities instantaneously – Walker pushes the concept as if he needs to convince me, so I agree. Yes, the work of God.

It is in this moment I’m struck. My journey is a pilgrimage. My experience in December has left me in an upheaval of beliefs and until now do I realize I truly am doing the work of God as stated by Christ…or more like working towards the work of God, working at believing in the one he has sent. I cannot be told otherwise that I experienced his wonder first-hand last winter, as real as the day is long – and yet I continue to search. After preaching in Galilee, Jesus was approached by a royal official with a sick son. The father begged Christ to perform a healing, Jesus responded: “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe.” Do I need more proof or was my experience enough? Then again, proofs only give way for more questions.

Under what’s become a clear Appalachian sky, deeper questions attack like a mob. I’m feeling forced to look at myself with a rational mind. I stand in disbelief that I simply told my loved ones I was leaving, length undetermined. No push-back. Maybe they saw the underlying truth clearer than I did myself – is it the Spirit of Country Music I am on the hunt for or a sense of the Spirit within myself? Country Music considered, how was this sacral outlook on the genre even instilled in me? Why does its perversion find its way under my ribs to a point that I am so infuriated with the lack of respect to a sound that I’m willing to drive half way across the country to prove its purity still exists? Why do I care? Maybe it’s been foolish to not be more willing to play the game, write to accommodate to a larger listenership and once a foot is in the door then ‘make the album I always wanted to make’. The industry is good if one is willing to dumb down the lyric and formulate the writing, follow the conceptual fads and have touchstones throughout a song – checking them off the list: whiskey, party, booty-call, more alcohol, truck…fuck me, truck – like, since when did that honky-ass cliché reintroduce itself as stereotypical fodder? Part of me feels defeated as an artist fighting for mainstream appeal but refusing to compromise. I wonder if that old mentality of ‘doing in on my terms’ is still a possibility.

And the inner search comes to surface. Fellow worldly Spirit hunters have criss-crossed the globe destined for Bodh Gaya in India where Siddhartha Guatama sat beneath the fig tree meditating for seven days towards enlightenment; Lourdes, France, where the Holy Virgin appeared to three children at the Massabielle grotto; Stonehendge to watch the sunrise above the rocks on the summer solstice; Machu Picchu, the centre to the Andean vision of the cosmos.

And Irvine, Kentucky, where a sold out crowd awaits the appearance of Tyler Childers.