Feature: Wednesday, October 22, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Keep the CampfiresBurning

Growth and youth are the yin and twang of Texas Music festivals.

By Jeff Prince

ive o’clock on a Texas morning, and four young men from Burleson hustle through a stand of trees and slip-slide down a muddy slope, talking in excited tones. There’s no reason to rush; they’re simply heading back to their campsite at Tres Rios River Ranch near Glen Rose. But they are buzzed, barely 20 years old, and attending a three-day Texas Music festival, so even short walks from Point A to Point B can be raucous missions that present boundless possibilities.

A good Texas Music festival is part Woodstock (without the masses), part Kerrville Folk Festival (without the smugness), and part honkytonk (without a roof, walls, or closing time) — a mostly self-policed celebration of song and communal spirit.

The music descends from country, blues, and rock but is more precisely a rebirth of the Outlaw genre made famous in the 1970s by hard-partying rebels such as Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, and Rusty Wier. Most charter members are still performing with passion, and were reinvigorated in the 1990s when a new generation of Outlaw artists and fans shunned the commercial NashVegas sound and fueled a profusion of independent homegrown music — and festivals like this one.

The Burleson bunch crashing through the woods at Tommy Alverson’s Family Gathering pass a middle-aged man sitting in a lawn chair, chin on chest, feet stretched toward a campfire that’s dwindled to smoldering orange embers.

“Dude, this guy’s been passed out for hours.”

“We should fuck with him.”

“Yeah, let’s put hot coals on his nuts!”

After a short debate they decide to let the old guy sleep in peace. They pass another campsite where a couple inside a sheer tent is lying asleep beside two large dogs that begin barking madly. The guy inside the tent sluggishly tries to shush his dogs, but they only bark louder.

“Sorry we bothered your dogs; we’ll go a different way next time,” one of the young men says with courteous concern, even though moments before he was keen on setting a stranger’s crotch ablaze.

Finally they reach their camp — two tents pitched beside Squaw Creek. Several thousand people are staying at the campground, but most are bushed from a long night and have bedded down in air-conditioned RVs or neatly organized tents. But the Burleson fellows are wound tight, and they drink beer and assault one another with curse-filled but good-natured verbal attacks until the sky gently changes from black to navy blue and the cicadas come alive.

The year before, they attended Alverson’s festival for the first time, had a blast, and told all their friends. “I’ll be coming back the rest of my life,” one of them says. “A bunch of our friends are coming later today. There will be about 25 of us here tonight.”

These self-described “Burleson rednecks” from the University of Texas at Arlington have jumped a fast-moving train, a Texas Music festival scene where events have exploded in number, size, and frequency in recent years, barreling toward an unknown future. The mixture of young and old fans is causing clashes, and the growing number of attendees at some festivals has introduced a new level of obnoxious behavior, petty crime, and violence. Still, the growth spurt of multiple-day Texas Music blowouts is indisputable, and most people couldn’t be happier.

Putting a festival together requires sweat, brains, and risk, but Tommy Alverson was as relaxed as a man could be two days before the gates opened for his Oct. 9-11 Family Gathering. Crewmembers and volunteers were preparing the stage area at the 55-acre campground on a cloudy afternoon while Alverson sat down at a picnic table to discuss Texas Music festivals and the future. Alverson dubbed his the “Family Gathering” to emphasize music and family over nonstop partying. As if on cue, granddaughter Baleigh Alverson, 6, wandered up and sat beside him.

“Can I go play on the playground?” she asked.

“Sure,” Alverson said. “Don’t hurt yourself, and holler if you do.”

Alverson was pleased by a promising weather forecast — he’s hosted more than one festival ruined by rain. Sure enough, the upcoming weekend would prove to be picture-perfect: Attendance hit 4,000 compared to the 2,500 he drew the year before, and the crowd stayed in line.

Alverson entered the festival hosting business in 1998 after performing for years at Larry Joe Taylor’s annual shindig in April. “People kept telling me they liked Larry Joe’s in the spring, but they wanted another one in a different time of year,” he said. “I took the bait.”

Taylor almost single-handedly introduced a new generation of Fort Worth-Dallas folks to the joys of Texas Music festivals, which had been around for years but were either far away or were one-day events that didn’t involve camping. The Terlingua International Chili Championship and its music festival were a 13-hour drive from the Metroplex. The Kerrville Folk Festival was only six hours away but had become overrun by stuffy folk-purists playing lame-ass original songs and then sneering at amateur guitarists who might have the gall to play an old George Jones tune around a campfire. Harder-bitten Texas Music fans felt out of place. Willie Nelson’s July 4 picnics and Robert Earl Keen’s Texas Uprisings were a hoot, but each lasted only one day.

Taylor combined the best of everything — camping, stage music, campfire singalongs, chili cook-offs, around-the-clock partying — and stayed within an hour-and-a-half’s drive of Fort Worth. A hundred people showed up at Taylor’s first festival in 1989 at a two-acre Mingus pasture, and the event slowly grew over the next few years. Those early lineups consisted of Outlaw pioneers such as Gary P. Nunn and Ray Wylie Hubbard, plus lesser-known older artists, such as Taylor, Alverson, and Joe Pat Hennen, who were having trouble finding a following in the club scene. By the 1990s, the festival was drawing a few thousand fans, and Taylor stretched it to three and later four days, found bigger venues, and hired more bands. He added young and unknown artists, such as Pat Green and Charlie Robison, and they attracted the college crowd that had latched onto Keen’s rough-hewn music. College kids, especially those from Tarleton State University, have been attending the festivals since the beginning, although they used to arrive in smaller numbers.

By the mid-1990s, the crowd was getting younger, and they liked to bunch up close in front of the stage and sing along with equally new artists. The older folks scooted their chairs back and kept out of the fray. Everyone enjoyed the loose and wild ambiance, but each year Taylor’s festival got larger, younger, and wilder, and the older folks were shoved farther back and became more prone to complain. Thefts and fights, once so rare, began occurring with frequency.

Three years ago, when Taylor’s festival was still in Meridian, food and booze were stolen from me and other nearby campers. After a couple of days, police officers were seen handcuffing a couple of young guys beside a tent. Inside was a huge bounty of stolen potato chips, bread, meat, beer, and bottles of whiskey. “Look inside, find what’s yours, and take it,” the police told me.

That year, attendance had grown to 7,000. In 2002, about 10,000 showed up — so many that Taylor moved this year to the 450-acre Melody Mountain Ranch near Stephenville, where in April more than 20,000 people swept over the grounds like floodwaters past a broken dam, finally forcing police to turn away people at the gate. The chaos inside created controversy over the direction the festival was heading. Some older patrons vowed never to return, younger fans declared they’d return every year until the day they died, and Taylor wondered what in the hell he had spawned.

Taylor’s 2003 bash was to some a turning point in the Texas Music festival scene. Fans heckled bands and threw beer bottles on stage and at one another. Overwhelmed Erath County sheriff’s deputies called on police officers from surrounding cities to help monitor the event, and more than 70 arrests were made, although most occurred during vehicle stops on roads leading to and from the event, for offenses like drunk driving, narcotics, and minors in possession of alcohol.

Inside the festival a handful of police officers were trying to monitor the mass of revelers. “It went over amazingly well for the amount of people there over a four-day period and the amount of uniformed officers we had at the time working security,” said Erath County Sheriff Tommy Bryant. “We’re going to probably have to double the amount of police officers working the next concert. Nothing major happened; nobody was severely injured or killed, but the thefts and some of the things occurred because there weren’t enough uniformed officers being seen.”

There were drunken fights, including a knife fight in which a guy’s ear was partially lopped off after he confronted someone stealing his ice chest. Paramedics slapped a bandage on the guy’s ear, but he refused further treatment — he wanted to stay and party.

Patrons fond of sitting around campfires and playing guitar were battered by the dust and clamor of pickups filled with people cruising around unpaved ranch roads playing their stereos at full tilt. A ban on night-time cruising will take effect next year. “There will be absolutely none of that next time,” Bryant said. “We had some who fell out of the moving trucks, and it’s not safe for people in the campgrounds wanting to mix and mingle and walk around. We’re also going to try to stop people from bringing in beer bottles.”

Some of Taylor’s early devotees are now looking at Alverson’s as the favored festival. Taylor and Alverson are friends and don’t consider themselves competitors, but their different approaches have some patrons choosing one or the other. After a couple of soggy and under-attended years in Hico, Alverson moved his festival in 2002 to Tres Rios. Many people retain fond memories of Taylor’s mid-1990s festivals in the same campground, with its 5,000-person limit. Tres Rios, as the name implies, is a beautiful spot where three rivers converge. The site is small enough to accommodate campfire strolling and a warm intimacy, while the rolling hills, river sounds, and mild fall weather make for blissful tent living. “This was always my favorite place to go for Larry Joe’s deal,” Alverson said. “Down on the river is so awesome.”

This year’s success indicated that his future festivals will soon start reaching the 5,000-person limit, but Alverson isn’t worried about outgrowing the layout. He doesn’t plan on leaving, doesn’t want to get much bigger, and said he can control the event’s size and attitude by the acts he puts onstage and the amount he charges at the gate. Of the 35 acts at this year’s event, only a couple were known for their intense following of college students, a faction that is now regularly dissed by older patrons.

“Cooder Graw, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and Jason Boland draw these college girls, and they bring their big shaved-headed, bull-necked college boyfriends,” said Jug Reed, 41, of Breckenridge. “They’re not there for the music. They’re there to see how big their pecker is, and they start to fighting.”

Reed is a burly airplane mechanic who once attended biker festivals but was drawn to Texas Music festivals several years ago because of the music and the friendly people. “At biker festivals, you look at somebody for a half second too long and they want to kick ass,” he said. “You look at somebody here and they offer you a beer and a bowl of chili.”

The loss of intimacy is why he is considering skipping Taylor’s 2004 festival or any other large festival in the future. He likes to sit close to the stage and get a good view of the entertainers and then see them later hobnobbing in the crowd or picking around campfires. “I’m still deciding whether to go back to Larry Joe’s,” he said. “The crowd was so big I couldn’t get close enough to see the acts. There were people camped two miles from the stage. And now there’s thievery. Last year I had an ice chest stolen out of the back of my pickup.”

Almost every person over 40 who was interviewed for this story mentioned Taylor’s 2003 bash and lamented that festivals stop being fun when they get that big and unruly. Alverson feels the same way. “It broke my heart at Larry Joe’s when the kids were driving around in their trucks yelling instead of listening at the campfires,” he said. “When you get that big, you get the undesirables.”

Meanwhile, the teen-agers and 20-somethings interviewed for this story raved about Taylor’s festival and said they can’t wait until next year. Most were unaware or didn’t care that they were being roundly criticized for altering the atmosphere. Cody Burris, a 24-year-old college student who attended Alverson’s recent festival, said he became hooked after going to Taylor’s bash in April. It was his first. “I loved it,” he said. “I’ll be back, I promise you. The music was absolutely great. You got to meet new people.”

He doesn’t understand the complaints about kids. Older folks need to chill out or jump off the train, he said. “The people they consider kids are in college,” he said. “I don’t call them kids. There has to be a sense of respect, but we paid our money just like they did. If they want rules, they should put a big sign up front. If it becomes a problem where they don’t want to come watch, that’s their choice. These festivals are going to keep growing and growing. Texas Music is the new thing.”

He noted that, as he was speaking, a couple of middle-aged guys drove by in a pickup listening to loud music and doing 15 mph on a road marked 5 mph. In a camp behind him, older patrons had tied a dog — pets are supposedly prohibited — to a tent pole and wandered off, leaving the critter barking for hours to the annoyance of those around. And one thing is certain — it’s easy to find older folks who are boozing and acting the fool. “There are not only 20-year-old adolescents, there are 30- and 40-year-old adolescents,” he said. “If they want respect, maybe they should be role models.”

The young crowd enjoys the friendly setting and focuses on the music as much as the older crowd does, he said. Festivals are safer than clubs, since there is no need to drive or risk a DWI. You can see multiple bands for the price of one, minors can pretty much drink without being hassled, and anytime two people meet and are attracted to each other, there is a decent chance of hooking up.

Most people — young and old — who attend these festivals are basically freethinkers who don’t blink at booze, dope, or sex. Contention comes from wanting to maintain a certain vibe, a down-home celebration versus a balls-out throwdown. Nobody is sure how deep the age division will become or where it will lead, but few predict a complete separation. To some degree, the older crowd thrives on the youngsters’ energy.

As a woman in her 50s said, “Who wants to come if it’s just a bunch of old people? It wouldn’t be as much fun without the kids. The older people were just like those kids once, and some of us never grew up. That’s what Texas Music is all about.”

The explosion of Texas Music festivals occurring statewide has been spurred by changes in the music industry, population demographics, and world affairs. Certainly, festivals are nothing new. Some, such as the Festival on Nolan Creek, date back 150 years. But the late 1990s and early 2000s will one day be looked back upon as the Golden Age of these gatherings. “We have over 600 annual events that are centered around music, and, of those events, 394 include live country music,” said Casey Monahan, director of Austin-based Texas Music Office. The total budget for those events is $56 million, and they draw about 25 million fans.

“It’s an emerging thing for everyone to have a festival now,” Alverson said.

Industry observers said a backlash against city living and urban angst has sent people scrambling for rural fun, and spending several days at an outdoor music venue is an escape to nature that doesn’t involve strenuous exercise. Added to that are a rash of new artists aided by the advent of independent radio stations and recording labels, and the ease of marketing and promotion through the use of web sites. Walker’s self-made and self-released Gypsy Songman cassette in 1985 and his subsequent outdoor birthday concerts are credited with starting the trend in Texas.

“It’s been great the past seven years the way artists have taken control of their own careers, and that’s what these festivals are an outgrowth from,” Monahan said. “It was Jerry Jeff’s success that inspired artists such as Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, and Larry Joe to create their own events. It’s all part of artists taking more responsibility and risk for the growth of their careers and not leaving it in the hands of major record labels and promoters.”

Fans help not only by attending concerts and buying c.d.’s and t-shirts, but by starting their own web sites to keep track of all the festivals, shows, and new c.d. releases, as many have done.

Terrorism is another factor that prompted travelers to look for entertainment options closer to home. Tres Rios operator Mitchell George, a state tourism development director from 1996 to 1999, said 9/11 might have changed vacation getaways forever. Tres Rios currently hosts bluegrass festivals and motorcycle rallies in addition to Alverson’s bash. “We’ve seen a big increase in attendance,” he said. “We’re looking to double our attendance this year. And 9/11 was a very key thing that spurred the idea of staying close to home for true grassroots entertainment.”

Festivals are becoming the favorite getaway for many, he said. “It’s a true escape from the real world. It lets them let down their hair — those who have hair. It gives them an escape that’s very different from clubs in the city. Out here, everyone is kind of a brother or sister. The drawback is getting too big. By managing growth, you manage service. We’re probably a couple of years away from seeing the peak.”

Despite the influx of festivals and increased competition, the demand remains strong, said John Muzyka, productions/promotions director for the Family Gathering. He produced the inaugural Brazos River Music Fest in April, just 10 days before Taylor’s big bash, and still saw a large turnout. “I usually tell people it will take three years to break even in a festival, but we did it during the first,” he said. “The popularity of the music has grown tremendously in even the last five years. There is more demand, more awareness, more radio stations that play the music, and more publications that feature it. People who got turned off from mainstream country now have access to Texas Music, and they want to go see it.”

Increased competition doesn’t threaten the trend so much as the growing risk that one will turn ugly. A mass riot with deaths could lead to lawsuits, increased insurance liability costs, and a more proactive police presence. Currently, police pretty much limit themselves to arresting drunks who are driving to or from the festivals. But a police officer strolling the site of almost any current Texas Music festival could write tickets until his hand cramped and fill a large jail in no time with drunks, pot smokers, and minors in possession. If that ever starts occurring, people will stop going. Another killer would be if people escaping the city arrive at festivals and find too many people bringing their city attitudes with them.

None of the problems has yet reached that point, but American society seems to make those scenarios all too possible. How promoters respond then will probably determine the future of these festivals.

Alverson’s festival provided numerous moments that illustrated a successful merging of young and old artists and fans into a single melting pot of music, revelry, and goodwill. On the first night, Outlaw pioneer Steven Fromholz came onstage to sing a solo set, one of his first public performances since he suffered a stroke in April. He hasn’t completely recovered yet and appeared to be pushing his limits. At times, his vocals were double-speed and his guitar playing was half-speed, creating off-kilter renditions of familiar songs. The crowd included young fans waiting for Cooder Graw, and some had never heard of Fromholz. But they watched with respect and commented on how courageous he was.

“A lot of people my age like the older-generation music,” Burris said. “That’s what our parents listened to, and it kind of sticks with you.”

Two hours later, the stage was packed tightly as people piled up front to scream and rock to Cooder Graw. The energy was intense. Afterward, the buzz around the campground was about what a special night it had been.

At 3 a.m., a half-dozen campfire singalongs were still resonating. Some were small, just a couple of people playing guitars. Some involved five or six musicians and 20 or more listeners. The biggest gathering was at a campfire where Rusty Wier, Ed Burleson, Michael Hearne, and a few other stage musicians were playing for free, taking requests, singing into the moonlight to people of all ages.

Slowly, the campfires died, and the people straggled to their bedrolls to try to get a little rest and prepare for the next day.

Not everyone slept. The party still flickered at the little river spot where the “Burleson rednecks” were camped.

“Damn, I could eat some chicken tenders,” one of them said.

They had arrived the day before with plenty of beer but not a crumb of food.

“We passed that chicken place — let’s take your truck and go get a 30-pack of chicken tenders.”

“No way, man, I’ve already got one DWI.”

“Let me drive.”

“No.”

“Fuck you.”

The argument continued for five minutes, with none of them pausing to consider the odds of a fast-food chicken restaurant being open at 7 a.m. in tiny Glen Rose. The morning sun streamed through the trees and glistened on the river, and they momentarily forget chicken nuggets and waded into cold water in their jeans to welcome the new day with a fresh beer and a fat joint.


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