How COVID-19 reminds us of the magical music moments we are missing

Tyler Childers performing at Kickin’ It on the Creek. Photo by Whitney Johnson.

Right now there is a close knit Kentucky music community that’s hurting this week.  This is the week that a lot of us, 1,500 or so to be exact, are supposed to be trying to concentrate on our work, and having to constantly refocus to keep from counting down the seconds. You could hear it – the whispers from Ross’ Creek would draw louder with each day, floating through the forest of the mind with banjos and electric guitars providing the background noise. You could taste and smell it, getting ghostly whiffs of Cougar Bait and Hillbilly Hibachi out of nowhere.  You could feel it like the million and one hugs and laughing til your stomach hurt.

But 2020 has robbed us of a lot. It’s robbed of us normalcy and of our sense of security. It’s also robbed us of experiences and memories. While music festivals have cancelled across the country, and justifiably so, there’s a music community here who’s heart is located in a remote holler in eastern Kentucky. The memories made there are some of the best kind, with the joyous lack of cellphone service forcing people back to what we were before the inundation of technology – humans who interacted with other humans. Everything that Kickin’ It On The Creek is, is everything that the world needs most: love, laughter, music, compassion, and friendship. That’s probably why the absence of it hurts so bad.

It looks like I’m not the only one.  As one looks through their Facebook feed, it has been chock full of love this week for that magic place in Wolfpen. That has made it a little easier to bear. It’s important not to get too down about it. First, it was absolutely the right call. Very few events can survive in a pandemic, and a music festival of any kind isn’t one of them.Most of us, even though we’re hurting, are choosing to remember the good times and sharing pics and videos from years past. That’s been incredible to see.

And for me, it’s gonna give me the chance to write something I’ve been meaning to for a long time.

A year ago, I had the best two weeks of live music that any human can ever experience. It was a three part series that started when I attended the 2019 rendition of Kickin’ It On the Creek, then left several days later to go catch Tyler Childers at Red Rocks, then culminated with our Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival, which I got to oversee the music of for the first time ever. Those two weeks were so magical, it’s tough to put into words. Which is probably why I never tried. But now, I need that memory in a bad way. So I’m gonna give it a go.

Part 1: “Welcome Home” – Kickin’ On The Creek 2019

Kelsey Waldon performing at Kickin’ It On the Creek. Photo by Jon Grace.

The story of KITOC 2019 actually begins in 2018. We have a little musical tribe in Bell County, one that goes to a lot of shows together, and the same group of friends who also help me put on most every music event here in our neck of the woods. But in 2018, it was just my buddy Blake and I that got tickets to Kickin’ It On The Creek. So we went and honestly had the best time imaginable. That year will go down as one of my favorite shows ever. With the 2019 version, we got to bring almost our entire crew. We were one of the last in line at the pre-sale in Irvine to get tickets, having sat there since the wee hours of the night before. Getting to share the magic of Ross Creek with my closest friends, introducing them to the creek and all the wonderful people there, was something I’ll always cherish.

Most of us got there Thursday evening, and got to witness just about the entire bill. I almost immediately spotted Byron and went up to greet him, to which I got a signature bear hug and a “Welcome home.” When Byron tells you that, he means it. It sounds like something simple, but it’s so incredibly powerful. This man opens his home to us and genuinely wants us to consider it home for the weekend. It’s why anyone who has ever been to Kickin’ It On the Creek will tell you they’d walk to the ends of the earth for the Roberts, because they’re honestly some of the nicest people on earth and have created something truly special.

Getting to share this place and experience with my friends was something special. All year they had heard Blake and I talk about how incredible last year was, so it made it extra special having them all there with us this go-around. We camped together, cooked together, and spent the entire weekend enjoying one another’s company. The music was just the cherry on top, but man oh man was it a hell of a cherry. The lineup for last year’s KITOC was perfect as always. The Roberts Family are not only some of the most wonderful people on earth, but mercy, they know how to put together a line up. You had your Kickin’ It On the Creek staples: Arlo McKinley (who made 1,500 cry simultaneously with an emotionally charged set), John R. Miller and the Engine Lights, Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle, and Luna and the Mountain Jets to name a few. You also had some scorching newcomers, like Morgan Wade, Kesley Waldon, and Padre Paul that wowed those in attendance.

The bill was absolutely top shelf in every way, and so were the memories made. Getting to hang backstage and chat with Kelsey Waldon, John R. Miller, Chloe, and Arlo about old music and different cities across the country and hanging out with my buddy Charlie Hatcher and sipping Jameson on his tailgate while talking about life and laughing til we cried was something I’ll never forget. Getting to see a million friendly faces and not a single unfriendly one is strange and amazing. Of course, getting to see Tyler Childers in such a setting, now that he’s rightfully taken over the music world, is something that you just can’t beat.

Leaving Ross’ Creek is always tough, but this year it was also met with anticipation, as my wife and I (along with basically everyone at Ross Creek that weekend it seemed like) was about to travel thousands of miles west to go watch Tyler Childers make his debut at Red Rocks Amphitheater.

Part 2: “This beats the s*** outta ice cream…” Tyler Childers,
Robert Earle Keene, and Town Mountain at Red Rocks Amphitheater

Tyler Childers performing at Red Rocks. Photo by Jon Grace.

Ooo lawd…

From one life-changing musical experience to another in a matter of days. I had been looking forward to going to Colorado and Red Rocks…well forever, it seems. I had bought the tickets as soon as they came on sale and scored good ones, around 12 rows back. I did forget to mention this to my wife, luckily her love for Tyler and adventure match mine, so the news wasn’t so hard to digest.

I knew it was gonna be fun when I ran into my buddy Jeremy Satterwhite and his wife on a connecting flight to Colorado. We sat in an airport bar, having a frosty beer, talking about Kickin’ It On the Creek and the upcoming few days. When we touched down, it was everything I imagined it would be and then some. Colorado in late September can be unpredictable weather wise. I had been in Montana the year prior around the same time and got to see that first hand. Luckily the temperatures were summer like until the day we left.

Aimee and Jon Grace at Pikes Peek. Photo courtesy of Jon Grace.

My wife and I (along with her father) ended up staying at the North Fork Ranch in a little community called Shawnee. There was zero chance that I was going to Colorado and not fly fishing a lot while there. We went a few days early, and stayed at an actual ranch about an hour outside Denver. The cabin had no TV, no wi-fi, but was nestled in the most pristine setting you could imagine. The North Fork of the South Platte River ran by our cabin, and I proceeded to catch some of the biggest trout I’d ever seen over the next few days. A note though, one I wish I would have known: this was private water, so you couldn’t just fish it. You had to have a guide and a reserved time and spot. Once I saw the dinosaurs I pulled out, I understood why. It was trophy water, plain and simple. I also drove an hour or so and fished the Middle Fork of the South Platte and caught some decent public water fish as well.

We had an absolute ball there. We got to visit Pikes Peak, which was jaw-dropping. And before the concert, we got to go to downtown Denver to a nice little venue for Appalachia on the Rocks, a concert which featured The Wooks, Chelesa Nolan, the Local Honeys, Laid Back, Josh Nolan, Geno Seale, Ritch Henderson, and Eric Bolander. Getting to see a thousand Kentucky faces in a club in downtown Denver was special. We drank our fill, listened to some great music, and got to talk about Kickin’ It On the Creek and the upcoming Red Rocks show.

The Local Honeys performing Appalachia on the Rocks in Colorado. Photo by Jon Grace.

By the time we finally got to Red Rocks, the trip had already been once in a lifetime. But getting to see that venue in person was spiritual. The second we stepped foot in it, I understood the hype. I understood why it was a bucket list venue for so many music lovers. Sitting between those two massive cliffs, watching Tyler’s EBT logo shine off the rocks, it was truly awe inspiring. The sound was flawless. Literally everything about the venue was perfection.

We watched Town Mountain and Robert Earle Keen deliver outstanding sets, including a special appearance from Tyler during Town Mountain’s “Down Low”. Town Mountain did a blazing bluegrass set that got the crowds energy at a frenzy. When they played “Law Dog” and you heard that iconic intro bounce off the rocks….Lord have mercy. Some heathens got buck wild. Then you had the legendary Robert Earle Keen show that he’s still one of the best in the business. I watched him at Railbird Festival for the first time a month or so prior and he was unfortunately plagued by sound issues, so seeing him deliver a set at Red Rocks was pretty cool. You could tell he was truly amazed at how many of Tyler’s fans knew his songs. I myself have been a Robert Earle Keen fan since the mid 90s, and consider “West Textures” one of the best country albums ever made. Getting to see one of my all time favorite artists on that bill in that venue was just insane.

Tyler Childers performing at Red Rocks. Photo by Jon Grace.

By the time Tyler came on, the crowd was feeling it. Whether it was the altitude or the amazing laws in Colorado, everyone was feeling great. And when Tyler took the stage and looked at the crowd, you could tell he was in awe too. He deliver a great line about how much he loved ice cream, then followed with: “this beats the s*** outta ice cream.” Man did it ever. And I love ice cream too. He delivered a flawless set of his best songs, capped off with an incredibly touching version of “Lady May”. It was hands down one of the most amazing musical experiences I have ever witnessed.

Getting on the plane and leaving was rough. We couldn’t stay long, for just a few days after the Red Rocks show was our Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival here in Middlesboro and for the first time, I had the opportunity to pick the music for it…

Part 3: Coming Home – Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival

The plane ride coming home was pretty somber, but there was still a twinge of excitement. I was leaving two amazing experiences where I got to take part as a fan, to flying home and putting on a music festival of our own. So the mindset of relaxation suddenly and dramatically shifted from play to work.

I had been wanting the chance to be able to pick the lineup for the Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival for as long as I can remember. As fate would have it, ten years or so prior I had even made a Facebook page asking the organizers to bring Chris Knight to the Fall Festival. Here in Middlesboro, the Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival is our big event. Every first weekend of October, our downtown was packed with people enjoying food, crafts, a carnival, and live music to name a few. The concert has always been my favorite part of the festival. Some years it had been great; I remember seeing John Anderson with a huge crowd. Some years it had been much more pedestrian. It largely depended on the budget. The festival had never had the big budget that other events had, so sometimes you had to be creative. For this year, we had found some new sponsors, and put in some money from tourism as well to create what I thought was an amazing, diverse bill. We had acts ranging from R&B to bluegrass to rock to folk to country. It was capped off Friday night by Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound, and Saturday by Kentucky songwriting legend Chris Knight. The plan finally worked, it only took a decade.

Getting back home, I immediately went to work. Our small board had done a great job in helping prep the downtown for the event, and we had been advertising nonstop for months. We had made some changes, this year using the Levitt Lot on Cumberland Avenue instead of spending the money to rent a stage. It turned out to be a huge win. We had strong crowds even early in the day, and at night the lot was completely packed with people. While it was still incredibly stressful (putting on an event of that magnitude always is) it was also extremely gratifying. Those brief moments of rest with your friends, watching live music, talking about the crazy last two weeks was something I’ll always cherish. I remember watching Charles Wesley Godwin do a solo set and watch everyone in the crowd come to a complete hush to immerse themselves in what was going on. It was a powerful moment – one I won’t soon forget.

Charles Wesley Godwin performing at the Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival. Photo by Alexis Faye.

Looking back on that two week span now brings up a well of mixed emotions – longing, happiness, sadness, but mostly gratitude. Live music can have such an impact on certain people’s well-being, certainly mine. Last year was full of incredible shows, from seeing some incredible shows at the Bell Theater that we booked, to going to great festivals like Railbird and Mountain Music Festival, to doing our very first homegrown Laurel Cove Music Festival. It was a bumper crop year for music. However, those two weeks were most definitely the highlight of an amazing year.

This year has been filled with famine, minus a few shows here and there. I’m grateful we’ve been able to do a few socially distanced shows at Laurel Cove.  The thought of having an entire year without a single concert was downright depressing. We had to cancel Laurel Cove Music Festival, the Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival, and lots more. Maybe it was fate that I waited so long to write these memories down, because 2020 has put a crazy new perspective on just how amazing 2019 was. As bad as it has been, the good thing is that next year, (God-willing if this plight is over with) we can come in and look forward to an incredible year filled with music.

Counting down the days until Kickin’ On The Creek in 2021 will be a long, hard road. But think of how good it’s going to feel when it gets here. Until then, send your love to the Roberts family and thank them for all they’ve done to help Kentucky music.

See ya’ll down the road soon!

Relaxing after a long week of creating music memories with friends. Photo courtesy of Jon Grace.

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