By Caleb Calhoun
This is not the way the organizers had planned it.
A real blackberry wintry, with blustery wind, rain and temps in the 40s. Nonetheless, on a foggy, wet Friday morning ,I made the trek to Hot Springs Resort and Spa. The French Broad River Festival is, to many of those in Asheville, the highlight of their (hearty) festival season and, as a somewhat recent transplant, I felt it was incumbent upon me to get the story. Cold rain and snow not withstanding.
I’m worried. The turnout, the energy, the overall vibe – all of it seems to be up in the air. Watching the weather has me depressed. The squalls are so powerful I can’t even roll down my window to smoke a cigarette. But I have my typewriter with me and I put some Dead on the radio. I repeat my mantra (“Just say yes, it’ll be alright”) over and over under my breath. I mentally begin digging deep.
I arrive. It takes me approximately 17 seconds to realize that all my worries are unfounded. This isn’t a Coachella crowd, this is Asheville fam, and, like the US Postal service of old, they deliver no matter the weather.
I make my way through the muddy roads, past the camping area and to the main stage. Emma’s Lounge is kicking off the festival and even with a wet, 1:30 p.m. start time, that’s a party I’m not trying to miss.
As the first notes of the festival begin to cut through the heavy air, I can see the crowd assembling. It’s early, and the patrons are already muddy, but this is having no noticeable effect on their spirits. Toddlers play tag amid the dancers, a mother feeds her baby to the right of the stage.
The angelic voice of Meg Heathman manages to coax the sun out of it’s hiding for just a few minutes. This is the invocation, and even our Mother Nature, grateful for the songs that will be sung to her river over the next two days, wants us to know she’s with us.
It’s raining again by the time the set ends and fest really gets underway. We head back to our campsites to meet up with our cohorts, many of whom we’re meeting for the first time. We sit around a campfire eating pepperoni rolls (coalminer’s favorite) and strategizing. We know that we need to pace ourselves, but the weather isn’t cooperating with taking things slow and easy.
Us hippies, we’re drawn to the music. We sample bands we’ve never heard of before and take in the scene. French Broad River Festival has nailed the booking. The music is alive and interesting and there are quite a few familiar Asheville faces gracing the stage. This is the event’s 20th year.
I’m particularly impressed by a five- piece (plus a projectionist) out of Charlotte named Hypgnostic. Somewhere between mushroom rock and conscious rap, this is music you just can’t walk away from. In front of the stage a group of perhaps four or five 8-year-old children breakdance with abandon. A mother and her daughter swing and sway with each other. My friends and I bang our heads and gesticulate wildly. Like most of the bands to play here today, there is something for everyone.
We head back to the campsite, but I can’t locate my shoes. We go back to the main stage to see if they were left there earlier, and catch a little Billy Cardine along the way. No shoes though. We give up and search out a beer instead. Empire Strikes Brass is about to hit the stage.
They push through with protest songs such as War Pigs and Smoke 2 Joints, but overall they keep the mood light. The rain is pouring down. The tent in front of the stage is absolutely packed.
“This ain’t nothin’ but a party,” Debrissa McKinney says from the stage and, taking a glance around, I have to agree.
We head over to the main stage once again to see what Cabinet is all about. Raging rock-heavy bluegrass. The boys on stage pass around a jar of moonshine and, like the people in attendance, give no credence to the crappy weather.
“Empire Strikes Brass was fucking awesome,” I tell my friend in between songs, “but this right here is my jam,” before proceeding to completely lose myself spinning directly in front of the stage.
We return to the campsites to revel in the day, shiver by the fire, and dispense some of the love we are all so very full of. In the darkness, we stumble into the wrong site, trip over strangers tents, and set off the occasional car alarm. It isn’t a problem.
Right now, with the mud between our toes and our shirts stuck to our backs we are all, every one us friends. And someday, when humanity has moved along and only the river remains, our songs and laughter will still echo through these trees late at night.
Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the author and publisher of Rosman City Blues and currently resides outside of Asheville with his dog and best friend, Dr. Gonzo.
You can reach him at Caleb.firstname.lastname@example.org and/or Facebook.com/GonzoNC.