Photo by Live Edits Lab / Collin Taylor.
Founded by Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) in 2010, Harvest Fest returns to Mulberry Mountain in Arkansas on October 11–13. On the festival circuit, Harvest Fest is like an eccentric little brother; it’s smaller in scope (it’s almost all bluegrass music) and size. Still, one can see the familial resemblance to its bigger, older brothers: Bonnaroo, Lollapolooza, and Coachella. The same fungi pushers, at the top of their entrepreneurial game, sell their wares tent to tent. Dirty neo-hippies’ hula-hoops paint fluorescent swirls throughout the night landscape. There are still long, jammy sets with well-produced light shows and avid (rabid) fans pushing to get to the front, only to be squished against a metal blockade. But it’s the differences from the bigger festivals that make Harvest a more enjoyable weekend.
The smaller crowds mean better access to the music. Camping is only a short walk to the main stage, so it’s no bother to steal away for a quick nap or to drink a gas-station Coors Light (just make sure it’s in a can, they don’t allow bottles) instead of paying a premium to one of the vendors. You can come back to your campsite in the evening to make a fire (as long as it is contained and off the ground), grill some supper, and pile on a couple layers of clothing. And, if the weather is anything like when I last attended Harvest, it will be warm during the day with just enough sun to turn your cheeks a pale pink (can we talk about why more music festivals aren’t held in the fall?).
There are a lot of families at Harvest, and the folks in charge like it that way. Kids under twelve get in free, and there are plenty of activities to keep them busy. Children’s yoga and Vibe Tribe Kidz Kamp are just a couple of the events geared toward the prepubescent crowd. The family-friendly vibe adds to the overall jovial tone of the weekend and people in general are really nice. But it’s easy to be nice when one is in as beautiful a place as Mulberry Mountain. The Ozarks are gorgeous, and if you’ve never been, Harvest is the perfect excuse to see them for yourself. Surrounding the festival grounds are miles of scenic trails (where you might even see YMSB’s banjo player, Dave Johnston, running—check out my interview with him below), a disc golf course, mini-lakes stocked for fishing, and access to the Mulberry River.
But it’s really the music at Harvest that, if you’re not already convinced, is the reason to go. Bluegrass virgins need not fear—bluegrass is not like IPAs or Wagner; it’s not an acquired taste. In a completely unscientific study I conducted, it was found that the only people who don’t like bluegrass are people who have never seen it performed live. You do, however, have to figure out which shows you want to see.
There are some obvious choices. Yonder Mountain String Band has built their fourteen-year career on the strength of their spectacular live performances, and trust me when I say this isn’t your daddy’s bluegrass. Leftover Salmon, North Mississippi Allstars, and Split Lip Rayfield have been on the festival circuit for years and are all worth penciling in your dance card. However, the main stage isn’t the only game in town. There are over seventy bands playing at Harvest, a lot of them still relatively unknown and performing on one of the two small stages—the Backwoods Stage or the Roost. Don’t overlook these shows. One of the cooler experiences of the weekend is seeing talented, up-and-coming bands play in an intimate setting.
It’s hard to go wrong at Harvest when deciding which bands to see, but just for good measure, I’m listing my top-five picks for non-main stage shows below.
1. Adam Faucett and the Tall Grass
Start off your weekend with Adam Faucett’s wrecking ball of a voice, and gritty, yet poetic songs. Thursday, 3:00 pm at the Backwoods Stage.
2. Blackfoot Gypsies
Evoking the sonorous rock of the sixties and seventies, this guitar/drummer duo could be the next Black Keys. Thursday, 8:00 pm at The Roost.
3. She’s a Keeper
This ensemble from Kansas City blends an indie-rock sensibility with the picking and harmonies of bluegrass to create both catchy and poignant tunes. Friday, 9:30 pm at The Roost.
Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe are an easy-on-the-eyes male/female duo from LA that combine the sounds of the West Coast and the South to make music that’s all their own. Friday, 8:00 pm in the Harvest Tent.
5. Mountain Sprout
A crowd favorite, this raucous band plays music that can best be described as bluegrass on crack. Saturday, 12:30 am at the Backwoods stage.
Interview with Dave Johnston of Yonder Mountain String Band
Even with all this talent, it can’t be denied that Yonder is the main attraction. In the often-homogenous world of contemporary music, Yonder Mountain String Band is an anomaly. They built a huge cult following playing bluegrass that, fourteen years ago when the band formed, wasn’t anywhere to be seen on the map of popular music. Between their superb musicianship, carefully crafted songs, and mesmerizing live shows, YMSB has carved out a thriving career in the music industry; an industry people constantly bemoan is dying.
Dave Johnston, Yonder’s banjo player and one of the founders of the band, was kind enough to take some time out of his day to talk to me last week. We discussed what makes Harvest Fest unique, his love of Southern literature, and songs falling out of the sky.
From left to right: Adam Aijala, Jeff Austin, Dave Johnston, and Ben Kaufmann. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.
The Oxford American: Yonder has really built its career as a touring band. Was that a purposeful decision or did it happen organically?
Dave Johnston: It was a purposeful decision for us to play live because a lot of our musical spirit—our musical m.o.—was based on live bands, like the Grateful Dead and other bands like that. So, yeah, we kind of decided to be a touring band but we never expected to have the success that we have. We feel pretty lucky about that.
The OA: Yonder has been together for a long time. Is it nice to see bluegrass gain some more mainstream attention? Has it been surprising?
DJ: It is nice to see it get some mainstream attention, for sure. I fell in love with the music when I first heard it in college. At that time I guess you‘d be listening to a lot of Pearl Jam and Nirvana and stuff like that. I honestly not only liked bluegrass because first and foremost it was great music, and really well written in my opinion, but I liked that it was something that was a little bit off the beaten path—something you could kind of bushwhack your way through. So the amount of attention it gets now, or I would say, bluegrass-derivative type music, is great. A rising tide lifts all boats.
The OA: Who were some of the early musicians that made you appreciate bluegrass?
DJ: Will Oldham in a way was really big for me. Also Earl Struggs and Lester Flatts, they were big influences. Once I got a hold of one of their best-of Columbia years, once I got a hold of one of those type of records, I was never going to go back. It was really powerful stuff for me.
The OA: You guys have been really successful at blending bluegrass with rock and other genres of music. In Yonder’s evolution as a band, did you ever grapple with the idea of staying true to the genre of bluegrass?
DJ: That’s a really good question. When we were first starting out, that is something that we grappled with quite a bit. Our models for bluegrass were fantastic bands, and we found out we couldn’t really replicate what they were doing and still reach the people we wanted to reach. So we decided to let it stay more in our imaginations, and let ourselves interpret the music less in the other bands’ frameworks and more in our own frameworks.
The OA: What is unique about Harvest Fest, compared to other festivals?
DJ: I think there are plenty of opportunities to be youthfully engaged in the activities, like if you want to party and rage, I think that happens there, although I’ve never been a part of it. But I don’t see it being obstructive or obtrusive. And I see a lot of families who really seem to be enjoying themselves and have good camps, and everything seems pretty chill.
It’s just a really good vibe, and it isn’t one that is discriminatory or one that is going to be judgmental about who you’re bringing and what you’re doing. If you’re bringing your kids, they’re cool with that. If you’re just a bunch of folks getting away from college for the weekend, everyone is cool with that, too.
The OA: I am not sure if you know, but The Oxford American is billed as the Southern magazine of good writing. Do you have a favorite Southern writer?
DJ: Oh man, I have a lot of favorite Southern writers. I like Flannery O’Connor, I like Eudora Welty. Of course I like William Faulkner. Man, there are some really great ones. I like Charles Wright, the poet, I like James Dickey. I you want to go back to the Modernists, I like Allen Tate. I like some of these younger guys—James Allen Hall is a really good writer. There are almost too many to mention, either that or I need to quit reading.
The OA: What are you reading right now?
DJ: Right now, I’m reading two things along with the Norton Anthology of Poetry; I like to read that all the time. I’m reading a book called Born to Run—it’s a great book; in fact after these interviews I’m going to go run. I’m also reading a book called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott about the writing lifestyle, actually.
The OA: Does literature influence your music in any way?
DJ: I don’t know if it influences my music, but I do know it’s a really important part of who I am so I would assume it probably leaks out in there somewhere. It’s just part of the whole deal for me, the whole package. It’s necessary, at least for me, to be involved with literature in one way or another.
The OA: I’ve heard of musicians who say that sometimes a song will come to them fully formed, and I’ve heard writers say things like this as well about books. Has this ever happened to you?
DJ: You know, absolutely it’s happened to me—it feels like the song just falls out of the sky and hits you in the head. I like that, when that happens. I think to really be able to experience that in all its epiphanic glory is to just spend every day working on stuff that doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go, and then one day the song is there and it’s almost like you’ve been preparing for it the whole time. It’s a pretty awesome thing and I don’t think of it as anything special. If a song falls out of the sky and hits me on the head, I’m usually pretty suspect of it and will put it away for a several months.
The OA: In the past fourteen years, how has the process of writing music changed for you?
DJ: The process of writing music has become more writing, if that makes any sense.
The OA: More structure?
DJ: You are going to pay more attention to structure, maybe even impose a random structure on some idea you have and see if any music comes out of it. I guess I feel like I spend more time writing and rewriting and going over things, then, like I said earlier, letting the song hit me on the head.
When I was younger, I had less ability with writing in general. I feel like I was more prone to wait for something to hit me in the head and go with it. Now I feel like you can make a daily practice out of writing, as you could out of practicing playing music. It was a revelatory moment for me when I figured that out.
The OA: Do you have any musical inspirations that might surprise your fans?
DJ: Maybe. I don’t know. I think running is really inspirational. I mean literally, to inspire, to breathe in, and then to expire. I think good things happen when you are preoccupying your brain with something that is less important than music. Something where you are not taking yourself as seriously, because you can’t, because let’s face it, I am never going to be a very good marathoner. I’m probably never going to be a very good writer. But, it seems like not being a very good marathoner—I could live with a little bit better.