“You guys like the smoke,” goads King Tuff. The crowded forest of humans in front of him sways with the blown haze of a fog machine. Those near the stage clap hands and wriggle on each other, laughing with their faces in the smoke. Further up the hill among hay bales and cleanly-spaced tree thickets are the less fervent fans. They smile and turn, with their beers, to their neighbors to laugh at the antics of jolly King Tuff.
“If you see us around after, come say hey and give us big hugs. We like big hugs.”
Tattoos lead my eye up King Tuff’s guitar-playing arms to his sleeveless, black jean jacket, which sports, like a motorcycling tough guy, a series of skulls patches and sharp-looking shapes. A classic trucker hat crowns his tumbling curls. But his eyes seize you like an eagle’s. And his smile eases your blood pressure. And his laugh, well his laugh is more a cackle, reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West, and makes me cringe.
“It’s well documented that Pickathon is our favorite festival, and my personal favorite because of the kids.” Cue the high-pitched cackle. But by his own words, King Tuff is a big beer-chugging, chain-smoking, bear-hugging guy with the biggest heart, and the grinning people crowded to hear him play feel that honesty.
The Backwoods Stage on which his hard thrashing pop trio rocks is built of tree limbs and looks like a child’s giant fort found deep in the forest. Christmas lights are woven through the branches, wrapped around burls and knots. Neon pink and ultramarine lights color the trees and leaves despite being midday. I wander through the crowd while King Tuff leads them through happy birthday for two fans up front.
Looking at the ground I see pairs of Tevas, moccasins, sockless and flat dirty-hipster sneaks, stomping work boots, open-faced Merrells, Converse, Crocs, and dusty bare feet. But despite the diversity of shoe styles, upon the heads of Pickathon-goers there is a frequently common fashion choice: the straw hat. Perhaps it is the rustic country setting or the hayseed clogging everyone’s nose. Either way, the straw hat comes in such an array of looks as to make itself relevant to the attention of even jaded journalists. There’s the cowboy hat with Southwest stitching pattern, the cowboy with the pinched bucket and flared brim, the softly domed lady’s hat which flops fashionably about, the rough and cheap dark brown cowboy that looks kind of like a rush mat, the straw fedora with black cloth band, the indistinct synthetic pale white sun hat with black band, the Billabong beach hat with South Pacific flowers decorating the under brim, and of course amusingly obsolete pork pies and pastoralists.
In some sense this is a modernized, Pacific Northwest family country music fest, only rather than Kenny Loggins and Garth Brooks headlining, they have Tune-Yards and Ty Segall. Instead of cotton candy and burgers being dished out at food carts there’s Bollywood Kati rolls and Pine State’s fried chicken over gravy-smothered biscuits. I guess that last one proves the culturally universal consensus on some things. It’s safe to say that, more than most music fests these days, Pickathon aims to, and succeeds at, bringing in the middle age crowd and letting them cut loose. Twenty-eight to 42 was the age range targeted by marketing I heard, and based on a quick crowd scan, I’d say that’s true, though of course there are plenty younger and older. Little three to seven-year-olds can get dropped off at a crèche with a commanding view of the rolling hill blanketed with people listening to performers on either of the two main stages. The local organization City Repair has rolled out rugs and pillows, stationed face painters, and constructed a sturdy jungle gym beneath the shade of a pine tree to provide a sort of casual day care for parents wanting to mingle and drink beer untangled from their kids. I see a young boy, with a long courageous braid and the sides of his head shaved, smile with closed eyes as a City Repair volunteer paints a skull on his face. Little girls in Lego-themed crocs and pink sunglasses stare vacantly about, hands on their hips, awaiting their turn to have their cheeks bedecked with a butterfly, rainbow or whatever their heart desires.
The main grounds are entertained by twin stages, the Mountain Stage and the Meadow Stage, and ringed by several dozen recognizable food carts. A jammed beer stand off to one side busily hustles micro brews to the people, even at noon. High above the crowds lazing about on picnic blankets soars a patchwork of shade structures tied carefully to metal towers and here and there to trees. The pattern is a series of four- or six-pointed diamond shapes known as astroids, the Greek word for star. They keep the midday sun at bay, and look almost like clouds above us. Down on the Mountain Stage the metal punk music of Meatbodies blasts at the crowd with strummed bass chords and howling feedback. One of them wears a simple red cape and whips his long dirty blonde hair like a windmill. The bluegrass folks are probably patiently waiting this out at the Lucky Barn where Dom Flemons, the “American Songster,” is scheduled to play soon. Plenty of jean jackets with beards and punky girls in green gowns and blue lipstick are on their feet though, paying close attention to the swirling mess of hardcore Californian psychedelia. I don my sunglasses and mosey out toward the Lucky Barn to catch a different kind of hardcore dedication.
Flemons is a man that wears a wool tablecloth checker shirt buttoned-up tight to his throat, suspenders, a barbershop hat tilted back atop his head, and round owlish glasses. You wouldn’t blink if he were an extra in O, Brother Where Art Thou?. Nor would you cock your head if he had a speaking role. He is a man devoted to a culture of music that no longer exists, but which he proudly reminds us is our heritage. The banjo, the standup bass, the acoustic guitar, the fiddle, the harmonica, the tambourine, the bones (an old instrument made from a pair of cattle short ribs, gripped in one hand and clacked together rhythmically), and the human voice; these make up the foundation upon which American folk and blues was built at the turn of the century, and Dom Flemons can take us back to those traditions with a degree of fidelity that’s both enlightening and artistic. He’s internalized the guitar-picking styles of great blues men and women like Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton, Dave van Ronk, Lightning Hopkins and Blind Boy Fuller, and can articulate the connections that tie them all together. He paraphrases Boo Hanks when he explains the blues: “Everybody gets downhearted, treated unfair, that’s the blues, then they can inhabit that blues and interpret it. Blues is a spirit that moves from one soul to another. It gets passed on so it can never die,” as well as Guitar Gabriel, “Toot Blues is the spirit that’s on the move.”
At the Starlight Stage I’m reminded again of a great and modern country fair, where the urban plays dress-up with its rural cousin’s clothes, and we’re convinced we’ve rediscovered something once so familiar. For a time, the troubles of city life fade. Big ladies in even bigger hats slap their hands together on the music’s back beat, swaying back and forth, sun burnt legs splayed wide in the warm hay. Young girls chew bubble gum that comes from a can. They wear earmuffs, big yellow ones like those used by carpentry men, and lighter blue kerchiefs are tied, scout style, around their necks. Older men in khaki shorts and sandals surprise their sitting friends from behind, and haul them on their feet to join the dancers. The sun has gone below the hill as the band strikes up a waltz. Three fiddle-playing sisters smile at each other as they bring us the swinging sounds of Texas Western. They take turns working upon us, lulling us, each one outdoing the previous. Her own finesse surprises the last one, the youngest and most fair, and she blushes as she plays.