Small town, big music

Courtesy of Rory Chapman

Knoxville, Tenn.’s Black Lillies were repeat performers this year at the Four Corners Folk Festival.

By Margaret hedderman
Special to the Herald

Halfway through Chatham County Line’s set on Saturday, a great wind rushed Reservoir Hill in Pagosa Springs, rustling the crowd of 4,000-plus like autumn leaves. Lead guitarist Dave Wilson leaned into the band’s single microphone and hollered for the audience to come in under the tent: “It ain’t raining in here!”

After 16 years of inclement weather, unaffected festivalgoers just brush away the raindrops for three days of “pickin’ and drinkin’” at the Four Corners Folk Festival in Pagosa Springs. This year, our banjo-totin’, fiddle sawin’ conception of “folk music” was blown away by the organizers’ enlightened definition that includes a variety of big names (Keb’ Mo’, Natalie MacMaster, Los Lobos) paired with an astounding array of lesser-known acts.

When the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger restored folk music to the forefront of American culture and Bill Monroe gentrified hillbilly music, our definition of “folk” became confused. Is folk music bluegrass? Singer-songwriter? Country? Yes, yes and yes. When you get down to it, “folk” is simply the oral and musical tradition of a culture: Irish, blues or East L.A. The festival lays that spirit bare with its eclectic lineup.

Early Saturday morning, four young Fort Collins sisters tromped onstage. Fiddle? Mandolin? Definitely an Irish band. Then their clear voices launched into Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” with the ferocity of a medieval army. The classically trained SHEL was this year’s emerging artist. The sisters cried during a standing ovation.

For those who crave the bygone days of secret stills and backwoods musicians, Chatham County Line fulfills that dream. Inspired by old-time radio bands, the North Carolina quintet went unplugged in favor of taking turns around a wooden microphone stand. That community spirit is the festival’s binding sinew. Backstage, the children of the singer-songwriter/husband-wife duet Anne and Pete Sibley rolled in the grass while Keb’ Mo’ and Caravan of Thieves jammed under a tent. Elsewhere, beer from Breckenridge Brewery flowed, and families lazed in the grass.

On Saturday, the life of the party, Keith Picot, the upright bassist for Cousin Harley, rocked the crowd. With his greasy comb-over, embroidered western shirt and tight black pants, Picot is a comedy routine unto himself, silently yee-hawing, yuk-yuk-yukking and snarling as he slaps the strings. If the Vancouver rockabilly band weren’t so good, they’d be a farce.

Because the festival attracts larger crowds and even larger bands, promoters Crista Munro and Dan Appenzeller feel the pressure.

“Every year, we have to try and outdo the year before,” Munro said.

They certainly achieved that with the acquisition of Los Lobos – perhaps too much so. The accomplished American Chicano rock band was eagerly anticipated, more so as their roadies tuned instruments for 30 minutes past show time. The formerly easy-going festival took a turn toward pretension when Los Lobos mounted the stage.

On Sunday, Jackie Greene, a 27-year-old blues and rock show-stopper, hit the crowd like a jolt of electricity. Greene has frequently been compared to Bob Dylan, but that prescribed simile is dead wrong. With every blues-influenced song, Greene slyly revealed a new talent – a wailing guitar, a boogie-woogie piano, a screaming harmonica. Good rock ’n’ roll is becoming America’s folk music.

The festival’s largest and only flaw became painfully obvious during Greene’s set; overzealous security. It was like watching a pre-Beatlemania audience itching to jump from their seats and cheer but restricted by social conformities. Standing was allowed only between songs, and dancing beneath the tent was an epic no-no.

It wasn’t until three-time Grammy-award-winning blues master Keb’ Mo’ took the stage that the party really started – outside the tent. Dancing couples, jiving old men in sunglasses and bouncing kids swarmed the hill. I’m fairly certain I even saw Cruz Contreras of the wonderful alt-country band The Black Lillies dancing in the crowd. Keb’ Mo’s easy going style and subtle, self-effacing humor brought the three-day festival to a beautiful conclusion beneath a crescent moon.

Margaret Hedderman is a freelance writer living in northern New Mexico. Reach her at

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