Last weekend saw the inaugural Appalachian Vibes Music Festival come to rural Axton, VA, along the North Carolina border. George Wethington made the trip down to take in the vibes, hear some great music, and enjoy what Mountain Valley Brewing has to offer.
I was 30 miles outside of Axton, Virginia when the sky traded the ready shield of Orion for the hazy grey of dawn. On the three-hour drive there, I told myself that I wasn’t going to succumb to the convenient reach of fast-food breakfast. I was in gas station breakfast territory. I followed my gut and found a nice country store with great sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuits and mediocre coffee, the way the Lord intended. The place was endorsed by truckloads of people that were meeting together to swarm upon the numerous yard and antique sales I saw assembling along 360 and 58 as the world began to wake up.
Turns out, I was on to something. Not only was the biscuit killer, the store was maybe 40 feet from the turn for the road to the venue/brewery, and, as I turned onto said road, the furthest reaches of the Piedmont hills shone with their beauty as Saturday sunrise illuminated the mountains of the Blue Ridge on the horizon.
I turned right, into Mountain Valley Brewing. It is owned by Peggy and Herb. I was welcomed by the few people that were awake at the time. I kicked the can of conversation with some of the performers, vendors, and festival revelers on comfortable wooden benches around a nice high-walled stone firepit that had a healthy bed of embers and a few lazily burning logs.
The brewery is set atop a high hill and overlooks a valley dotted with mountains in the distance. The view alone is a reason to make Mountain Valley a destination in Virginia. This brewery could can the foam from spent 40 oz’s and the view would make that all right. But Peggy and Herb draw on their love for each other, their passion for brewing, their hops, and a deep well to make a product that mirrors the comforting natural beauty of its location.
Mountain Valley Brewery was the perfect setting for the very first Appalachian Vibes Music Festival, the brainchild of Amanda Bocchi. She is a creative dynamo who is founder and host of the Appalachian Vibes Music Show for Radio IQ 92.5 WVTR in Southwest VA. She contacted Herb and Peggy, and collaboratively, they created one of the most finely curated and enjoyable days of music I have had the pleasure to experience in a very long time.
I had Henry’s Roast Coffee, the local purveyor of elevated caffeinated wares, and talked with Peggy and Herb. The audio engineer was humbly and quietly making the day possible.
It became very clear to me that the brewery was the product of a dreamer and a strong woman. That dynamic creates an environment with enormous potential, which along with the location made it a great place for a three-day festival. I capitalized on that potential as I was given free access to their bar and proliferate menu, which were not very high ABV overall. Another check for location. I tried the Vultures Roost Ale, which had hints of ripened stone fruit and light notes of chamomile that was a lesson on easy drinking session ales.
I nursed that beer while the first bands began to play. I bought a wooden bar key from David Stone, a woodworker.
I listened to Kinnfolk, an Irish folk band comprised of a husband and wife with the last name of Kinn — so it’s not just a clever name. They were great players and singers. The fact that there was a whole crew of people there dressed as Vikings made it all fit and gave it a Renaissance feel for just a bit, which was not entirely unwelcome to someone who had their first beer before noon.
After Kinnfolk played, I spoke with the Vikings as the second act began to set up. They explained that they were a type of hippie. I decided that I was just going to go with that; it was a festival, after all.
My capacity to submit to new ideas was pushed even further as a Viking by the name of Brianna taught me the Viking handshake and asked if she could read my runes. I said yes. She explained to me that she was not completely practiced in the sacred art of the rune, so we were just going to do a simple three-stone pull. I figured with that in mind I would ask the runes a simple question, lest she who cast my fortune incur the consternations of Valhalla. I asked the stones if I was going to have a good day.
The runes told me I was going to have a good time. Odin be praised. What a relief.
Up next on the day sheet was Ash Devine and F.M. Turner. There is so much that can be done with a stand-up bass and a guitar accompaniment, and so much you don’t have to do. Those two knew that balance very well. Ash is a gifted songwriter, and her comfortable Appalachian tunes are gently braced by F.M.’s command of the lower register. They work together to make music with the earnest and honest appeal necessary to transcend the ventriloquized and murky waters of modern folk.
I sauntered up to the bar and grabbed a Ginger Lime sour ale. It was ginger forward and rounded out by the tart richness of lime. It was light and refreshing with a medium acidity that spoke to the brewer’s craft. I took it over to see the next band.
I watched OmegaWolfe, who carried the ethos of Appalachian Vibes into the modern era. They had an unrepentant country and blues sound that only lent an ear to honky-tonk when necessary. They had a lyric that said, “Everything disappears like an ice cold beer.” I looked down at mine and thought, “This band is deep.” They brought the energy of the day way up and poured out a Nashville-ready sound that reeked of whiskey and hard work. I was impressed at their ability to infuse the psychedelic grooves of 70’s outlaw music with the shrill and soaring leads and morose and yawning cry of the best of early 90’s Yoakam-esque country.
I was beginning to note the craft and discerning ear of Amanda Bocchi. The day had progressed quite smartly to lend itself to the natural biodiversity of the Appalachian music scene. As the day wore on and the crowd lightly swelled, we would hear everything from folk, bluegrass, and country to funk and blues. I spoke with Bocchi briefly about her reasonings behind the project that is Appalachian Vibes. She explained that she is ending the monoculture of traditional, heteronormative, white-male-dominated representation in Appalachian music to celebrate the natural diversity that makes the area so special. She had failed to tell me that she also was performing, and was herself a wildflower sustaining the blessed life cycle of diversity and interdependence.
That woman rips. She grabbed a guitar, looked at her bandmates, and, as a mother of three, did what she had so many times before and took our ass to school. There was a jazzy devotion to chord structure that spoke of Winehouse, less as an influence and more as a call-and-response from a kindred spirit. Her playful live presence was betrayed by the soulful and pleading vocal delivery of her troubled lyrics. She brings you to an honest understanding of the human spirit that can almost leave you cold but wraps it all up in a warm blanket of playful sass and fuzz. Just like a mom: “Have a blanket.”
Many notable bands played during the waning hours of the day, which had an interim of Viking wrestling. A Viking won.
I caught Megan Jean & the Klay Family Band, who had a theatrical vocal and lyrical delivery that was colorful, bright, loud, and fun. They were another husband-and-wife duo, and he was the most interesting lead player of the day. His playing had the playful staccato of bachata and the humble rhythm of a man that knows when to be heard.
After that I was watching Emily Musolino, who had a no-holds-barred bombastic blues and rock delivery. Like the best of her genre, her sound was warm and ripe like hanging fruit, and larger than a giant peach.
Finally, as night fell and Orion rose his shield, people began spinning fire.
The night was finished off by The Snozzberries. They were the obligatory late-night festival band. They were Wonka factory alley cats with groovy, driving funk, and were less of a trip-buddy circle jerk than a lot of bands in the genre. They had a new drummer, who replaced their late drummer. They performed as a tight, infectious, playful, cool, and natural funk unit.
A lot more bands played besides those mentioned thus far. I only have so many words to cover 12 hours. Special shout out to Dylan Dent, a songwriter with a rich and creamy voice and a varied and soulful presentation of his very own mix of folk and hip hop. JoJo Stockton & Dara James Blues Band performed together with an unabashed, playful, and sensual delivery of Soul and Blues. Werner Helms Edition had a heathen hillbilly crooner with an attitude that could only be matched by the strength of his stringed accompaniment.
The point I’m driving at is that you missed the very first Appalachian Vibes Music Festival. There is an Appalachia that is as bountiful as it is diverse, and it was there that night at Mountain Valley Brewing. There is a cooperation and love that can put that bounty in every home. After all, it takes all kinds.
Top Photo: JoJo Stockton & Dara James Blues Band. All photos by William Drew Photography of Roanoke, VA.