Last weekend, the inaugural Appalachian Vibes Music Festival took place in the countryside of Axton, Virginia, along the North Carolina border. George Wethington made the trip to soak up the ambiance, listen to great music and take in what Mountain Valley Brewing has to offer.
I was 30 miles from Axton, Va., When the sky swapped Orion’s ready shield for the hazy gray of dawn. Over the three hour drive, I told myself that I wasn’t going to succumb to the practicality of the fast-food breakfast. I was in the gas station’s breakfast territory. I followed my instincts and found a good country store with great egg and cheese cookies and mediocre coffee, just as the Lord intended. The place was approved by trucks full of people gathering to swarm the many garage and antique sales that I saw gathering along the 360’s and 58’s as the world started to wake up.
Turns out I was on to something. Not only the cookie killer, the store was maybe 40 feet from the bend in the road leading to the venue / brewery, and, as I turned on said road, the farthest parts of the Piedmont hills glistened in beauty as the Saturday sunrise illuminated the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon.
I turned right into Mountain Valley Brewing. It is owned by Peggy and Herb. I was greeted by the few people who were awake at the time. I started the conversation with some of the festival’s performers, vendors, and revelers on cozy wooden benches around a lovely high-walled stone fireplace that had a healthy bed of coals and a few logs burning lazily.
The brewery is located on top of a high hill and overlooks a valley dotted with mountains in the distance. The sight alone is a reason Mountain Valley is a destination in Virginia. This brewery could can froth from the 40 ounces spent and the sight would do all right. But Peggy and Herb rely on their love for each other, their passion for brewing, their hops, and a deep well to make a product that reflects the heartwarming natural beauty of its location.
Mountain Valley Brewery was the perfect setting for the very first Appalachian Vibes Music Festival, an brainchild of Amanda Bocchi. She is a creative dynamo who is the founder and host of the music show Appalachian Vibes for Radio IQ 92.5 WVTR in Southwest Virginia. She reached out to Herb and Peggy and together they created one of the most finely organized and enjoyable musical days that I have had the pleasure of experiencing in a very long time.
I had Henry’s Roast Coffee, the local supplier of high caffeine products, and spoke with Peggy and Herb. The sound engineer made the day possible humbly and quietly.
It became very clear to me that the brewery was the product of a dreamer and a strong woman. This dynamic creates an environment with enormous potential, which together with the location makes it an ideal location for a three day festival. I capitalized on this potential as I had free access to their bar and proliferating menu, which was not very high overall. Another verification of the location. I tried the Vultures Roost Ale which had hints of ripe stone fruit and slight notes of chamomile which was a lesson in easy drinking beers.
I nursed this beer as the first bands started playing. I bought a wooden bar key from David Stone, a carpenter.
I listened to Kinnfolk, a husband and wife Irish folk group with the last name of Kinn – so it’s not just a smart name. They were great players and singers. The fact that there was a whole crew of people dressed as Vikings made it all perfect and gave it a little Renaissance air, which wasn’t entirely out of place for someone having their first beer before noon.
After Kinnfolk performed, I spoke with the Vikings as the second act began to fall into place. They explained that they were kind of a hippie. I decided I was just going to make do with it; it was a festival, after all.
My ability to submit to new ideas was taken even further when a Viking named 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 fully practiced in the sacred art of the rune, so we were just going to do a simple three stone draw. I thought with that in mind, I would ask the runes a simple question, lest the one who threw away my fortune incur Valhalla’s dismay. 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.
Next on the day sheet were Ash Devine and FM Turner. There is so much that can be done with a double bass and guitar accompaniment, and so much that you don’t have to do. These two knew this balance very well. Ash is a gifted songwriter, and her cozy Appalachian tunes are gently braced by the FM control of the lower register. They work together to make music with the serious and honest appeal necessary to transcend the ventriloquist and murky waters of modern folk.
I wandered over to the bar and grabbed a sour Ginger Lime beer. It was ginger forward and complemented by the tangy richness of lime. It was light and refreshing with a medium acidity that testified to the brewer’s craftsmanship. I took it to see the next group.
I watched OmegaWolfe, which brought the ethics of Appalachian Vibes into the modern era. They had an unrepentant country and blues sound that only listened to honky-tonk when needed. They had lyrics that said, “Everything disappears like ice cold beer.” I looked at mine and thought, “This band is deep.” They upped the energy of the day and poured out a Nashville-ready sound that reeked of whiskey and hard work. I was impressed with their ability to infuse the psychedelic grooves of outlaw music from the 70s with the shrill, soaring leads and morose, gaping screams of the best of Yoakam-esque country from the early 90s.
I was starting to notice Amanda Bocchi’s craftsmanship and perceptive ear. The day had gone well enough to lend itself to the natural biodiversity of the Appalachian music scene. As the day wore on and the crowd grew slightly, we heard everything from folk, bluegrass and country to funk and blues. I briefly spoke with Bocchi about his reasoning behind the Appalachian Vibes project. She explained that she is ending the monoculture of traditional, heteronormative, and male-dominated white representation in Appalachian music to celebrate the natural diversity that makes the region so special. She had failed to tell me that she too was performing and that she herself was a wildflower supporting the blessed life cycle of diversity and interdependence.
This woman is tearing herself apart. She grabbed a guitar, looked at her band mates, 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 the chord structure that spoke of Winehouse, less like an influence and more like a soul mate call and response. Her cheerful live presence was betrayed by the moving and pleading vocal delivery of her troubled lyrics. It brings you to an honest understanding of the human spirit that can almost leave you cold but wraps it all in a warm blanket of daring and playful fluff. Just like a mom: “Have a blanket.”
Many notable bands performed during the last hours of the day, which had an interim of Viking wrestling. A Viking won.
I caught Megan Jean & the Klay Family Band, which had a colorful, bright, loud, and fun theatrical vocal and lyrical performance. 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 who knows when to be heard.
After that I watched Emily Musolino, who had limitless blues and explosive rock. Like the best of its kind, its sound was warm and ripe like a hanging fruit, and bigger than a giant peach.
Finally, as night fell and Orion raised his shield, people began to turn the fire on.
The evening ended with the Snozzberries. They were the obligatory group of the late night festival. They were Wonka factory alley cats with groovy, driving funk, and were less of a travel buddy circle jerk than a lot of bands like that. They had a new drummer, who replaced their old drummer. They performed as a tight, contagious, playful, cool and natural funk unit.
Many more bands have performed in addition to those mentioned so far. I only have so many words to cover 12 hours. Special thanks to Dylan Dent, a songwriter with a rich, creamy voice and a varied and moving presentation of his own blend of folk and hip hop. JoJo Stockton & Dara James Blues Band performed together with a shameless, playful and sultry delivery of soul and blues. Werner Helms Edition had a pagan hillbilly crooner with an attitude that could only be matched by the strength of his string accompaniment.
My point is that you missed the very first Appalachian Vibes Music Festival. There is an Appalachian that’s as bountiful as it is diverse, and it was there that evening at Mountain Valley Brewing. There is a cooperation and a love that can bring this generosity into every home. After all, it takes all kinds.
Top photo: JoJo Stockton & Dara James Blues Band. All photos are by William Drew Photography of Roanoke, VA.