Morning breaks o’er the Red Roof Inn. We rise groggy, pack in haste, for it’s time for one of the big perks of this region: Waffle House. Oddly, it takes 10 minutes of interstate driving before we spot a yellow sign. Down the road, and there it is, glowing. We enter. There’s our booth. Joie d’vivre flows through this amped up tribe of diners and Waffle providers. Rocking hard at 11 a.m. The food comes fast, covered, smothered, scattered, peppered, and capped, fluffy eggs that defy natural law, and the dying ensign of a passing civilization–raisin toast with apple butter. This is better than our hopes, and our hopes were sky high. There is nothing like Waffle House.
We motor motorways through glen and field, brick churches with spires aspiring to steeple, their big wooden crosses on lawns draped in cloth, a sight familiar to Presbyterian Rob but foreign to Catholic Paul. To Isothermal Community College in Spindale, NC. Where awaits the high tech and impeccable studio of WNCW, our longtime Carolina boosters who are indeed playing our new record on a constant basis, we’re told. Sound Engineer Guru Dennis greets us. It’s been a long time. He’s got cutting edge mics set up in a perfect semicircle, a nice little Fender amp, and SVT bass pre. We don the cans, and damn he’s got us sounding good. We meet John the three camera videographer, and put on contacts and long sleeved shirts. DJ and interviewer Joe Kendrick steps in a cool minute before downbeat, leads us through a smart and casual interview, and we play four songs. We’re dialing in our acousticelectric atmosphere.
Fond radioadieus and we’re off to the southwest and the South Carolina border, which we cross without even feeling it. The hills are smaller and rounder, the hollers hollower, the shacks woodier. We’re in and out of pines on the highway to Greer. We see the painted wood sign: SKUNKFEST, make a screeching left onto a country lane past funky vacation homes loosely sharing red clay dirt acreage among not a fence in sight. Down a sloping dirt road and we’re on the grassy parking fields of the Albino Skunk Festival. We first meet Toothbrush, then Hacksaw. Are we in some kind of heavenly bluegrass labor camp? Festival king and mastermind Zig emerges from the woods on a four-wheeler. He greets us warmly and we hang by the barbeque pit with beers and biscuits and salad.
Zig’s embracing spirit is spreading year by year over his 40 acre plot, the woods filled with camping spots, ancient buses and mobile homes that host the bands and staff, and a funky but cleverly rehabilitated old barn that’s now open air shaded backstage and down home front porch stage looking up to a green grass natural amphitheater wisely shaded by big old trees, where camper music lovers hold court in lawn chairs or on blankets, digging the eight hours of wall to wall music. Big swings and an outdoor movie theater are there for the kids. We find good friends Buck and Liz and their twin boys swinging from high limb on towering oak. Another warm homecoming ensues.
As the sun goes down a couple of young regional bands play some pretty kickass modern hybridized country music. We meet up with Jamie Hurlston, an Asheville area drummer that Chris from French Broad River Fest introduced us to. He’s a super cool and energetic sparkplug, has studied our material, and is about to give this veteran band a shot of new energy. We talk through the set in the funky band green room/rehabbed early 60’s trailer with spruce siding and functioning toilet. On paper we’re ready to rock. The Corduroy Road finish up a rocking set–damn, everyone out here can play! — and we set up, with borrowed bass rig and borrowed Peavey Classic 30 amp (thank you mysterious guitar player who lent the gear).
Last time we played here, in ’08, we were strangers, but there are a lot of hollers for us as we plug in and tune up. We kick off with Raised By Hippies, drummer Jamie is right there with us, and all is good. A healthy 70 minute set, the 6,000 mile closer supermoon beams down, the firepits glow, the crowd dances or hangs in the lawnchairs, we get a sweet encore, and we’re feeling home in Sweet Home Carolina.
We’re offered four kinds of moonshine, including peach and butterscotch infused, from mason jars in tents in the hills and backstage. There’s even a strong but soft-handed masseuse named Emily who loosens and soothes our tight, hard-working shoulders. A phenomenal band takes the stage: please check out Larry Keel and Natural Bridge when they come to your town or festival. This is kickass and even groundbreaking bluegrass and old timey played with knowledge, mastery, and fire. Virtuoso flatpicker Larry Keel, with a stripped beard that could pass for a full-sized skunk in indirect light, rips off intense and flawless solo after solo, his wife Jenny lays down solid and unusual lines on baby upright electric bass, mandolinist Mark Schimick surprises and texturizes. They’re backing up, with an assurance that makes you think they’ve done hundreds of shows together, the star of the show, banjo player Danny Barnes.
Danny Barnes has reinvented the banjo almost at the Earl Scruggs level. He nails the Scruggs style, but does things we’ve never seen another banjo player do, making it sound like a flatpicked guitar, or a soft ambient background texture. His chemistry with Natural Bridge is that of highly combustible fluids combining, with all the accompanying danger. These people are taking chances and making it up as it goes along, with mesmerizing results.
It’s late, we’re in an altered state, and we roll out of Skunkfest hollow after many a farewell. Our Brave Leader has consumed four kinds of moonshine, but gamely takes the wheel, as none of his bandmates are any closer to the legal limit. But that was hours ago, well before the massive meal of steak kabobs and roasted potatoes and the aerobic set of full-on country rock. We made it legal but we can’t make it right. After a mile of country lane, we’re trailed by a county sheriff the winding curving drive into Greer and safe haven of Quality Inn. As we reach the promised land, a four corners with blazing Waffle House and gas stations, the County Mounty peels off in an aggressive I Could Take You Down If I Wanted To acceleration and disappears into his miserable night. Whew. Our Brave Leader has maintained, bro. Not too fast, not too slow. Right between those lines.