The Nation's Pulse

Midwest Twang

Four nights of great overlooked music.

By 6.10.10

It's festival time and this week hundreds of middle-aged office workers have descended on St. Louis for the annual music festival known as Twangfest.

Twangfest runs for four nights (June 9-12) and usually draws about 1,400 people, which may not seem like a lot for a music festival, but then Twangfest is not trying to compete with Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo or South By Southwest. Twangfest is rather a niche festival for a genre of music (alternative country) that has maybe 30,000 hardcore fans, tops.

Hardcore is probably the wrong modifier. Picky, maybe. Or finicky. We are, in general, a very hard-to-please lot, especially when it comes to our music. So what do we do? We throw our own four-day festival, invite all our favorite musicians (the ones we can afford to invite anyway), and hope nobody shows up to ruin it.

That, in a nutshell, is Twangfest.

What keeps the numbers down, first and foremost, is the name. Most locals suspect Twangfest must be some kind of hillbilly music festival featuring jug players named Elwood. And, in fact, this year's lineup does feature a hillbilly band with a jug player, but his name is Ricky Len, and he's from the Springfield, Mo., band Big Smith. Twangfest, however, prides itself on putting up a remarkably big tent, so there will also be a great punk band (Detroit Cobras), an 80s band (Blue Rodeo), a resurrected outlaw country singer (Ray Wylie Hubbard), as well as the group some have designated the godfathers of alternative country music, Jason and the Scorchers.

The fact is, most bands that play Twangfest are not twangy at all. You can go a whole night and not hear a banjo plucked or fiddle scratched, though those would be the nights we would probably stay home.

But why St. Louis? Why not Nashville, or that great anti-Nashville: Austin?

Twangfest was started in the mid-90s as a way to showcase alternative country acts, which were basically all those artists the Nashville music scene had dismissed in favor of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and one or two other high-production-value superstars. I mean artists like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle and bands like The Jayhawks and The Bottle Rockets. Most of these alt-country artists were greatly influenced by the country legends, the Loretta Lynns, the Merle Haggards and Tom T. Halls, another underperforming sector that Music City's suits were forcing into early retirement.

Nashville, then, was seen by many of Twangfest's organizers as the Sodom and Gomorrah of country music. As for Austin, it already had SXSW. And while the organizers were from all parts of the country, several hailed from St. Louis, which also had the distinction of being the birthplace of alternative country music. (Uncle Tupelo, the band often said to have spearheaded the movement, was from nearby Belleville.)

THIS YEAR MARKS the 14th year of Twangfest. In its early years, the festival was held at the OffBroadway nightclub, located in what the faint of heart might call "the Killing Fields" of south city. So a few years ago Twangfest moved out of the city to more tourist-friendly digs at Blueberry Hill in the University City Loop, a concession to those who prefer trendy restaurants and bars and theaters and head shops and funky clothing stores and, I guess, their own safety. A preference, I might add, that does not seem to fit in with the gritty, independent spirit of Twangfest at all.

Wherever they decide to hold it, the best thing about Twangfest is that I met my girlfriend there exactly one year ago. At least that was where I got down the liquid courage to walk up to her during Jason Isbell's set and ask if I could buy her a Stag beer. (How's that for an opening line?) You won't find a heck of a lot of women at Twangfest, but the ones you do find are real diamonds in the rough. This week we will celebrate our first anniversary on Night Two swaying to the steel guitars of Ray Wylie Hubbard and Blue Rodeo.

If I were given to offering dating advice (and I'm not), I would advise logging off and hopping a fast train to St. Louis where you can still hear some of the finest overlooked music in the country and maybe even buy your future sweetheart a Stag.

But hurry. Twangfest ends this Saturday.


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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.