For 12 years, save one, we’ve made an April pilgrimage to Waverly, Ala. — a town of just 185 people, so small that when we try to tell folks where we’re going they often mistake it for the bustling metropolis of Waverly Hall, Ga., which boasts more than 700 people.
But for one Saturday in April, Waverly the Lesser’s population soars tenfold for the Waverly Boogie. It began in 2001 as the Old 280 Boogie, an excuse for the townfolk to celebrate the DOT deciding to bypass them when it widened U.S. 280 to four lanes between Opelika and Birmingham.
That’s right, the people in Waverly were thrilled that progress was passing them by.
No more would semis rattle the historic brick storefront windows. No more would the whoosh of speeding cars corrupt the ears of the children and dogs on lawns that are often more stately than the simple homes. No more would convenience-store detritus tumble past on the highway’s shoulders. And to celebrate, they would close the road — the former thoroughfare — and draw a big cakewalk circle on it, and let barefoot children run loose.
Today there are food vendors, like you find at most any festival, but they’re an eclectic bunch. Jars of Wickles Pickles can be bought, for instance, next to gourmet popcicles from Opelika’s Overall Co. And the Standard Deluxe silk screen shop, headquartered right there, is selling the Best. T-shirts. Ever.
It was all the vision of Scott Peek, proprietor of Standard Deluxe, which might be the only true business left in the so-called Waverly business district. Scott’s a youngish progressive. He’s an artist and entrepreneur who’s closely guarded the vibe that he and other Waverly residents cherish about their neighborhood. (Land values are high, assuming you can even find a piece to buy.)
Over the years the festival’s popularity has grown, and the event changed in more than just name. The festival boundaries tightened up, controlling the event’s sprawl and focusing attention more on a new barn-style main stage. This killed the cakewalk, the horseshoe-throwing and the chance to bring your own bocce balls or Frisbee. But the reward came in the form of an ever-improved lineup of music.
Have I not mentioned the music? Silly me, that’s become the whole point.
The band lineup is always packed with roots, country, rockabilly and Southern acts. It’s not anti-modern, per se, but it’s way nearer to stuff you’d hear on someone’s front porch than in a civic center. This year’s event, held yesterday, actually introduced a second stage on a front porch.
Last year’s headliner was Texas’s Centro-matic, a band I’d loved since 2000 but never had a chance to see live. And here they were, in Waverly. This year, picking a highlight is nigh impossible. We were blown away by returning act Hurray for the Riff Raff, of New Orleans, Megan Jean and the KFB, and James-Brown-style “hah” and “hunh” of Charles Bradley. And the Pine Hill Haints have been a stalwart addition to the lineup since the beginning.
The crowd’s gotten so big that Standard Deluxe actually limited admission to 1,500 this year, not counting the many 14-and-unders who got in for free.
But as much as it’s changed and grown, the vibe is the same. I’ve never seen a fight, or even really heard an angry word. A sheriff’s car was parked near the gate, but we never saw a man in uniform. When folks started crowding the stage for Bradley’s show, other folks collapsed and moved their folding chairs to make room for more fans.
That’s the kind of thing you think about when you imagine the manners and courtesy of the stereotypical South. You imagine it, but you also imagine it’s more fantasy than reality.
Except in Waverly.
Here’s Hurray for the Riff Raff, performing “Little Black Star”: