Walk, don’t run

rural america drive-in theatre
rural American barn quilt

If you were to set a soundtrack to the concept of “simple living,” it would likely be some sort of Americana playlist.

The Band. Dylan. Wilco. The Pine Hill Haints. The Felice Brothers. … Bands that would sound good unplugged. Like, pretty much, every band we went to see at the Nowhere Else Festival last weekend.

I’ll get to the two-day music and arts fest in a minute. But first I want to tell you about how we actually got there — in southern Ohio, a good, long drive from here in the center of Georgia. And, the two of us being who we are, Jenn and I did what we so often do with things. We made it take twice as long to get there as it should have.

rural america drive-in theatre Driving up, we took to highways instead of interstates. And we were rewarded for our efforts by avoiding completely life-sucking course-charting through Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Lexington, or virtually any other big city. We saw groovy antique stores at country crossroads, in buildings as old as the stuff inside them. We lost count of the barn quilts. We sipped bourbon in Bourbon County, Kentuck’. We nearly stopped to watch a movie at a drive-in theater. We passed through hollows — or is that hollers? — and sleepy townships. We made a list of great city and street names. (Jenn’s vote for the winner is the town of Wolftever. As in, “I bet what’s howling out there is the scariest wolftever.”)

Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge in KentuckyThis was my first trip to Ohio, and it was a grand entrance, across the Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge into Aberdeen. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of having a farm on the banks of the Ohio River, ever since reading Conrad Richter’s Pulitzer-Prizewinning Awakening Land trilogy. That dream lasts up until I check the almanac and see what the winters are like, but hey, it’s a dream, right?

The festival was set at the site of a barn that the band Over the Rhine is working to renovate into a
community arts center for visual and performing arts. We tent-camped at Cowan Lake State Park, about 20 miles from the festival, to save money, in this our year of living on minimum wage.

***

Fairly early in the billing was Joe Henry, an artist whose music, over the past two decades, has morphed from alt-country into something much more obtuse, challenging, jazzlike. I’ve been a fan since his “Murder of Crows” record in 1989, when I was a teenager.

“Here’s the thing,” Henry said, immediately after performing his first song of his set. “I don’t believe in this fourth wall that separates musicians from the audience. So I hope you’ll feel free to shout out any questions you may have.” If we weren’t already sure this was our kinda place, were were now. (Some clown shouted, “What’s the meaning of life?” Henry may have solicited questions, but he didn’t promise answers.)

Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago with a clarinetThe band Birds of Chicago came on and immediately kicked our asses. And speaking of cusswords, guitarist J.T. Nero was scolded by Alli Russell (the singer, and his wife) for letting some variety of four-letter word slip. There were a lot of kids around, after all. “This is a good teaching moment,” he told the crowd. “Sometimes folk musicians will curse a little bit, to give a little rock ‘n’ roll edginess to their music. It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just what happens.”

I don’t know if the peaceful vibe we got at the event was the product of the way we got there — I suspect they were just complements to each other — but whatever magic brewed up, it was a potion for turning a four-day weekend into a vacation that felt like two weeks.

It wasn’t all rosy. We had a coarse end to the first night when we returned to the campsite, exhausted and happy, to find our tent submerged in about two inches of water. We spent the next hour unloading the tent, moving it, wringing out pillows and futilely trying to dry our sleeping bags with our soaking wet towels before crawling into them. The only other option at this time of night would’ve been to drive an hour into Cincinnati and find a cheap hotel somewhere. Somehow, sleeping in the damp tent seemed like the better choice.

And even that didn’t dampen our spirits, though it did dampen everything else. The Wild Edges walk Jenn wrote about was the next morning, and we were dry, smiling and ready to rock by the time that was over.

***

On the drive home, the Memorial Day holiday on Monday, we were a little more pressed for time. We drove from Lexington to Chattanooga on the interstate, and pressed on south toward Atlanta on it.

The traffic was thick. The drivers were acting like lunatics. As road rage was setting in, I hopped off I-75 well before the A-T-L and went back to the highways.

The trip home took us probably 90 minutes longer. But we enjoyed the journey.

Over the Rhine's first Nowhere Else Fest in Martinsville, Ohio

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