There are always stirs and speculations surrounding the build-up to milestone year festival weekends. What will they change? What surprises will they have? The questions attendees sort through in the weeks and days prior to the festival keep the Twitter speculators and Facebook groups busy. Rooster Walk always does a wonderful job of making timely announcements regarding what it’s patrons are in for during the weekend festivities. This year was no different. Once again - Brunch, Ballads, and Beer, one of the festival's events, sold out quickly.
The lineup, featured the likes of Josh Schilling, Erin Lunsford, and Blake Christiana and a special first time collaboration between Marcus King and Billy Strings (appropriately named Kings & Strings), which featured on Friday. The two stars, youth and veteran, had never met prior to their Rooster Walk debut, fueling excitement for fans and followers of the duos individual projects. This excitement was extended further when the latter played a flawless solo set on Friday, amping up for his Kings & Strings collaboration later that night. Following him, Commonheart and Sanctum Sully had dueling sets for the 5-6:30 time slot, and Jerry Douglas Band hit the main stage at 6:30, all delivering. Later that day, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds hit the Lake Stage, while Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band jammed at the Pine Grove stage.
Elsewhere, JJ Grey & Mofro was the perfect opener for the late night shows; jamming on the main stage until midnight while attendees danced and sang along to the whole set. Tauk played the Lake Stage at the same time Kings & Strings took over Pine Grove and, finding it impossible to decide between the two, I split my time running between their equally delicious sets. The former continues to deliver flawless sets across the festival circuits, and the Rooster Walk set followed suit, lights and lasers dancing on the trees and water surrounding the stage as the band filled their two hour set with as many songs as they could. Meanwhile, as if they played together every Friday night, Billy Strings and Marcus King delivered a seemingly effortless collaborative set, sweat pouring as the crowd danced along and the lights blazed from the stage.
The aforementioned Brunch, Ballads, and Beer event went off without a hitch Saturday morning, and I found campers moving slowly to shaded areas in the hopes of finding solace in their camping chairs and hammocks. The Marcus King Band played the first of two Saturday sets at 3:00, followed by Yarn at 4:30. Rain fell upon the grounds multiple times throughout the day, but the music never missed a beat. Patrons danced themselves dry to The Dustbowl Revival, and after their set the crowd was more than ready for the evenings headline sets from The Wood Brothers, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, as well as The Jammy Jam hosted by Grass Is Dead. The humidity layed thick over the afternoon and refused to subside even after the sun had set, but the temperatures paled in comparison to the heat radiating from the The Jammy Jam stage as The Grass Band electrified the crowd with squealing guitar solos - keeping hands clapping throughout. Later, at The Wood Brothers set, the duo slowed things down a bit, delivering sultry sounds and crisp vocals, before The Mantras ended the night on a high. Simultaneously, The Marcus King Band took over the Lake Stage for their second set, giving fans the perfection audiences had come to expect given the band's excellent live reputation.
After the numerous festivals I've attended, no matter what the genre, one piece of advice proves to be universal: never sleep on the Sunday shows. The MHC Praise Band opened proceedings at 11 am for a Sunday service I won't soon forget as they took a moment to remind onlookers about the beauty of the weekend; the privilege of attending, and the love we all share responsibility in sharing with the world. As such, my heart was full as I walked away from the show, thinking about the incredible music and talents I had witnessed. My mind also recollected the wonderful people I had met during the prior two days. Among them, the mother of Edwin “Rooster” Penn who the festival is partly named after, joined me for lunch Friday. She could name all of the festival staff and most all of the volunteers, her eyes sparkling as she recounted the ten year history of the event, noting how each and every year those same folks show up and ensure everything runs smoothly. She also made mention of how each year, the weekend and festival comes together in a way that collectively heals participants. Reminiscing about her son, she referred to the weekend as her favorite time of the year. The town of Martinsville, lying nearby, not only supports this event, but lives for it. The scholarships that have been delivered from the profits of the festival weekend have been game-changers for high school students who are off to their respective colleges, and the hard working businesses in the city thrive throughout the weekend as attendees visit and buy from them.
Sunday at Rooster Walk continued, complemented by beautiful panoramic views of sunshine and blue skies, while sets from Erin & The Wildfire, Gunchux, and the Trongone Band filled the grounds with equally beautiful sounds. I took time to stop at the newly added garden and look at the pictures of Edwin Penn and Walker Shank, the festivals tributes, who are gone but not forgotten, forever a part of the festival and the towns ongoing legacy.
All things considered, Rooster Walk didn't need to change a thing when planning their 2018 outing; those involved have been doing it right all along. Attendees left feeling better than they had upon arrival, having healed throughout the weekend, thanks in part to the friendly and loving staff. Walking from stage to stage, there was no need to ask if folks were having a good time - happiness radiated from absolutely everybody.