By Kevin Alan Lamb
We arrived to my first Wheatland greeted by the most beautiful sunset I’ve been privy to this year. The rolling, grassy hills were yet to be occupied by the vehicles transporting festival attendees from far and wide. My friend Matt’s pass wasn’t left for him at will call, which allotted us the time to appreciate the sunset, have a beer, take a few photos, and run into The Gasoline Gypsies. Wheatland is their and many others Holy Grail, and I’m quickly feeling why.
In rhythm with the rhyme Chilli and his wife just stopped by camp and we had a great chat. Chilli is on the music committee and board at Wheatland. We met when Front Country last played Otus. Out of the blue Chilli called me Wednesday, and offered me two passes to come to Wheatland. I graciously thanked him and laughed because as it happens, I arranged an artist pass from Front Country to photograph their two sets. They will be playing later today, closing out the Main Stage, and again tomorrow at Centennial.
It feels like the Universe intended on me being here just one week after getting hit by a semi-truck on my bicycle. It is remarkable how quickly we become grateful for walking, and life itself. Still counting my blessings for escaping with only a flesh wound, I have been reminded to remain in the present, have faith in, and be active with my gifts every day, because you never know what’s going to happen at 8:00 am, Friday morning on your ride to work.
I find myself trying to find a way to support myself and follow my dreams; the plight of an artist. Everyday brings us closer to or further from them, but only we can decide if we have made progress, or regressed. Our attitude dictates our perception of all experience; therefore a positive attitude brings us closer to discovering and utilizing the avenues which will provide a foundation for health and happiness. Here is a recipe I am learning to concoct: It involves drinking less, staying up later, and getting up earlier. It requires that I divide my energy, but focus it on people and projects that synchronize with the momentum my passion has set and kept in motion.
I met Front Country at Folk Alliance 2017 in Kansas City where I had the chance to take in several of their sets from hotel rooms made into showcases, filled with free Lagunitas. I interviewed their lead lady, Melody Walker, but it was lost in translation until this very moment.
“I started off playing cover songs, because that’s what most people do, you play other people’s songs to learn music, how it happens, then you start writing your own songs. So the first song that I ever figured out on piano and got obsessed with, was the middle part of Leila, you know that really pretty part? My dad kind of helped me figure out some things about it, taught me some things about piano in the midst of that, the sort of outro, pretty, pseudo classical part of Leila. My dad’s a musician, he plays mandolin, guitar, piano, many different genres, but he’s just a working class dude and he plays music for fun.”
Their sound is best described as Progressive RootsPop with catchy hooks, which typically does well with first time listeners because it is familiar sounding. Between their two headlining sets, Front Country imprinted their gifts upon thousands, and is leaving Michigan with a lot of new fans. Taking photos and writing about someone is an intimate energy exchange. The more we speak and share others talent and gifts, the more we embrace that what’s good for one is good for all. With each success mankind is elevated to a happier plane where suddenly the sun is shining hope upon lingering darkness.
Front Country has a hit that always foreshadowed that our stories would continue to intertwine: “Sake of the Sound” is powerful and delivers chills with heavy hooks and harmonies that shake you.
“I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and everyone else in the band are transplants from other places, and lived in California by choice, which is a self-selecting group of pretty cool people who are kind of like-minded, and I grew up in that. People were progressive, laid back, California, pretty nice weather all the time thing. I’m still very confused by snow. I shouldn’t be saying this to a Michigan interview.”
One of my favorite feelings is seeing my friends for the first time in a while, on stage, just before their set when I walk into the photo bay. It feels like family more and more, and we can never have enough family. The world is a scary, lonely place when we let it be. Sometimes that fear lasts longer, typically when we’re feeling vulnerable, or less certain about our path. It is only natural to experience these valleys following great peeks, and realizing that humanity is a family helps us grow to and go to one another when we need it most.
Wheatland is a sacred place that folks believe in and offer the best of themselves to. I’ve attended a reasonable number of festivals over the years and I must say I’ve never experienced anything similar to the Wheatie phenomenon. You are anointed a Wheatie when you attend your first Wheatland, and it’s healthy to be a Wheatie. Celebrating 45 years of music and community in Reemus, the fine folks of Wheatland have learned a simple but brilliant marketing philosophy: Make newcomers welcome by giving them a special designation which ensures people go out of their way to provide an enhanced festival experience. When newbies are treated like gold, they will likely wish to share that experience with others.
“The mission of the Wheatland Music Organization is to serve as a resource center for the preservation and presentation of traditional music and arts. Traditional arts are considered those learned person to person, passed from generation to the next, and influenced by culture, family, ethnicity, and era.”
The Spirit of Wheatland is less dependent on the lineup than most festivals. I spoke with guests who have been attending Wheatland for years (which is easy because for most everyone it’s an annual), many of whom said they looked most forward to the spontaneous, unprogrammed campsite, and pathside jams in the Pines, listening and making music with any and all. Steve Briere, bassist of The Gasoline Gypsies said there have been years where he barely left camp, and it was exactly what he needed.
There are restorative energies in the trees, soil, stages, and Spirit of Wheatland. It honestly felt like one of those places you’ve always been on your way to but didn’t realize until you got there. The movie Big Fish comes to mind. Ewan McGregor’s character has a knack for being a big fish in a small pond, which sets him on a classic protagonist journey away from home. This quest leads him to the town of Spectre, a heaven-like utopia that he discovered years before he was supposed to. While everyone was intent on him staying, and living in this magical place, he knew there was more in his story to be written. Wheatland is a Spectre of sorts. Each time you return it is harder to leave because each visit your family grows, and the loneliness goes.
“Volunteers contribute approximately 10,000 hours planning, carrying out programs and maintaining the 160 acre centennial farm. Each year approximately 30,000 people are consumers of programs, workshops, lessons, presentations, and more. Programming includes music, dance and arts lessons, children and family programs, music jamborees, traditional square and contra dances, scholarships, underwriting of concerts, touring arts series, the annual Traditional Arts Weekend and the annual Music Festival.”
I’ve invested my love into my life in the form of positive energy and music, as a result, communities like Wheatland help me feel very welcome when I come. It strongly feels fated that our timelines intertwine for that moment, conversation, or two. This philosophy that our experiences are necessary and intended helps me carry myself with passion that I feel can help others find their own. Like anything, I’m learning to protect my flame with balance achieved from stability, good health, and remaining true to the song my soul is tuned to.
Places like Wheatland help you fill the holes in your heart. Life and love is a constant battle which produces scars, but we must walk towards them if we wish to one day heal. Hurt bears a heavy and lingering weight upon the way which we breathe, sleep, think, and feel, but it too is temporary if we face it. I had the pleasure of talking with a kind woman named Doris while I was at Wheatland. She lost her husband years ago, but they would frequently attend Wheatland in their time together. She went on to tell me that she was dancing the night before in the Pavillion when the image of her husband presented itself to her, and together they danced.
“I have to say that Wheatlanders are some of the warmest, passionate, and generous people I’ve encountered. From the Wheaties, to the old timers, and the board; everyone is so genuine. And it all rests on a foundation of love. Love of music, love of people, love of life,” says long time Wheatlander, Autumn Lynn.
Wheatland is regarded as a way of life which captures the best one has to offer, holding onto this collective life force and never letting go. If I was a lingering spirit you better believe I would spend my time at Michigan music festivals where I could be reminded of the potential of our people. We are all so powerful, if only we could realize it… Maybe if we surrounded ourselves with folks who believed in good, who believed in love, who believed in building things that last?
Wheatland is a song you sing to your newborn child to incept hope into their heart before darkness and despair can frighten their eyes. It is a song they go their entire life knowing the words to because they sing it and think of you and your love, and the possibility of living in a peaceful world where people are happy and good to others by default, versus a constitutional slight, or corrective amends.
Wheatland is pure but it is not possible without people, and people are anything but pure. We have bloodshed in our lineage, fear in our hearts, and temptation disguised as need in our minds. As individuals we can aim to climb great heights but even the most remarkable talents will succumb in the chase when they choose to pursue their truth alone. But together, we have the opportunity to create a cleansing experience which takes hold in our hearts, capable of permeating all things.
When there is sadness in your heart for leaving and missing Wheatland, think of Dorris and her husband, and be grateful it’s not your time to stay, because your story still needs writing. If you have been touched by the grace of Wheatland then you have perhaps unknowingly accepted the responsibility to grow its goodness by sharing it with others, wherever you go. It’s easy to be happy, considerate, and gracious when we are at the source; but the measurement of a man or woman is most accurately made when the sun stops shining, rain starts to pour, and doubt lingers.
I challenge all of you to carry the Spirit of Wheatland with you when it’s the hardest, to the places where it is needed the most. Despite our struggles we are a privileged people who aim to entertain ourselves at a greater rate than helping others. I would not make an accusation in this instance, that I’m not guilty of, but I’m trying to start or carry the conversation where it needs to be. People have learned that I don’t need a giant, yellow symbol to spread positive energy and move others, but we do need one another and many need healing before we battle.
It’s time to make contact with the people our lives push, pull, pass, and present us to. It’s time to listen to the look in the eyes, and tone in the voice of people we work, live, and play with to help them carry the weight by carrying the conversation. If it’s tough to talk about then that’s what we need most. If you’ve thought about it more than once, you know better than to let it linger beneath the surface.
Wheatland is a place in your heart that can help save people’s lives. Wheatland is a lifestyle that could help change the way we treat one another as a species. Wheatland is an idea made possible by the great potential of people. Wheatland is a song we can share with all those who need to hear its voice. Wheatland is a prism of light penetrating a dark cloud intent on consuming us.
“Wheatland represents a near utopian ideal of cooperation, consideration, and empathy that, though practically, impossible to sustain out here in the real world, is affectual to the extent that those who experience it, serve to make it a better world to live in,” says Jack Hunger, manager of The Gasoline Gypsies.
“For me, the music is almost secondary. Like the cracker becomes the delivery system to get the cheese in your mouth, the ‘excuse’ of putting on a music festival, is the vehicle by which the attitude grows the souls of those blessed to walk those green hills. In that, ‘Happy Wheatland’ is far more than a weekend salutation build around 14,000 people getting together. It’s a phrase, that indelibly inks itself on our hearts, and reminds us that we can love just a little better the other 362 days of the year as well.”
I challenge you because I challenge myself. I believe in you because I believe in myself. I love you and it’s time we all help others learn to love themselves. It’s time to feel all the feels and let them run deep, especially to the places you’ve neglected, and even forgotten you’ve neglected. Let love pour over your being and be absorbed into the soul through osmosis.
Healing energies surround us at every minute of every day but only we can decide if and when to put aside our ego and embrace positive change through the helping hands, hearts, and care of another. We are not single cell organisms designed to operate and thrive in isolation; we are social, tender beasts who require immense external love and passion to reciprocate the fire we must keep alive and burning inside.
Live more by giving more of yourself to the world and those who need and give indication they welcome your tenderness. Do not be made cold by systematic inequities perpetuated by agents of stagnation. Do not fear that your vulnerability will leave you cold, dark, and alone while savages feast on your fear; but do stand up and stand out and give a damn before it’s too late because this is your life, but it’s our existence, our planet, our community, our Wheatland, and our responsibility to connect and serve something greater than ourselves.
“We’re at Folk Alliance now, and Ani DiFranco just made the keynote speech earlier today, and I’ve always loved this lyric from her, and I’d totally get it tattooed on me: ‘Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right’,” Melody says.
Just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound.
Be a part of the inaugural Handmade Music Festival, October 12 & 13 in Chesaning, Michigan.