Mile 0, Year 2
Pirates and poets. Miscreants and misfits. Vacationers and locals. Key West is a haven for just about everyone. Heading into year 2, Mile 0 Fest and Oh Wook! Productions have created a destination for fans of this music with an environment second to none. Want a loud rock show? You got it. Want an intimate storyteller show in a historic theater? You got it. Want a songswap next to the ocean? You got it. Want a sunset cruise on a boat while being serenaded by your favorite songwriter? You got it. Add in the built in tourist infrastructure of Key West and it simply can’t be beat. There are more than ample hotels, bars, restaurants, good times, adventures and misadventures to be had.
In year one, none of us knew what we were getting into. Not the fans. Not the bands. Not the locals who had agreed to let us all invade their precious island. And most certainly of all, the organizers. It was a calculated gamble. That gamble paid off in spades in 2018 and set high expectations for 2019. Thankfully, I am happy to report that those expectations were met and even exceeded in some cases. This year featured more music, more stages, more opportunities and more people.
I learned a lot from my first trip to the Keys. For as long as I can remember, Hemingway and Buffett were cultural beacons in my development. The idea of literate escapism in a paradise that is still part of the lower 48 seemed like the coolest thing ever. Then, I got to see it up close and realize that yes…it is as cool as it seems. Add in some of my favorite bands, friends and people and it’s a pure home run of existential fulfillment.
Traveling to Key West is a mission oriented process. There are flights that connect direct into the picturesque and tiny Key West airport. Last year, was an aforementioned gamble so we chose a shuttle service from the Miami airport. A shuttle that I detailed at length in last year’s wrap up. A shuttle full of boisterous young songwriters headed to the festival with Corn Nuts and hangovers. We again decided to skip that direct flight in and rent a car so that I could drive down US 1 to the strains of Buffett et al. It was a therapeutic end to a long day of travel. Unfortunately, we had missed the giant Shinyribs kick-off party that included a shutdown show on Duval. No artist embodies Key West’s spirit of unpredictability and variety quite like Shinyribs. Shutting down Duval for him was a genius move from the Oh Wook team. It would have been great to see him also play on the Amphitheater stage later in the week, but cool is cool. Since we arrived a day after that massive party, we hit the ground running around like a hamster on a wheel. A hamster that had been doused in Yuengling and hadn’t slept in 24 hours that was dropped into a rave.
We turned in our rental car at the airport and headed for check in. I dropped my bags at the hotel and we sprinted to the Amphitheater. Fun fact, Key West’s main mode of travel is walking. A healthy business exists to rent you a golf cart, ATV, scooter or bike…but if you make your accommodation reservations in the proper location you never have to get off your own two feet unless you just want to. The only vehicle I was in all week was an Uber from the airport and an Uber to the airport. Lots of my friends whizzed past us on tricked out golf carts and those can be a blast. But, make sure you check into the parking situations of where you’re headed. I saw some towed, some ticketed, some stolen etc. The festival folks did an amazing job shuttling the artists between venues and their runners had white vans buzzing all over the island. Nobody missed a showtime, save for Jack Ingram at the Charlie Robison tribute…but we’ll get to that later.
I hit the Amphitheater just in time to hear Mike McClure and The Great Divide bend into the strains of that unmistakable time period of Break in the Storm. Multiple rushed introductions and conversations led me to discover that the lay of the Amp land was much the same as last year save for some new wrinkles. The most noticeable and effective was the wristband scanning system to make sure each armband stayed in its assigned area. This saves some p/t security person from discerning whether you need to go to the bar on the right or the bar on the left and keeps a line from building up. Again, one of the best things about the festival is that it is not oversold. Even at its fullest, you can move around and get as close or as far away from the action as you want. This was a fear of many going into this year and I can attest that it felt as free and vibey as the inaugural year despite an increase in attendance.
Mike McClure is as important to everything that has happened and continues to happen in this music scene as anyone. His influence can be felt everywhere. He turned so many folks onto this scene with the Great Divide and then used his solo and production work to expand the audience’s parameters of what this music could be. It could be Townes AND Neil Young. It could be Guthrie AND Zeppelin. Want to wear a pearl snap and cowboy hat? Go for it, but you could also hit the stage in the same clothes you wore in the van ride down…and have it be cooler. Mac is a legend for a reason.
The legend theme was one that would permeate the night as following TGD was the duo of Jack Ingram and Bruce Robison. Jack and Bruce set about performing an Unleasehd-style set minus Charlie. They were backed by a crack band featuring Brother Pete Coatney on drums, Scott Davis on lead guitar, Jon Michael Schoepf on bass and Geoff Queen on steel/everything. It was an impressive display of knowing showmanship and class. Jack’s always been one of the most electric performers anywhere and Bruce’s understated intensity was a nice match. The night was chillier than normal in Key West and Jack rocked the entire set in a black leather jacket and freshly shorn head complete with vintage Adidas on his feet. It was a rock star move for a rock star moment. His name is Jack Ingram and he plays country music. He also took the baton to become the mascot of this festival. He was everywhere. In the crowd. Onstage. On Duval. On the beach. At the pool. At the bar. On a golf cart. Walking past. I don’t think he slept more than 90 minutes a night. He lived it up and rocked the island. And it all started with this boisterous set alongside Bruce. They played each song you’d expect and a few you wouldn’t have. Much like when, in a nod to Charlie’s absence, they launched into “My Hometown”.
Raul Malo and The Mavericks closed out the mainstage on this night and they were triumphantly funky, eclectic and great. Malo’s voice never quite soared like it does on the records, but the performance was a damn good time. It was energetic and upbeat even in the most intimate of moments. The Mavs had the entire place dancing with Latin grooves on top of country standards. The guitarwork of Eddie Perez was a definitive standout during this set.
As the Amp closed down on night 1, most folks headed to Corb Lund at Irish Kevin’s. We ambled to Smokin’ Tuna. It’s become our favorite bar in the Keys, shoutout to Jerry the bartender (he’s the best), and we wanted to take in a set from River Jam alum Garrett Bryan. Few young artists are as dynamic as Bryan. His ability to move between piano and guitar is reminiscent of John Fullbright. The intensity with which he performs is palpable. He had the Tuna packed and rocking. I tried my best to fight through to the super late night sets happening elsewhere, but when GB was done…so was I. I scooted up the street to grab some much needed sleep.
Garrett and his crew had been tasked with Day 2 of our GW Instagram takeover. Kelley Mickwee started the fun on Tuesday and set a high bar of performance, relaxation and place-setting. GB took it next level. Going live, showing the island, hitting other shows. The amount of content he cranked out was a sheer miracle. The template had been created for the rest of the week.
The loud beep was followed by a Siri-like monotone that said “WARNING- CARBON MONOXIDE!”. The noise and phrase repeated itself every 3 seconds or so. An unwelcome disruption to some very welcome sleep. Once I realized what the alarm was saying, I was concerned that we had narrowly escaped death in Key West. We alerted hotel staff and within minutes, hotel maintenance man Steve was on the scene. White hair, wrinkles the size and frequency of which only come from working hard labor ears in the sun, and a knowing smile. His glasses rested on the end of his nose like readers, but these were to see far away. You could tell Steve just wanted to get this problem solved and get back to his cigarette and Key West life. He immediately assuaged our fears and said it was just a faulty alarm. That if it was actual CO2, we’d have heard at least 3 alarms…and maybe nothing at all because it would have killed us. The latter portion of his statement was punctuated with a throaty laugh that hinted at perhaps a New England past.
Alarm problems solved, Steve back to his cigarette, we immediately headed out for breakfast. When you’re in Key West, there are numerous options for anything. The only thing I’ve come to love more than the music and vibe is the food. Key West cuisine is special. And the most special place I’ve come across is Blue Heaven. It’s pure Key West and combines the best of island influence with traditional American fare all delivered in a uniquely Key West venue. Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s are the main options for drinks before 2pm. Coffee is more often than not going to come with Bailey’s instead of Sweet N’ Low. You can build your own omelettes with fresh seafood like lobster. But, the true calling card may just be the homemade banana bread that comes with each plate. Needless to say, Blue Heaven fueled me up and made me forget all about the loud alarm that had rustled me from my sleep.
I was in no hurry to get into the groove. Key West and Mile 0 are the type of things you have to ease into. This day was going to provide quite the complex decision making. The scheduling gods had created a situation where if you were a couple you were playing at this time somewhere. Courtney Patton and Jason Eady; Kaitlinn Butts and Cleto Cordero, and Walt and Tina Wilkins were all performing simultaneously across the island. Where do you start? Where do you finish? How do you fit in this day’s Intsagram takeover artist? A good festival problem to have. Throw Kylie Rae Harris’ same time set in the mix and you have 7 artists hitting the stage all at once. We tweeted about this conundrum and KRH suggested she was the 7th wheel to all these couples…and a challenge was born. The 7th Wheel Challenge. Here’s what we decided to do. Hit all of the shows for at least 15-20 minutes. That’s just what we did.
Starting at Cleto and Kaitlinn in the courtyard of a historic hotel Papa’s Pillar, situated next to the ocean and in full view of a boss swimming pool, this duo tour through the song after song. A standout moment was Cleto’s acoustic rendering of the new Flatland Cavalry song “Old School Look Cool”. After six songs or so, we crossed the street and made the short walk across the white sandy beach to hear CP and Eady at the Southernmost Resort beach. A large crowd took in the songs from this fantastic duo as Adam Hood stood sidestage and waited his turn to join in on the fun. Picturesque views joined in with stone cold country from the Eady’s. After 30 minutes of this we bounded down the street to hit up the Viva Saloon. The quick 5 minute jaunts are made even more enjoyable with any number of island-flavored cocktails. We arrived at Viva in time to hear Kylie Rae belt out a couple new tunes from her upcoming album. Then, we were off again. Making our way all the way to the opposite end of Duval and Durty Harry’s where Walt Wilkins was making music with his lovely bride Tina. Durty Harry’s is an interesting venue. It’s got a cool vibe with a second level viewing area and two long bars. Walt spent as much time looking up at the crowd gathered above as he did gazing at the one directly below him. The songs of Kevin Welch and Kristofferson flowed alongside the gems from the pen of Wilkins. Tina accompanied in the way that only she can by injecting harmony, humor and a big smile to every proceeding. As Walt wrapped up his set, he mentioned “It’s now my day off, I’m going to spend it drinking and hanging with you all. Cheers friends!”
Walt Wilkins’ toast was still ringing in our ears when we noticed it was time for Shane Smith and the Saints set to start at the Amp. We hustled, still on our feet, over to Truman just in time to catch the set start. Smith and the band tore through their hits and several new songs that had the early sunbaked crowd bouncing along to the Celtic beats and in a frenzy of solar elation. This band is poised to get even bigger with the release of this next record and their live show is already at arena-filling status. Smith gave praise to The Turnpike Troubadours for helping them break into new markets throughout the midwest and honored Charley Crockett, whose spot they were filling.
Our afternoon of chasing music wasn’t complete yet. We bounded back over to Duval to catch Todd Snider at the Theater. We snagged a couple of the last seats remaining at the standing room only show. Todd came out, surprisingly on time, and went into many of his classic yarns, jokes and songs. Some I’d heard many times, others were new. As I said on Twitter, seeing Todd Snider is like seeing your favorite comedian. You know the bits and punchlines, but when you hear them delivered live it’s funnier than the first time you ever heard it. Snider’s delivery and songs filled the fancy room with folk debauchery.
It’s hard to keep a schedule in Key West, but it is mandated when you have so much music to absorb. So, we made a break to grab some grub and fuel up before Stoney LaRue hit the mainstage. Dinner took longer than expected, which would normally be reason to uproar. However, the food in Key West is immaculate. We were at a seafood joint enjoying crabs, oysters and fresh shrimp with Yuengling piled on top. If you’re in Key West, it’s your duty to try as much of all the fresh seafood as you can stomach. And maybe even more. Living like Buffett isn’t great for the wasteline, but it is good for the soul.
As we ambled up Southard St, and were about 500 yards away from the Amp we began to hear the familiar strains of “Oklahoma Breakdown” and we knew we had made it just in time. Along the way we passed a neighborhood group of locals sitting on their porches marveling at all the crazy Texans strolling through their burg. It reminded me of hearing a local door guy spot a cowboy hat coming into his bar and remark “Oh, another cowboy hat…you must be hear for that country music festivus.” Country music festivus indeed.
Todd was from southern Oklahoma. He left his wife and young son back home to come out here for a guy’s trip. But, the guys bailed on him. He rolled the dice and came alone, confident he would find some like minded folks to party with. Todd was a tall guy with a mouthful of the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen. He made friends easily. The type with natural small talk skills and the hyperbolic stories to inject them with enough juice to keep people actually listening. I chatted him up in the beer line after hearing him tell his story to the bartender. He was sporting his faded Turnpike Troubadours shirt. You know the one. The blue one with the red and white lettering and the font busting out of the shape of the country. Patriotic to the core. Todd said he was wearing the shirt because he loved the band, and that as a good Oklahoman he had to do with Cody Canada asked him to do. Cody had made a plea earlier in the week for everyone to wear their Turnpike gear and support the band in spirit. Todd and hundreds of others obliged. When I asked him if he was upset that Turnpike wasn’t here, he said “Naw man…Evan’s got to figure himself out before I try to figure him out. I’m just here to have a good time and show my support while rocking out to some Ragweed and Aquarium.” And that was pretty much the vibe from the crowd and stage all of Thursday night.
The spectre of Turnpike’s absence hung over the event like an albatross and it could’ve been disastrous for the vibe if the bands hadn’t set the tone and the fans followed them. Cody Canada bounded onstage and while still showing the effects of his recent vocal issues, ripped through hits old and new. He seemed completely happy and at ease. Joyfully playing old Ragweed songs alongside newer stuff. He thanked festival co-founder Kyle Carter for beating him in a battle of the bands as kids. He brought out Jamie Lin Wilson to sing with Jeremy Plato. Stoney LaRue and some Red Dirt Rangers sang about rolling their joints all wrong in a flashback to festivals of yore when one of the biggest highlights was seeing what new verses guys and gals would create. (ed. Note at Mile 0, Stoney sang the one about an 8 foot bong).
Thus, the stage was set for American Aquarium. BJ Barham and his (relatively) new gang of rabble-rousers were primed to showcase their stuff in an extended set. The crowd was pumped and the adrenaline coursed through Barham’s veins as he sang his rock n’ roll heartache to the masses. In a set of monumental moments, perhaps none was greater than when Barham was joined by Wilson and John Fullbright for a rousing rendition of Turnpike Troubadours “Every Girl”. The cover came after a lengthy dialogue from Barham addressing what Turnpike has meant to him, his band and this music. He also expanded to talk about addiction and how to support folks in times like this. “If you call yourself a fan, and call yourself a member of somebody’s family and you do not support them at their lowest times, you are a piece of shit. That’s the easiest way I can say it,” Barham said.
After the heavy, rollicking nature of the Truman Amphitheater nightcap, we again hoofed it over to Smokin’ Tuna. Jerry wasn’t working, but each member of that barstaff was impressive in their own way. And the crew on shift this night was no different. We ordered something tropical and set about finding a spot to see the stage. The problem was, Ray Wylie Hubbard was going to be playing soon and about a thousand other people had the same idea. The door was 1 in, 1 out. Across Duval, Jamie Lin was setting up her Jamboree and down the street, Mike and the Moonpies were setting up to play a joint called Cowboy Bill’s. Like most of the festival, this opportunity presented a little something for everyone. Ray’s downhome grooves, Jamie’s jam session and the Moonpies playing honky-tonk in a place akin to the LaGrange chicken ranch. You could not go wrong any way you turned. We ended up dropping in on all 3, but staying at Irish Kevin’s the longest to watch everything unfold.
Jack Ingram would soon take the Tuna stage after RWH for one more nightcap. Jack is a legend. The first time I ever saw him play, he wore corduroy pants in a honky-tonk dive bar. The man does what he wants and has the personality to pull it off. He can be dangerous and elusive or warm and engaging. Sometimes all in the same 5 minute span. At Mile 0 Jack has become a leader. He’s at everyone’s shows. He’s all over Duval. He’s on the beach. He’s on a moped. He’s sidestage. He’s onstage. He’s in the crowd. Ingram has embraced his role as Texas Music elder statesman and pulled from all the best influences. He’s affable like Willie. He’s cunning like Kinky. He’s ornery like Waylon. He’s witty like Townes. He’s smart like Kristofferson. And he can be as wild ass as Jerry Jeff in 1975. You put all that together and you have a recipe for the perfect person to lead the party and songs at Mile 0. Jack burned the candle at both ends for 5 days. He was seen everywhere, and in the same outfit each time. Black t-shirt. Black jeans. Vintage Adidas sneakers. Pure Texan.
There were a handful of shows on the docket for Friday morning, but only one that I had my heart set on attending. The Charlie Robison Tribute show at Key West Theater was one show I was not going to miss. When I arrived, the line of hundreds snaked around the building. I grabbed one of the last standing room spots by the stage and hunkered down for magic. It was quickly apparent that this affair would be just like the man it was honoring. Free-wheeling, independent and heart-felt. As I was angling for a good vantage point, the door right beside me flew open. In walked that unmistakable Canadian tuxedo. Charlie Robison had arrived. The show was soon to start. As the first group of artists strode onstage (Adam Hood, The Coletrains and Jared Deck), some fans in the front row of tables graciously gave their seats to Charlie and his wife. Hood led things off with “The Bottom”, The Coletrains took on “Photograph” and Jared Deck did the deep album cut “Rain”. The humility and appreciation Charlie had as each artist told their personal Charlie stories and sang his songs was heavy. Smiles intertwined with tears.
The next set was Bruce Robison, Jamie Lin Wilson, Kelley Mickwee and Bri Bagwell. “The Wedding Song”, “Always”, “Down Again” and “New Year’s Day” came and went in succession. Mickwee and Wilson made jokes about fangirling over Charlie back in the day and trying to do their best Natalie Maines’ impersonation. Bri Bagwell related how Charlie was a big mentor early in her career and for one gig she decided to try on his signature denim look only to be met with the rabid, online Charlie Robison fan backlash.
Understandably, the most poignant and touching part of the tribute came from brother Bruce. “It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to have Charlie Robison as your big brother.” Bruce related how anything Charlie tried came easy. And things Bruce talked about doing, Charlie just picked them up and did it. Guitar. Songwriting. Life. Most people talk about doing things and Charlie just does them. And now the thing he was greatest at, he can no longer do. It was an emotional moment. I think Bruce would’ve gone into “My Brother and Me” if he could’ve. But, his stated words did plenty of talking.
One more round and set-change brought Keith Gattis, Micky Braun, Randy Rogers, Shane Smith, and Jack Ingram. Except Jack wasn’t there yet. Which brought the quip of the day from Braun, who remarked “We’re stalling for Jack Ingram while he finishes his morning jog.” A knowing nod to how much fun Jack had been having in Key West throughout the week. 11am start times are hard enough when you’re not in paradise. Gattis lit into his “El Cerrito Place” and made mention of how life-changing Charlie covering it had been for him. Micky Braun related being pulled into the tribute the night before while drunk on Duval and telling Bruce, “Sure, I’ll sing ‘Barlight’!”. Without knowing anything but the chorus. He had Brue and Jack help him through the verses and the whole place shouted the chorus along with him. Randy Rogers told some humorous anecdotes about sharing the songswap stages of Texas with Charlie before launching into a raucous version of “Arms of Love”. Shane Smith related how Charlie was indirectly responsible for him even having a band. At the start of his career, he won a songwriters contest in which the grand prize was opening for Charlie Robison. Smith put a band together for that show and hasn’t looked back. He gave the crowd a reprise of “Photograph”.
Which just left Bruce and Jack to close it out for Charlie…as they’ve done so many times before. The two used humor to fight through the sadness and Charlie gave several standing ovations and hat tips to the performers throughout. Jack closed the set out with back to back renderings of “Sunset Blvd” and “Loving County” before being joined by all the artists for “My Hometown”. The entire morning was one of those once in a lifetime events that I’ll always remember. I’ve written about Charlie a ton and I’m glad to see him paid tribute to in such a befitting manner. I look forward to seeing a more formal tribute in the near future and know one is coming.
How do you come down from the emotional high of a tribute to one of your favorite artists of all time? You go see Kevin Galloway play on a beach accompanied only by his guitar and a cello player. Don’t it feel good to smile indeed. Galloway boomed through many of the tracks off his solo debut, a few Uncle Lucius tunes and some select covers. The breeze flowed through the shade as he stood confident and barefoot clad in all black under the baking Florida sun. Behind him in a Norman Rockwell type scene, some fishermen cast large nets that proved to be successful with each pull. I bounced back across the street to the other beach stage to see what Adam Hood was up to. And he was being his usual self. Making the most soulful country music come out of him effortlessly. He serenaded an eager, sun-soaked crowd with deep cuts and new stuff. Hood is perhaps the greatest non Texan/Oklahoman in our scene. He interlopes through it all with six strings, a good attitude and a warchest of songs second to nobody. Then, he comes out and delivers them, in whatever the environment may be, with tons of personality and charm. He’s a gem and has been since I first heard him 15 years ago. A very welcome addition to this year’s Mile 0. It seemed like Adam played the most official sets too. He was everywhere but the Amphitheater. And that’s a good thing.
By the time I made it to the Amphitheater, John Fullbright was finishing up. There aren’t many folks more talented than John Fullbright. He’s Jerry Lee Lewis with more sense, Leon Russell that stayed grounded and one helluva singer. A fiery performance by Fullbright gave way to Jamie Lin Wilson’s big amphitheater set. JLW is a wizard at Mile 0. The only person that may get around to more spots than Jack Ingram is Jamie. Guest spots here, jams there, tributes over that way, main stage show now. Jamie was joined by Bryon White from The Damn Quails and utility lead player Scott Davis (who played with a number of acts throughout the week) on guitar. Her set featured a number of tracks from Jumping Over Rocks and culminated in her letting White take the wheel to deliver “Fool’s Gold” followed by a mini-Turnpike tribute in which we saw her give her band an early break before closing with an acoustic rendition of “Diamonds and Gasoline”. In the intro to the song, she remarked “I don’t have a lot of close friends…all of them are here this week but one…and this one goes out to him.” Evan Felker had to have felt it as hard as we all felt it in the moment. It was powerful.
Flatland Cavalry has gone from roughshod vehicle to present Cleto Cordero’s songs to a legitimate venue filling band. The most recent iteration of the band has been together since August and released Homeland Insecurity recently. The past couple years have hardened the band’s sound and made the shy Cordero a better front man. Wesley Hall’s replacement of Laura Jane Houle on fiddle was originally met with some pushback from fans, but if they go see a show they’ll see the overall product has improved. It’s a more cohesive unit firing through the songs. By the time the set rolled into “Old School”, FC had the entire amphitheater in the palm of their hand. Cordero made several mentions of Tyler Childers and the impending rush that was coming for everyone the moment they exited the stage.