Earlier this spring, possibly even the first day of spring, Brandy and I busted out of our winter-battered houses, boots, and souls and headed out of town for a day of unbridled adventure. The warm, sunny day actually required sunscreen and we looked forward to a day outside and a night of live music with two of our favorite local musicians. First up was a trip to the Richmond Zoo to try out their Treetop Zoofari which is just a really cheesy name for a ropes course. For a reasonable fee, you guide yourself along 40-ish challenges, sometimes balancing your Jell-o legs across some strung together two-by-fours, sometimes climbing a twenty-foot completely vertical ladder to a two-foot square platform a hundred feet in the air, and sometimes zipping on a line perched just high enough that zoo animals can noisily chase, but not catch, you. There were some white-knuckle moments, yes, but the level of concentration it required made us forget everything for a couple hours. The wind was crisp and bright. Everything felt new. The best part was when we approached the final stop where we’d unhook and remove all our gear, and the employee smiled at us and said, “Oh, are you two enjoying a mother-daughter day?” Perhaps Brandy shot him a warning glance, because he slowly backed up, as if we were bears on his trail, and then disappeared. Back in the car, we applied make-up and changed clothes for phase two: Jack Brown’s over on Grove Avenue! And who did we see there? Ol’ Matt Abraham who used to work at the Harrisonburg location. We sat on the lively patio with other first-of-spring revelers and caught up with our friend Sarah. But the icing on our cake that day was a trip to Culpeper to see Bryan Elijah Smith and the Wild Hearts perform. Beers in hand, we made our way to the front row, eager to see both Bryan and his opener, Justin Jones, also of the Burg. Justin performed alone, him and his guitar and his harmonica, but his laughter and his humor and his perfect, pulpy, tender voice filled the stage, disarming and hushing the enamored crowd. Not only did I get to see Bryan’s performance that night, but not long thereafter, I had a chance to chat with him. Sitting across from him, I realized I’d only ever seen him holding a guitar, leaning into a microphone. On that day he held a flimsy cup of coffee and rubbed fatigue from his eyes. I reminded myself that this average-sized, soft spoken man in front of me was the same one who blows the roof off every place I see him play, with his loud, five-piece band The Wild Hearts and his giant thunder voice. Born and raised in Dayton, Virginia – the land of horse-drawn buggies, farmers’ markets, and redbuds just south of Harrisonburg – Bryan first cut his musical teeth playing guitar at age five, then in the awkward realm of middle school band. The band director, using some kind of one-size-fits-all questionnaire, tried to peg him as a trumpet player, but Bryan insisted on percussion. Later he played guitar in Turner Ashby High School’s Jazz Ensemble. In late high school he took guitar lessons, and even scored a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. When I asked, “And then?” he answered, “And then? And then I just started writing songs.” Bryan and current band-mate Jeff Miller (banjo) formed a band called Albuquerque for about three years with Michael Stover (now of Shenandoah Alley). After Albuquerque (circa 2007), Bryan quit performing live for a bit and instead worked on a farm milking cows to save up some cash, then recorded a truckload of music (according to Bryan, about ten albums worth), a fraction of which comprised his first Bryan Elijah Smith solo album Forever On My Mind (2009). He toured Virginia and the southeast coast on his own, promoting the record, and linked up with Staunton-based musician Nathan Moore to tour the northeast. The Wild Hearts formed in 2010, and over the years the band has evolved to include, in addition to Bryan and Jeff, Jay Austin (violin), Justin Shifflett (drums), and Blanks Blankenship (2014). Now more than a decade into his career, Bryan has played all over the U.S. and even toured Australia last year – a long stretch from a cattle farm in Dayton where he owns a production studio, Empty Sound Productions, that allows him to balance his love of writing and performing with his love of recording and producing his music. Describing himself as “obsessed” with learning the methods of his favorite producers and staying abreast of emerging technologies, excitement shone on his face as he talked about his recent analog/digital studio overhaul: “Being able to paint a sonic picture that I see in my mind is worth a million words to me.” His most recent release, These American Hearts, involved a year and a half of writing more than 100 songs, followed by a grueling selection process, but resulting in what he calls an honest album. All his music is “honest,” per se, he explained – it’s all “true to the time and head space I was in when I made it,” but with age and experience he’s stopped trying to make songs adhere to a particular label or category and just let the songs be what they are when they “come to me.” Indeed, he’s hard to pin down when you ask him what music he likes to listen to. He’ll list Dylan, Waits, and Springsteen as influences; newer artists, though, like Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, and War on Drugs are never too far from his stereo. Likewise, his own music is neither country nor rock, neither blues nor bluegrass. He is all those things, authentically, and he believes his most honest record is still out there, in the ether, waiting for the right time to descend. Bryan remembers fondly the local basement shows of the early days – the Crayola House, little restaurants and pubs — which gave way to festivals, and theaters, his favorite venue. So when Brandy and I saw him and The Wild Hearts at the State Theatre in Culpeper – a grand old space where their sound had room to stretch and songs could morph into twenty-minute jams – we witnessed the full expression of them as musicians. Fibers hung from Jay Austin’s exhausted bow like long strands of corn silk. The whole place rumbled like a train platform, every seat abandoned after the first song. Bryan Elijah Smith and the Wild Hearts have a busy summer lined up, with performances all over Virginia, including several area vineyards, Wintergreen Resort, and The Southern in Charlottesville, to name a few, before Red Wing Roots Music Festival, the spectacular creation of Harrisonburg Action Figure Jeremiah Jenkins that brings together upwards of forty bands for three glorious days at Natural Chimneys State Park in Mt. Solon. Bryan Elijah Smith and the Wild Hearts hit the Southern Stage at 2pm on Friday, July 10. Copyright © 2012-15 · All Rights Reserved · ilovemyburg.com. Written content by Katie Mitchell. Photos by Brandy Somers. This material may not be copied, downloaded, reproduced, or printed without express written consent. Thank you for respecting our intellectual property.
Day three brought a new element to the Red Wing Roots Music Festival: my children.
Honestly, I was so excited they’d get to attend that I couldn’t get there fast enough that Sunday. In case you didn’t know, kids get in free at Red Wing, and there’s plenty for them to do. But I really wanted Bree and Cal to hear some music. So many times when bands perform, it’s way past bedtime. Great music shouldn’t be reserved for just the 18 and older crowd. I prefer to start influencing/molding/controlling their music interests EARLY. You’ll never find “Barney’s Greatest Hits” in this mama’s car. EVER.
We parked and started the trek to the Local Roots Stage, where we looked forward to seeing Bourbon Barrel Congress and Bryan Elijah Smith. I worried for a moment that the walk from the car would be a little long for the children… but who am I kidding? They’re young and strong and enthusiastic. Cal found a walking stick and that’s all he needed. Bree was fascinated by the sheer number of people and their cozy campsites. At the gate, one of the volunteers recognized the three of us — she’d seen our faces right here on this web site — and said she feels like she’s watched Bree and Cal grow up and then asked, “Do your kids just never argue?” And I could proudly say, “It’s rare.” Another volunteer suggested I write my cell number on the kids’ wristbands in case they get lost. But… my cell phone was useless out there, so I quickly scrawled “BRING ME TO THE STUMP” and said a quick prayer about the kindness of strangers.
On we went. We were a bit early for Bourbon Barrel Congress, so I showed them where the stump was — our meeting place should we get separated — and we got some Kline’s ice cream and an iced coffee from Lucas Roasting Company.
JP Harris and the Tough Choices were on the South Stage, with that voice that could melt steel and sounds that could slice through it. I could see Brandy snaking her way closer to the stage, and the kids and I wiggled our way through the sweaty crowd to join her. We caught the last few numbers of JP’s performance, including the very first song he ever wrote, “If There Ain’t No Honky-Tonks in Heaven.” It made me think of Harper Lee and how she won the Pulitzer for her very first book. Why bother writing anything else when you hit a home run the first time at bat? Perhaps in JP’s case, because PEOPLE WANT MORE, for one. That band was awesome. Their new album, Home Is Where the Hurt Is (amen) comes out in a couple weeks, and you can catch them TONIGHT (!!) at Clementine in Harrisonburg. And I will see you there :)
Then we moved to the Local Roots Stage for Bourbon Barrel Congress. Thankfully we were able to sit in the shade, but still it was hot enough to shed about eight pounds of fluid while performing. But the heat didn’t slow these guys down; rather, it seemed to ignite their spirit and, likewise, the crowd’s. Soon everyone was clapping and stomping to the bellow of Chris Davis’ upright base, the squeals of Rene’s Devito’s fiddle, and the laughter of John Spangler’s banjo. On and on they barreled indeed, through an impressive eight numbers… lively instrumentals alternated with songs embroidered with Ethan Hawkins’ like-freshly-Windexed-glass voice. Cleeeaaan. Bourbon Barrel Congress will play at Harrisonburg’s Local Chop and Grill House October 17!
When at last Bryan Elijah Smith and the Wildhearts, accompanied by singer/writer Krista Polvere, climbed up on stage, I felt both happy and sad. For me, this was the finale of the festival. After their performance, the kids and I would have to hit the road. So we savored every last note of their set. Their sound was huge — almost too big for the Local Roots Stage — and it felt like the amps would blow the tent down at times. But the warm sound lassoed us, hugged us all, and like a hypnotist’s spell, compelled us to stay put.
Since that performance I’ve purchased every single album of theirs, and I can’t help hear a bit of Dylan — both Jakob and Bob — in Bryan’s love-worn-leather voice and timeless words, paired with the band’s unique yet diversely broad instrumental style. If you liked what you heard that day, too, you can celebrate the release of their latest album, These American Hearts, at Clementine on September 12th. The show is proudly presented by our local Friendly City Food Co-op, Lucas Roasting Company, WMRA, and Three Brothers Brewing. It’ll be a good ol’ hometown party.
On the way back to the car, the kids’ broad smiles and cute comments brightened each step.
“I want to see those bands again!”
“I can’t believe how loud that was!”
“When can we go to another festival??” and
“Mom, can I bring this rock home?” No. (Because, we sorta have a lot of rocks already at the house, you see.)
“Okay. See you next year, Rock!”
Copyright © 2012 – 2014 · All Rights Reserved · ilovemyburg.com. Written content by Katie Mitchell. Photos by Brandy Somers.This material may not be copied, downloaded, reproduced, or printed without express written consent. Thank you for respecting our intellectual property.