Every year, it never fails: The music festival Waynestock takes place on the final weekend of January, and no matter how stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed it is going into it, those of us who put it together each year marvel at the magic that is the music scene in East Tennessee.
It began as a way to lift up our friend, Wayne Bledsoe — the festival’s namesake — after the unexpected death of his son, Andrew. Ten years prior, Wayne had lost his wife, Ruth, to cancer, and to lose one of his three children seemed like an unimaginably cruel twist of fate’s knife. As the former music writer for the Knoxville daily paper, Wayne had a lot of friends who were in shock at the tragedy, and the only thing we knew to do was to get together and make a racket.
It was cathartic and beautiful and raised money to help the Bledsoe family, and so the next year, when local beloved musician Phil Pollard died unexpectedly, we did it again for Phil’s family. By that point, Waynestock had become an integral part of the music scene, and we’ve done it every year since. This year, the money raised went to help the infant son of Rachel Gurley and her husband, who’s been in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Tennessee Medical Center with complication upon complication since his birth in September. The other recipient is local drummer Bill Lamb, who suffered life-changing injuries in a horrific September motorcycle wreck.
For three nights, we gathered at Relix Variety Theatre in Downtown North Knoxville and gave our all to make things a little better for both families. Every musician played for free. Daniel Schuh donated the use of Relix, for free. Sweet P’s BBQ fed the musicians and staff, for free. Proceeds from the sale of Harby’s Pizza and Circa Wear clothing were donated, and organizations from across East Tennessee — including the Clayton Center for the Arts and The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint here in Maryville — gave raffle prizes that helped fatten the kitty.
While my own efforts were limited to planning and taking admission at the door, there were enough breaks in the flow of people that I could stand back and gaze with wonder on what a mighty force of love and community that Waynestock has become. Not to get all metaphysical, but there were higher forces at work, just as there are every Waynestock weekend. It may sound corny, but there’s no other explanation for how a ramshackle, put-together-with-spit-and-glue event can end up being such a smooth operation that goes down without a hitch, and the moments of serendipity that seemed to be affirmation of good works.
Case in point: One of the bands that performed during Waynestock, Senryu, was present during year one. Frontman Wil Wright is an old friend who now works with me at Cornerstone of Recovery, and it was from a phone conversation between us in the immediate aftermath of Andrew Bledsoe’s death that the idea for Waynestock sprang forth. Senryu played that first year, and Wil said something from stage that year that’s resonated with me ever since: “This is what we do, Knoxville: When something bad happens, we come together and make it better!”
This year, we convinced our coworker, Jack, to come down on Saturday night with his wife and daughter. It would be an opportunity for him to see Wil’s band play, and a band of female teenage rockers called The Pinklets might, we suggested, be something that his 8-year-old daughter Lilly would enjoy. Because it’s always an all-ages event, they came down on Saturday night.
At first, the noise and cacophony and boisterousness were slightly overwhelming to an 8-year-old, especially since that night was her first seeing live music and experiencing live rock ’n’ roll. She hung back initially, but when The Pinklets took the stage, she was entranced. By set’s end, she had pulled her chair up to the side of the stage, watching the three ladies who started rocking around her age play some of the best music of the weekend. When I offered to introduce her, she grinned shyly and nodded with wide-eyed anticipation. The Pinklets were gracious and kind and encouraging, and Lilly couldn’t stop grinning the whole time they talked and posed for pictures.
After she saw two other female rockers launch into the opening notes of the band Electric Darling’s set, she wanted to go to the front row for a few songs. The entire time, she didn’t take her eyes off of two women who, like The Pinklets, are living proof that rock ‘n’ roll, in this scene at least, isn’t solely the domain of boys.
By the end of the night, she was smitten — with the sounds of Knoxville, and more importantly with the women who add so much vibrant talent to this city. I told her dad he had a future rock ‘n’ roller on his hands and encouraged him to buy a few raffle tickets.
When we gave out the final prize of the night, a fabulous custom-made “Waynecaster” guitar built by South Coast Luthiery, Jack’s name was on the winning ticket.
While dad was stoked to win, his daughter was over the moon. I know a whole lot of musicians wanted that guitar and bought tickets to win it, but I think the Waynestock spirits put it exactly where it was supposed to go.
And that, friends, is exactly what Waynestock is all about: Rock ‘n’ roll and community and love and good things happening on the other side of darkness. It is, without exaggeration, one of the events I’m most proud to be a part of. I hope that next year you’ll come experience it for yourself.