Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival

Shakori. Even the general soddenness does not lower the spirit. You can feel so lifted there you walk on water—over the spring runnels and deep, red, sucking Chatham County clay. There was a lot of mud this year. Sections of the music festival that in years past have been meadows for camping and lying around in were shin-deep in rutted pools. Everything was mud-colored. People were mud-colored. “Hey, mud family!” one dread-locked celebrant yelled to a glistening, caveman-like four-pack who’d obviously done some kind of slip-and-slide down the hill for goofs. Stages were muddy. Cars, of course, whose models you couldn’t make out, slipped all over the place getting in, ours included. We pushed cars out of mud and got help pushing ours. Campsites were pure mud. Experienced festival-goers wore galoshes while the rest of us went barefoot or in subterranean, throwaway tennies.

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Photo by Ania Welin

And yet the festival was full and vibrant. It always is. Our friends arrived early, in the classic, corrugated tick-body campers of pros. They set up pavilions and bag chairs and fire rings, made home for our group, set their kids loose. As in years past, we were in the “family camping” area next to the long road that enters the Shakori Hills festival grounds. Also as in years past, we took up with a party of friends and new, friendly strangers, with whom we parented and shared food and spent time. In principle the family camping meadow is quieter and more organized into little plots than the wooded areas up the hill, but the music plays every night until dawn and can be heard from every corner, music from the several different stages and venues merging and reaching into tents and bedrolls. At these volumes and in these circumstances, you don’t hear zydeco, bluegrass, cowpunk, or drum circle. It’s like one big Radiohead album (or maybe Band of Horses is a more appropriate analogy here), ambient but primal, all-night polyrhythms that in their persistence can be just a tiny bit frightening, but also like a lullaby. You sleep to it or just lie there and feel it wash over you. At dawn it is quiet again. Thick fog (or rain) and the sound of the odd tent zipper, birds waking, and cows lowing.

You meet people. Everybody is smiling, greeting one another. Fellow travelers, exchanging pleasantries about all the mud. There are several thousand attendees at Shakori, many of them not only listening but playing, making things, volunteering. There’s a place where you can build little rock towers. A rock labyrinth to walk through. Parades happen. You make a spirit mask or two. Kids in vintage dresses and trucker caps and bright blue hair are making out in the trees above the meadow stage. There are massage tables on rugs under little tasseled pavilions. In the DJ beer tent, there’s a handsome bearded galoot with all his belongings and liquids stuff into a Camelbak, a solo, shirtless, grinning dub-dancing marathoner. Also really classic, unreconstructed hippies–like, first generation hippies with stringy beards and rainbow mirrored sunglasses, two-finger peace signs for everyone and rope sandals (muddy).

The main thing about Shakori is that people from all different ages and walks of life are there together. It seems natural and it makes you feel how unnatural other parts of your life may be, how segmented. Days camping and talking and having coffee with hipsters and little kids, with old couples, fire-breathers, Africans and Appalachian banjo pickers and bolo ties. It’s the natural we don’t have any more.

We give lip service to the idea that music and art and diversity give us “perspective”, but you can feel real perspective in situations like this. Like I don’t have one of those ear piercings that stretches a golf ball sized hole into my earlobe, but when I see those or jaw tattoos or something like them at Shakori, I think, Well I could see how that would be nice. I can see what that young man means by that giant hole there.

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Photo by Ania Welin

I want more of my life to be like Shakori. I want to be the person I am at Shakori. This happens at music festivals. You go away eager to bend your life to their rhythms. It’s kind of the idea —as in Shakespeare’s forest comedies, where the ordinary rules are suspended in generative ways. “You must change your life!” the poet said. This is what I felt. This time, my wife and I made a fetish out of campers to contain all our zeal in something concrete (and dry. Our tent was stinky and sodden within minutes of being set up): It was campers that made this communion possible! You lived simply, traveled where you wanted, home-schooled your kids in the back to keep them from being tested out of curiosity, boiled water. Put little blocks under your camper tires when you found your friends.