By Holly Smith
Photography by Kendall Wilson
The Ozark Holler Hootenanny’s reputation precedes it at this year’s Black Deer Festival, following its roar of a showing in 2022.
A slot running adjacent to the headliners might not be a musician’s first choice, but Willi Carlisle, Dylan Earl and Jude Brothers show no signs of fretting as they and hordes of fans return for a 13-song grassroots celebration of the music from their home state of Arkansas, this time joined by fellow native Bonnie Montgomery.
The allure of the performance is in its ephemerality – never to be repeated. Paired with its deep roots, it's a set filled with songs that have travelled in various guises across tongues and lungs; shapeshifting and ending up a part of the musical fabric that will continue to be heard throughout the landlocked, natural state of Arkansas.
Take, for example, their homage to British folk music with Carlisle’s cover of 'Rainbow ‘Mid Life’s Willows' (a song known by various names), an old ballad whose words were first known to have been documented in England in the 1600s, before making its way to north America.
“We never forget where it came from, we just made an alteration to fit our customs, and we’re glad you see you here altering your clothes to fit our customs”, explains Willi to the crowd of Brits in Stetsons and cowboy boots, before getting them to sing along on a cover of 'Good Old Turnip Greens'.
Perhaps the only time the set strays into something truly recognisable is 'Blue Bayou' at the hands of Bonnie Montgomery, who looks and sounds like an old-time Opry star in fringed denim and cowboy boots.
She opens the set with her tune 'Joy', her voice ringing as clear as you’d expect from a classically trained opera singer. Jude Brothers, meanwhile, is barefoot and wild; emitting primal screams on songs like 'Magpie', reducing the crowd to a hush with her harp on 'practicing silence/looking for water!', and bringing them back up with a gleeful rendition of 'King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O'. Bob Dylan fans may recognise the tune from his cover of 'Froggie Went A Courtin’, both having hailed from the same English folk song.
Arkansas-born Blaze Foley might be associated with Austin, but Willi Carlisle and Dylan Earl are determined to claim him as their own, with covers of 'Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries' and 'If Only I Could Fly'.
For a set so focused on the idea of ‘place’, the group are also quick to discount it, Earl thanking the crowd for welcoming them into their “geopolitical borders” before going on to declare those same borders asinine.
The spirit of the set is perhaps best summed up by Earl’s quoting of the old Irish proverb: “there are good ships and wood ships, ships that sail the sea, but the best ships are friendships, may they always be”.
The set may have been a one time only, but those lucky enough to be in the tent will not forget it soon.
Ozark Holler Hootenanny - Setlist
Taken from the Ozark Holler Hootenanny Performance on Friday, June 16, 2023 at Black Deer Festival 2023 at Eridge Park in Kent.
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