It might have been the best little badly named music festival Raleigh has ever known.
A late-January fixture at the now-bulldozed Brewery from 1996 until 2002, S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest gathered a dozen or so hell-bent alt-country acts from around the region, along with a few national ringers. The shindig, which included a barbecue spread in the enclosed patio between The Brewery and the Comet Lounge, brought a little Americana fire to the dead of winter.
But about that name. The choice of "spittle" was understandable, given that founder Greg Mosorjak created the fest partly as a Raleigh answer to Chapel Hill's rowdy midsummer garage bash Sleazefest. The crowning disgrace was the tortured acronym—"Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash Leisure & Entertainment."
"I had worked on the H.O.R.D.E. Festival in 1993," Mosorjak says, beginning an explanation that sounds almost like an apology. H.O.R.D.E., an abbreviation for "Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere," was a jam-band Lollapalooza wannabe that ran from 1992 to 1998.
In 1995, alternative country was at a fever pitch in the Triangle, leading Mosorjak to envision a small-scale local event with a Southern country flavor. Mosorjak was sitting with Brewery owner Kenny Hobby in the Comet when he conceived the idea. He glanced over at the venue's doorman, who was chewing tobacco and spitting into a cup.
"So I thought, let's see, what words could I get to spell out 'spittle,'" he recounts. "Had I been sober or had more time, I might have chosen better words than what I picked."
The musical bookings and performances proved far better than the festival's name. The first iteration of S.P.I.T.T.L.E., held at The Brewery Jan. 27–28, 1996, drew national press from No Depression, an alternative country magazine based in Seattle that Grant Alden and I had launched the previous year.
Reviewer Rick Cornell captured the event's freewheeling amalgamation of roots-based acts of all ages, detailing a set by Whiskeytown (featuring a 21-year-old Ryan Adams) and following it with this observation: "Providing a generational perspective to the bill was closing act Sleepy LaBeef, a rockabilly/country legend who started touring about 20 years before Adams was born," he wrote. "As LaBeef launched into a 'Polk Salad Annie' medley that spun in 'Okie From Muskogee,' 'White Lightning' and other nuggets, a neighbor testified, 'The man is God.' Well, not quite. God is a couple years younger."
Whiskeytown was just one of the rising alt-country stars who helped turn S.P.I.T.T.L.E. into a standby. The Backsliders, 6 String Drag, Two Dollar Pistols, Tift Merritt & the Carbines and Thad Cockrell & the Starlite Country Band were among the hometown highlights over the years. The fest also featured solid draws from across the South and Midwest, including Drive-By Truckers, the Bottle Rockets, the Derailers, Blue Mountain and Robbie Fulks.
Some acts who visited for the fest wound up forming lifelong bonds with the Triangle. In 2002, western Massachusetts band the Drunk Stuntmen were a surprise Saturday-night S.P.I.T.T.L.E. sensation. They hung around to play on Monday night down the street at Sadlack's, beginning a decade-long love affair between the Stuntmen and Sadlack's. Earlier this month, the Stuntmen reunited to play Sadlack's one last time before its scheduled demolition next year.
S.P.I.T.T.L.E.'s ability to spur such bonds is perhaps why many people kept bugging Mosorjak about bringing it back. "Ever since I left The Brewery in 2002," he says, "people have been asking me, 'Are you going to do S.P.I.T.T.L.E. somewhere else?"
Among the most vocal was Jeff Holshouser, leader of the local band Hank Sinatra, who play this year's fest on Saturday night. Holshouser ended up being a prime force in reviving the festival.
"S.P.I.T.T.L.E. was wide open, never pretentious and always so much fun," says Holshouser, who attended the first fest in 1996 and played it with Big Dixie in 2000. "Looking back, it's really clear just how special those shows were, but wanting to bring S.P.I.T.T.L.E. back isn't about nostalgia for me. It is about wanting to go to that kind of party again."
The most natural new location for the fest was The Pour House, where much of the millennium-era Brewery community had migrated over the years (including soundman Jac Cain). It's the host venue on Friday and Saturday, after Thursday's opening-night festivities at Deep South The Bar with The Olympic Ass-Kickin Team, Dexter Romweber and others.
Deep South's involvement traces to owner Dave Rose's reverence for The Brewery's glory days. "I grew up playing in local bands around Raleigh, and The Brewery was always the rock 'n' roll mecca for musicians and fans, not just locally but regionally," he says. "I feel in many ways I grew up in the music business with the spirit of The Brewery as my foundation."
Rose attended S.P.I.T.T.L.E. in the late '90s, catching memorable sets by Kenny Roby, Two Dollar Pistols, Cigar Store Indians and others. "What I remember most, though, was this spirit of everyone excited about music," he says. "S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest was a community of music fans and musicians who genuinely appreciated those fans—almost to the point where there was no separation. Bands and fans were one, in it together."
A newer Raleigh festival finally convinced Mosorjak to relaunch S.P.I.T.T.L.E. "Last year at Hopscotch," Mosorjak says, "I was at a bunch of parties, and I saw a whole new bunch of bands that hadn't played S.P.I.T.T.L.E." Invigorated, he began working on a lineup that would combine old favorites from the fest's glory days with new faces who fit the mold.
Early participants such as Chip Robinson (Backsliders), John Howie Jr. (Two Dollar Pistols), Kenny Roby (6 String Drag) and Charlotte brothers Alan and Chad Edwards (Lou Ford) return this year with their current bands—the Vibekillers, the Rosewood Bluff, the Dark Strangers and the Loudermilks, respectively.
But there are also some "diamonds in the rough that folks may not have seen," Mosorjak says, including visiting acts Josh Morningstar from Hagerstown, Md., and Andy Vaughan & the Driveline from Richmond, Va., plus Durham up-and-comers the Gravy Boys.
And, Mosorjak hints, there's more to come. "We're looking to try to do it annually," he says. "I think we've put together a good reincarnation of S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest to bring it back with a bang."
Perhaps it was inevitable: Even after a decade-long absence, Mosorjak finds himself Still Presenting Insurgent Twang That's Likely Everlasting.
Read reviews of S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fests from 1996, 1998 and 1999 at archives.nodepression.com.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Back in the S.P.I.T.T.L.E. again."