If you're looking to fully let your folk freak flag fly, you'll have to wait a few more weeks for IBMA to get to town to really get your fill of twang. In the meantime, though, Hopscotch offers a handful of acts that take roots music traditions and run wild with them.
The first headliner announced for this year's festival was Lavender Country, a radical project dating back to the early seventies that's widely recognized as the first-ever openly gay country band. Its lead instigator is Patrick Haggerty, who's made social justice his life's work in Seattle. He and the festival stood firm amid waves of concert cancelations over HB 2. "Nobody in their right mind would dream of Lavender Country performing at Hopscotch being anything other than a protest," he said in an interview with Pitchfork just a few days after the announcement.
That protest alone is worth celebrating and showing up for, but Lavender Country's lone self-titled LP hasn't lost any of its power since its original 1973 release—songs like "Come Out Singing" and "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears" feel like they could've been written yesterday as they frankly address queer visibility.
For this show, Haggerty has enlisted Paradise of Bachelors label mates Promised Land Sound—a Nashville ensemble that crafts boozy, excellent country-tinged rock and appears at Slim's Friday night—as his backing band. Lavender Country is the last act to take the stage at Fletcher Opera Theater Saturday night, a closeout set that will be a high-water mark for 2016, and probably for the festival overall.
Nashville's Adia Victoria shares Lavender Country's radical spirit, though her ideas address the self rather than the sociopolitical. She's mostly a rock artist, but she pulls in plenty of blues-inspired licks on her debut LP, Beyond the Bloodhounds, which she released in April. Her songs brood and snarl, reckoning with angst, depression, and loneliness. On "Stuck in the South," Victoria builds a haunting rumination on the thorny concept of Southern identity. "I've been dreamin' of swingin' from that old palmetto tree," she sings. Victoria's set at Nash Hall barely overlaps with that of local Sarah Shook at Slim's, meaning you can double up on raucous sets by whiskey-loving women. Where Victoria occasionally pursues blues, Shook goes full honky-tonk on last year's Sidelong.
The Dead Tongues, who open up City Plaza Saturday night, make another strong North Carolina showing. Ryan Gustafson, who leads the outfit, was a Triangle fixture for years before decamping to Asheville in 2014. Since 2009's Donkey, Gustafson has been crafting fantastic tunes that, somehow, have flown under the radar as simpatico acts like Hiss Golden Messenger and Mount Moriah have risen to national acclaim.
Gustafson's songs feel like old souls, comforting in their familiarity despite being less than a decade old. This year's Montana is Gustafson at his sharpest, with detailed fingerpicking on "Empire Builder" and "My Companion." Elsewhere, he pushes into more experimental territory with the spacious "Nostalgia" and "Capitol Blues," proving himself as a master of forward-thinking music as well as the traditional stuff. That's not to say Gustafson's earlier work doesn't hold up—Donkey's "Soul Train" and "No Intentions," from 2013's Desert, remain some of his strongest songs.
Some quieter acts get their fair shake this weekend, too. Joan Shelley, who makes a doubleheader appearance at Fletcher Opera Theater Saturday night, is arguably one of the finest folk artists around. She begins the night with Maiden Radio, a sublime trio that places her with Julia Purcell and Cheyenne Mize. The three women offer crystalline versions of traditional songs, with sparse fiddle, banjo, and guitar arrangements.
For her solo set, Shelley will reprise songs from last year's gorgeous Over and Even, a simple yet utterly striking record that was one of 2015's best releases. Its songs that simmer and ripple with cool comfort. Shelley's voice rings clear as a bell, and her accompanist, Nathan Salsburg, is an expert guitarist in his own right. Shelley and her respective cohorts stand to deliver wonderful sets of fresh air among busy, reverberating sets across Raleigh.
The threads that tie Shelley with the likes of Victoria, Gustafson, and Lavender Country are loose, but they're there nonetheless. Whether from Kentucky or Seattle, Nashville or North Carolina, these bands share their unique commitments to chasing bold leads within the big-tent world of folk music. You'll delight in trying to follow along all weekend.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Strings and Threads"