Searching for Austin in the Corners of Wisconsin
Local landmarks on the road to Farmageddon
By Kevin Curtin,
12:30PM, Tue. Jul. 15, 2014
Only a fool or someone with good insurance bag checks their instrument while flying. I can’t bear the thought of my mandolin falling off that conveyer belt golf cart onto the tarmac or getting crunched under a set of water skis by a careless baggage handler. Musicians carry on.
There’s a closet near an airplane’s entrance where the stewards and stewardess store their luggage and crisply ironed blazers. It’s also where instrument cases that won’t fit into an overhead compartment – everything except for a trumpet, fiddle, or harmonica – can be stored. By the time I boarded a flight for Wisconsin last Thursday, jetting to meet my band, Black Eyed Vermillion, for a festival, that cubby was already so jam-packed with guitar cases that I had to reorganize others’ gear to fit mine.
“It’s always like this when we fly out of Austin,” noted the co-pilot, looking back from the cockpit. “Big music city.”
Austin’s reputation proceeds it, perhaps more in some places than others, like remote Sprague, Wis., where Black Eyed Vermillion, whose touring misadventures I’ve chronicled extensively, got booked to play the Farmageddon Music Festival. The annual campout’s lineup boasted everything from bulldozer metal (Weedeater) and evil circus punk (Goddamn Gallows) to bluegrass (Split Lip Rayfield). Forty bands were scheduled, but we were the lone act representing ATX.
Despite that figure, I knew connections to the homeland would soon reveal themselves.
After landing in Madison, a city bearing resemblance to ours thanks to its state capitol building and large university, I was picked up by my road-trippin’ girlfriend and together we blew out of town. After a two-hour drive alongside cornfields and birch forests dotted with taxidermy shops and cheese curd vendors, we arrived in the incorporated area of Sprague, a territory so microscopic that even nearby villages hadn’t heard of it.
It was in Sprague that the four-day festival was being held – at the Wilderness Inn – a scene that, to an Austinite, could be described as Chaos in Tejas meets Old Settler’s Music Festival. The hallmark lawlessness and madness were in full force: Weedeater frontman Dixie Dave Collins driving recklessly around the campground in a stolen golf cart; dirty bluegrass hero Jake Orvis giving stick and poke tattoos in a tent; everyone consuming legendary amounts of moonshine.
Austin echoed all around me. One couple spent the last week hitchhiking from our mutual home to Farmageddon. Another guy had recently been locked up in Del Valle jail. An ATX-pat told me how he’d moved because of our fair city’s growth, and two Wisconsin natives told me they were such fans of Dale Watson that they were planning a motorcycle trip to Austin to see him play his home turf.
I ran into “Moose” and “Acorn” from San Marcos’ Rock Bottom String Band and met a musician who’d come to Austin to record his demo using the drummer of local band Power Chief. One kind stranger was spotted wearing a shirt of defunct Austin outfit the Weary Boys, who he’d only recently discovered. The Goddamn Gallows performed an evil, distorted version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Around to Die,” while, coincidentally, a guy in the audience who looked, and probably smelled, exactly like Blaze Foley, looked on.
Seizing the opportunity of a cancelled appearance by Shooter Jennings, Black Eyed Vermillion earned a prime-time slot on Sunday night and played a set so bloody it’ll go down as one of the weekend’s most memorable performances. For me, there was little time to celebrate. I bid adieu to old friends, new friends, and the unrelenting swarm of mosquitoes and hauled myself back to Madison to catch an early morning flight to Austin.