When I think about how I misjudged last year’s Santa Cruz American Music Festival, formerly the Blues Festival, I have to laugh.
I was one of the people who was dreading Sunday’s show, which skewed country rather than blues. I figured I’d give it a try and leave early if I hated it.
But it turned out that Sunday featured my two highlights of the weekend: Kellie Pickler and Ryan Bingham. I wrote off Pickler, an American Idol alum, figuring she would be too commercial for me to stand. To my shock, she was one hell of a soulful and rocking singer, who brought to mind Janis Joplin. Mind blown.
Bingham was a singer/songwriter who reminded me of John Hiatt, Ryan Adams or the Band. Despite the fact that he was on the “country day,” he could have played the blues day and fit right in.
That’s what festival booker Phil Lewis is striving for. Most people, he says, have broad tastes that include all sorts of influences. So does the current crop of country musicians, some of whom fall into subgenres like “bro country”—which includes influences of electronica, hard rock and hip-hop—and “red dirt country,” which is sort of indie outlaw music.
The festival changed from strictly blues last year and Lewis sees the future as a three-year plan, figuring the country day will be as popular as the blues day in years to come. Last year, it wasn’t, and he heard a lot of complaints from Santa Cruzans who had attended the Blues Festival over its 21-year run.
“We’re trying to appeal to a wider audience,” says Lewis, who was one of the Blues Festival’s founders. “We’re doing it in a segmented way. We want to pay homage to the blues heritage with a straight blues day, like we’ve done for 23 years. But we want to stretch out.”
He’s counting on word of mouth to boost the country day and figures it might take three years to catch on the way the blues festival did. Last year they padded the day with Los Lonely Boys, an act that would appeal more to blues fans. This year, it’s all modern country—but not the slick kind.
Headliner Josh Turner has one of those deep baritone voices that sounds like it should never be able to make commercial hits—but it does. He’s got a voice that resembles another unlikely baritone, Johnny Cash, and is joined on his songs by the likes of Ralph Stanley and Dolly Parton. It’s new country with old cred.
“When I grew up as a cowboy, I listened to Waylon and Willie and Merle Haggard,” says Lewis. “But then, after Garth Brooks turned things toward pop, I dropped out.”
But Lewis has come back, because the new country goes back to authentic roots. And, he says, it appeals to fans in their 20s and 30s.
“To me, when I listen to music, there’s a certain sound that just clicks. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you can hear when music is genuine and when it’s not,” says Lewis. “That’s how we choose the music for the festival. It has to ring true.”
Buddy Guy: Current King of the blues. Need we say more?
Trombone Shorty: The New Orleans’ trombonist’s fourth appearance at the festival. He started as an unknown opener and is now an international celebrity.
Robert Randolph: Gospel meets pedal steel. Music is a religion and Randolph’s sinuous slides lift you skyward.
Indigenous: These Native American blues players sound like they are from the tribe of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Carolyn Wonderland: This Texan’s third time at the festival. She plays like Bonnie Raitt, sings like Janis and is a downhome star.
Josh Turner: The fact that this God-inspired scrapple-voiced baritone from South Carolina is a star brings hope to the modern country scene. He sounds too pure to be commercial, but he’s selling without selling out.
David Nail: This Missourian’s vocals have that twang, but the music behind them borders on indie rock with some Bob Seger or Springsteen thrown in.
Granger Smith with Earl Dibbles, Jr: This Texan channels indie rock hooks for really catchy tunes. Dibbles adds some heavier metal, sort of like Kid Rock meets AC/DC.
Canaan Smith: Though he’s probably best-known for appearing on The Amazing Race, his second single “Love You Like That” is a better sampling of this Nashville singer-songwriter’s talent.
Brodie Stewart: Country meets Aerosmith. This dude rocks. He’s from the Bay Area and Sacramento (say what?) but spent summers in Red Bluff. Had to get that country somewhere. Don’t miss him.
Leaving Austin: They aren’t Texans. Austin Machado and his outfit are more countrified Californians hailing from Visalia. They look like a tattooed punk rock ensemble, but play fresh partying new country.
INFO: Santa Cruz Music Festival is Saturday and Sunday, May 28 and 29. Adult tickets are $65/general, $100/gold circle for a one-day pass. More info at santacruzamericanmusicfestival.com.