Historic events have often been framed between the iconic peaks of the twin spires. Secretariat’s record breaking run for the roses, Smarty Jones’s muddy brilliance and Barbaro’s courageous and decisive close all happened here. Churchill Downs is a spectacle of huge hats, plastic celebrities and mint juleps. It’s where Kentucky’s collective heartbeat is calibrated to the rhythm of horse hooves, and where individual blood pressures fluctuate like the temperature of Bourbon barrels. But pluck this place up by its roots, and you’ll find bluegrass, and that’s why hosting a major music festival at Louisville’s most famous landmark is such a great bet. 3 days, 5 stages, 65 bands, 95-degree July heat, 100,000 people… welcome to HullabaLOU!
Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews Band all have diehard fans that show up in droves wearing t-shirts to show off their allegiance wherever they play. The headliners did not disappoint. They never do. But this festival’s undercard delivered an Ali-style knockout punch – an incredible blend of genre and era. Some of the greatest musicians on this earth like Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush and Taj Mahal ushered HullabaLOU into a credible existence. For nostalgia’s sake Steve Miller Band did some midnight toking, Steppenwolf brought its magic carpet and War got funky – low rider style. The Doobie Brothers rolled into town on Friday. Michael McDonald played Saturday. They stayed at separate hotels on the opposite sides of town. Country music’s old and new, however, got along just fine, thank you. Gloriana harmonized gloriously while Dwight Yoakam’s cowboy drawl was as classic as the Cadillacs he’s immortalized. Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley and Jason Aldean kicked the shit out of their sets, while the matriarch of the industry, Loretta Lynn, showed us all how a real southern lady can be classy and tough at the same time. Joan Osborne still hasn’t figured out what it would be like if God was one of us, so she’s still singing about it. Gov’t Mule showed us how brightly a soul can shine, and then Kansas blew our dusty mortality away in the wind. The festival had an entire stage dedicated to bluegrass music where The Tillers, Whiskey Bent Valley Boys and The Travelin’ McCourys stood up a bass, picked the banjo and sang about tough times, family values and hard work. HullabaLOU also delivered the two best performances I have ever seen in my life by industry trailblazers Gladys Knight and Al Green. Enjoy the journey…
A few puffy clouds dotted the sky on Friday but they were just decorations. The only protection from the scorching mid-afternoon sun was a few strategically placed cooling stations complete with fans and mist. But with so many acts to see, there was no time for a temperature adjustment. Instead, humidity stuck to our clothes like an O.P.P. sticker and gobs of Gold Bond were forced to work overtime. My brother, Matt, lives in Louisville, and both of us share the same motto: “Anything for music.” We’ve each been to The Derby, so as we set out on this adventure together, the lay of this prestigious land was pretty familiar. Unlike the horse racing, though, the infield tunnels were unclogged, there was no waiting for drinks and bathroom breaks lasted only as long as your stream. Of course, the vernacular had changed, too. Instead of studying for a trifecta box, people had other News on their minds… the Huey Lewis kind. Our mom told us to hydrate often, and the debate over whether it’s hip to be square ended at 3:00 with our first encounter with a beer tent.
After emptying a Bud Light or two into our bellies we made our way to the far end of the venue and the Fleur De Lis Stage. We thought we were about to dance into September with Earth, Wind & Fire, but when white dudes our dad’s age stepped on stage, I turned to my brother and said, “I thought they were black.”
“Me too,” he said with a shrug.
I pulled out the program again and realized our first mistake. “It’s Blood, Sweat & Tears, bro,” I said.
We laughed as the horn section scatted away. They wound up grooving us good before we headed back to the Paddock and the Bluegrass Stage.
That’s where The Whiskey Bent Valley Boys took us way back yonder into the backwoods of Pewee Valley, Kentucky, and the place they call home. Known for performing at any street corner, country fair, flea market… you-name-it, these boys brought their fierce pickin’, swamp stompin’, harmonic blend to one of their biggest stages yet. Mason Dixon is the group’s leader playing a unique style of claw hammer, three-finger banjo, guitar and harmonica. JR blasts the barnyard fiddle while Johnny Whippermule mauls the mandolin and gets saucy with the spoons. Leroy Jones on stand-up bass is the youngest member. At 18, he can’t be in the bar alone. So legend has it that if the guys step outside for a breather, he must follow… and be burped. At Churchill, The Whiskey Bent Valley Boys and their weird beards sang about stories, traditions and liquor that date back a century. The band whipped the crowd into a frenzy and stirred some stomachs, too, with a new song called “Cornbread and Beans.”
With a staler wind moving in, we grabbed another beer and headed to the Budweiser Stage to watch one of country’s hottest bands, Gloriana. They showered the people with pretty, opening their set with “How Far Do You Wanna Go?” And judging by the number of tongues hanging out, I’d say most of the crowd would answer the question with, “All the way.” Or they could have just been melting in the heat. Either way, the four-part harmony between brothers Tom and Mike Gossin, Rachel Reinert and Cheyenne Kimball is like sweet tea on a porch or bubble gum on a bike. The members take turns singing lead and smile a whole lot. Gloriana is not a Nashville root, rather a 2010 hybrid flower. Despite a mandolin in the band, it’s country gone pop and that’s just “The Way it Goes.”
The nostalgia train drove my bro and me to the Kroger Stage to see seven-time Grammy winner Gladys Knight. The legend has recorded nearly 40 albums in her career, and has more than earned her anointed name. As fans of music, we knew a ticket stub to a Gladys show would be a life highlight. There was concern, however, that perhaps her pipes would be more peep than Pip, but Gladys Knight absolutely still has it going on. She baptized us with her divine voice, delivering songs like “Best Thing to Ever Happen to Me” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” from some place deeper than a soul. Dressed in all white, Knight looked as majestic as her music. She even brought a buttoned-up Pip (her brother, Merald), and together, they cut up the stage, dancing as though it was 1970. To close out her set, Gladys Knight heaved heavenly coal into that “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and took us all to a better place.
The beauty of festivals like HullabaLOU is that if you are diligent and committed you can see a shitload of music. The downside – acts are overlapped on various stages in order to spread out the crowd. It forces you to do some strategic planning before and during the event. The O’Jays, 38 Special and Train were all casualties on our schedule war. I saw The B-52s at the Austin City Limits Festival and didn’t need that pastiness of lobster rock again, so we missed them, too. Dan Tyminski was a must, however, so we hustled back over to the Bluegrass Stage where the legendary singer/songwriter/instrumentalist was playing with The Travelin’ McCourys. Tyminski is best known for his soggy-bottomed version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and for his work with Alison Krauss and Union Station. He began mastering the guitar and mandolin at the tender age of six, and Tyminski’s talents have earned him ten Grammys. As he strummed all things string at Churchill and belted out bluegrass with the McCourys, I slapped my knees wishing I owned a pair of ripped overalls. Thanks to Dan, I dropped the “g” on all “ing” words for the rest of the evening.
Lucky for me, the next act opened with her hit song “Fallin’ For You.” Her name: Colbie Caillat. My wife loves her, so don’t hate. Plus I was blessed to interview Jason Mraz last year and write a feature article in Artworks Magazine. They are duet partners, and he speaks very highly of her. Don’t hate. Okay. I like her, too. She’s kinda’ like the Taylor Swift of pop music… on the radio all the time, but ultimately too talented to bitch about too much. Armed with an acoustic guitar, a dusky lounge singer’s voice and a sexy/sweet surfer image, Caillat keeps churnin’ out hits. Most of them are optimistic, hopeful songs, but as she sang the ode to missin’ someone, “I Never Told You,” I have to admit that my eyes got a bit misty. Then, my brother beat me up, and made me leave.
Time for some manly shit. Dierks Bentley. Plaid and denim. Ploughs and dirt. Pluckin’ and drinkin’. Wish I had my Dale Earnhardt Jr. jacket because the booze had my feet shreddin’ like fully inflated NASCAR tires. I “Feel That Fire,” and as I embarrassed myself by fallin’ out of line with my lack of dancin’ skills, I asked internally, “What Was I Thinkin’?” My answer was and always will be, “Sorry for partyin’!” Bentley’s new album, Up on the Ridge, is a U-turn from his base. It showcases his musical diversity with Kentucky bluegrass sproutin’ all over it, including a cover of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” with Del McCoury. On this evenin’, Bentley raced back and forth across the HullabaLOU Main Stage pleadin’ for fans to “Come a Little Closer.” When he sang the lyrics, “I feel like layin’ you down,” every woman thought the pronoun belonged to them. But the man’s married, so continue your “Long Trip Alone.” The highlight of the set was an incredible rendition of Cream’s “Crossroads” with southern icon Sam Bush. Bentley bowed from lack of worthiness as Bush blasted his guitar through any and all intersections. You could move the decimal point on $1.29 anywhere you want. That’s how much I’d pay for the download of that live track on iTunes.
After Dierks was done, there was a forty-minute intermission before the headliner. It was the first time Matt and I could rest, but instead of kickin’ up our barkin’ dogs, we high-tailed it to the beer tent. At some point I called my parents to tell them about the great time we were havin’. My dad wasted no time making the followin’ command, “Let me talk to Matt!” He then proceeded to tell my brother, “Get him some water. This is not what your mother meant by hydration.” Sorry for partyin’, ma and pa.
The familiar licks from Richie Sambora’s guitar ushered in the sunset, and Jon’s vocals (minus an octave) welcomed the moonlight. The band sure did pack the place with obscure t-shirts from the eighties and an awkward audience of white people from all generations. Bon Jovi wouldn’t let the media photograph them. They were the only ones with such restrictions all day. Well, so sorry plastic wrinkle factory – when there’s a will…
I make fun because the festival is payin’ these guys a ton of money, and while they may not need the promotion, the event does. So loosen up the leather pants a bit. Pushing the soapbox aside, Bon Jovi brought the house down. The perfect closers! From the cap tip to Frankie’s blue eyes in “It’s My Life” to the still slippery “You Give Love a Bad Name” and the interestingly pleasin’ taste of “Bad Medicine” – the catalog of so-solids produced shrieks and cheers that parted the sky allowin’ vats of hair spray to rain down and perfectly plaster the curly bangs risin’ from the heads of the Tommys and Ginas all around me. My bro and I cut that antique rug to shreds, provin’ that you’re never to old to live on a prayer.
The sun was shinning bright outside for Day Two, but in my head things started off a bit foggy. My phone was missing, so were parts of my memory. (I did get my “g’s” back, though). With a sorry for partying shrug I broke free from the cobwebs. We retraced our steps from the cab to the night capper bar to another cab to my brother’s house. Crickets. No phone. No care. Then, out of nowhere, in the front lawn in the 95-degree heat, Matt found it. The Verizon LG was on fire to the touch and giving off a heat sensory warning. But it was back in my pocket and on drunk-dial restriction for the rest of the weekend.
Bluegrass and a Bud Light got things started on Saturday at Churchill Downs. The hardest working band in the biz, by name and by virtue, harmonized in the heat on a shared microphone. The Tillers used to play on Ludlow Street in Cincinnati, and people would walk by and chuck dimes at them with all their might. The group has certainly come a long way, and I’m happy to report that they are now welt free. Mike Oberst, Sean Geil and Aaron Geil are actually recovering punk rockers now playing songs that are older than their grandparents. Woody Guthrie and Carter Family classics made their way into a set of amped up southern blues and Appalachian woods style originals. Last year, Tom Brokaw featured The Tillers in a documentary about US Route 50. The former NBC anchor compared the band’s road taken to the actual road itself, saying they’ve both seen their share of hardship and history, yet still keep pressing forward. A busy God would stop and listen to the music they play before heading off to save the world.
Over at the Budweiser Stage, Ben Folds was at war with War. His geeky glasses and solo piano ensemble was no match for the bumping bass of the 70’s rockers getting down a stage away. His eager fans didn’t mind, though, because they know no one tickles the ivory quite like Ben. It’s a clever, naughty sound that is unmistakably his, and he got it going right out of the gate. “The Bitch went nuts,” he shouted. “She stabbed my basketball, and the speakers to my stereo.” What followed was a sing-a-long of swear words that would mortify any mother. The lyrics are as silly as his sideburns, but from front row to far back, everyone seemed to know them all. Folds sat, then stood, the sat again, springing from his stool like a drugged up jack-in-the-box. When he pounded the first few keys to “Annie Waits,” a wry smile crept onto his face. The crowd cheered like it’s supposed to, but in this case, it was also keenly aware of this man’s brilliance. However, as each song ended Folds commented on the booming from the Fleur De Lis Stage. My brother and I agreed that this probably wasn’t the right setting for Ben and his piano… so if you can’t win the war – join ‘em.
We caught the band right in the middle of a jam session. The smell of a certain herb hovered in the air above us, leaving us a bit dazed and confused. And then, on cue, the “Kumbayah” moment of the festival occurred as War grooved into “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” Marijuana may have affected crowd participation a bit, but by in large people seemed to be in a pretty good place. Their closing version of “Low Rider” lasted ten minutes… I think.
I texted my very jealous father-in-law to let him know we were walking to the HullabaLOU Main Stage to see Sara Evans next. He replied: “Tell Sara I love her.” It was a request I was happy to oblige, but then I watched her perform, and his needs seemed to slip my mind. Her “Dancing With the Stars” legs worked the stage like a Fashion Week runway. Evans crooned country somewhere between Tanya Tucker and Carrie Underwood – a gift that attracts both young and old fans. (Not to infer anything about my father-in-law.) Her songs are so relatable, especially “Suds in a Bucket.” I’d walk out on laundry any day for love. Evans compelling delivery is the crutch that makes it okay for a good girl to walk on the wild side for once. Sara’s personal journey took a sad U-turn over the last year or so, but she’s found redemption through music. Evans debuted her new single, “A Little Bit Stronger,” at Churchill Downs. Like a thoroughbred closing in on the finish line, the song oozes perseverance and promises richness on the backside of pain. Her hip-shaking cover of Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds,” suggested a wiser Sara has emerged, too.
Songs are often spiritual to me, and music has served as my religion on many occasions, but I have seen nothing… NOTHING more divine on this earthly stage than The Reverend. Dressed in a tuxedo with a bright red vest and tie, Al Green electrified the audience with a style and grace that had us begging for mercy. Green’s beaming smile and exalting comfort resulted in the most fruitful offering from a crowd of thousands I’d ever witnessed. With hands raised and hearts beating out of our chests, the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer showered us with salvation. “I bet there are people out there wondering if I still got it,” he said with a sweat soaked brow. A smirk shifted to a heavenly howl as he hit that signature note in his upper register. Green then jumped and swiveled in unison with dancers half his age, taking us all on a journey to the kingdom of cool. He hammered home the message of true love in a stirring rendition of “Let’s Stay Together”… “Loving you whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.” And “I’m Still in Love With You” served as a sermon from a soul that’s FELT enough to know what’s right. Green baptized us in some of the industry’s most coveted treasures, from a Motown medley of Four Tops and Temptations classics to a funky version of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” and a brilliant cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” He threw red roses to the ladies as he sang “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)”… “I can’t believe that it’s real, the way that you make me feel. A burning deep down inside; a love that I cannot hide.” Some openly wept on “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” It was as though Romeo himself was on stage delivering a helpless soliloquy about lost love. But the potion served up by The Reverend included the healing power of “Love and Happiness.” Green closed his set to the organ, horn, bass and funk infused jam. It was a benediction like no other that left witnesses with no doubts. A new harmony pillowed our bones, and the temperature of our life experience upped a few degrees thanks this musical preacher man.
In a complete daze my brother and I walked back towards the Budweiser Stage to catch the end of the Gov’t Mule set. We couldn’t pass up the chance to see the legendary singer/guitarist Warren Haynes. The long blonde curly haired front man spent much of the 1990’s with the Allman Brothers where he wrote the pure and timeless song “Soulshine.” Luck again followed us on our trek through Churchill Down’s infield. Just as we arrived, Gov’t Mule began the chords to their finale. Extra gravel reverberated in Haynes voice as he gutted out the inspiring song about living inside out. “Soulshine… it’s better than sunshine. It’s better than moonshine. Damn sure better than rain.” AMEN!
The day two headliner also had the “no photography” stipulation, which was just fine by me. Every time I see Kenny Chesney’s sleeveless t-shirt ensemble I can’t help but think about the Axe deodorant commercials. My concern about being in the photo pit was that I’d get sprayed like a skunk with buckets of his armpit juice. So Matt and I decided to get far, far away from that sweaty scenario. Instead of hobnobbing with the humid mass of humanity below, we spent the Chesney set on Millionaires Row on the 6th floor of Churchill Downs. This is where the richy rich watch The Derby in their slick suits and expensive hats. HullabaLOU used the space as a media center, and on this night, Matt and I had the balcony all to ourselves. We bought a beer, lit a cigar and watched a beautiful sunset. Chesney sang about beach balls, bare feet and kegs in a closet… a little Jimmy Buffett mixed with Tennessee fraternity life. He told stories about growing up, the love he has for his millions of adoring fans and spending two decades on the road. Like Alan Jackson, Chesney is a singer of simple songs that simply resonate with people. They are not epics of literature, and you won’t find them in scholarly journals. But they are thesis statements on the interpretation of feeling. Life is full of trials and tribulations; it is also full of joy and memorable moments. Chesney’s pen found the perfect way to punctuate them all with either a hug or a hallelujah. That’s why tens of thousands of people pack every venue he plays, and why my brother and I left the venue that night with an urge to play football, ride a sexy tractor and have a few more beers.
We began with the latter task and a cab ride to Main Street. An old college friend of mine picked up the guitar a couple years ago and had begun writing his own songs. He had a late night gig at Bearno’s By the Bridge, and I had to check it out. The man’s name is Petar Mandic. When I first met him, I was a senior at the University of Iowa and captain of the men’s tennis team. Petar was a freshman straight off the boat from Serbia. It was day one of “optional” fall practice, and he was the first one there. I was second. So we started smacking the ball around. It became clear in short order that he’d spent his summer perfecting his crosscourt/down-the-lines, while I’d spent my three months off playing anything but tennis. For ten minutes he hit pinpoint lasers, while I sprayed the ball into all things out. Calmly, Petar called me up to the net and said with limited English skills, “Excuse me. Can you tell me when the good players get here?”
Now you’d think that that would piss an upperclassman off. But my reaction was actually the exact opposite. I was playing terribly, and we should all be that honest in life. So I laughed, and Petar became my buddy. So here we were, more than ten years later watching this guy who escaped a war torn country, and not only learned the language and culture, but also learned how to play guitar and developed the guts to sing in front of a bar full of people. I was so proud of Petar as he crooned Jason Mraz and Dave Matthews covers. Truly amazing how far this guy has come. My brother and I watched Petar’s whole set before heading across the street to the famed Stevie Ray’s and one more band before bed.
Day three began with the most versatile performer of the weekend – a man born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in Harlem, the son of a gospel singer and West Indian jazz arranger and piano player. After 50 years in the business and two Grammys, Taj Mahal is as respected as it gets. He’s a blues guy that’s fused Caribbean, African and South Pacific sounds into his music to create a style that’s 100% his own. “Hello Louuuville,” he enunciated. “Ya’all say it like ya’ got hot peas in ur mouth.” Taj surveyed the sweaty afternoon crowd. “This is the first generation of grandmas wearing tight jeans and miniskirts,” he said, and then proceeded to ask everyone to shake their hips, especially those with “critical mass in the backyard.” Mahal made his guitar weep to the blues before plucking the old-school country out of his banjo. He also did a couple ditties on keyboards and raised some cane on the harmonica while mesmerizing us with his deep, powerful pipes. “I’m checking up on my baby, ‘cause you know she’s checking up on me,” he sang. Taj also got booties shakin’ to classics like “Corrina” and “Queen Bee,” before leading the audience in an incredible scat-a-thon of “Hey, hey, the blue’s is all right.” It’s more than all right, thanks to performances like that.
My brother’s girlfriend, Jen, joined us on this final day. A lifelong Kentuckian she told quite a story about our next act. Apparently, The Black Crowes memories of Louisville are far from fond. Several years ago, they were arrested onstage after just one song for smoking weed. They vowed never to come back. But here they were at HullabaLOU 2010, a stop on what’s being billed as their farewell tour. While brothers Robinson appear to be getting along these days, it seems that after 20 years together, the time to move on has come. The Crowes goodbye drew the largest undercard audience of the weekend. Thousands of fans packed the Kroger Stage. Most were not wearing shirts, those that were sucked in their Black Crowes gear. The stage, meantime, was wearing all sorts of crazy shit… incense burning out of apples on either side, a peace flag, a California bear flag, Indian feathers, and a perfectly centered Captain America toy on an amp. Chris Robinson strolled on stage with the smell of weed wafting in the gentle wind. He flashed a peace sign before carefully removing his shoes. They all performed on Oriental rugs that had been laid out strategically on the stage. The Crowes set featured a mix of classics like “Jealous Again,” “Hard to Handle” and “Twice As Hard,” while mixing in some more obscure tracks. A heavily bearded and beaded, Jesus-looking, crystal wearing, tattooed Chris Robinson danced like a slowly taxiing airplane with arms out and wrists free. The crowd did the roaring, while The Crowes engine redefined the word “chill.”
From one set of musical brothers to another, my next stop was the Main HullabaLOU stage and The Avett Brothers. Scott and Seth have shot to the top of the industry with the help of producer Rick Rubin who signed the band in 2008 to his label. Hard work has always served as their propeller. Before their major label debut, they’d released five full-length albums building a huge grassroots following behind their infectious stage shows. Their sound combines rootsy folk with country, bluegrass, rock and pop – often called “punkgrass.” The brothers harmonize while ripping the banjo and acoustic guitar respectively. They can also play keyboard, drums and anything with strings. To complete the brushstroke of Renaissance, these two also sketch and paint – check out their self made album art. From the lyrics to the instrumentation, the music of The Avett Brothers is so honest that it strolls through the speakers without any clothes, and it’s performed live with the intensity of marathon sex. The brothers, along with Bob Crawford on stand-up bass and cellist Joe Kwon delivered an impassioned set in Louisville that included the heartfelt ballad “I and Love and You.” Substance oozed from each song covering us all in appreciation.
Satisfied and full… it was time to see the queen! Loretta Lynn only does a few performances a year. Hell, the woman’s 76 years old. With a resume that includes 16 number one songs and a best-selling autobiography turned Academy Award Winning film, this was one “Coal Miner’s Daughter” that I had to see. She grew up in Butcher Holler, Kentucky – a few skips and a jump from Churchill Downs. The woman was married when she was 13 and had four kids by the time she turned 19 – six in all. Loretta and her moonshine running husband spent 50 rocky years together before he passed. Besides the children, the greatest gift he gave her was a guitar for her 24th birthday. Loretta taught herself how to play, and her hard life was a wet towel of songs just waiting to be rung out. Knowing her family first history, it seemed fitting that her twin daughters, The Lynns, opened Loretta’s set. Then, as this matriarch of country music took the stage, an Elizabethan reception followed from an adoring audience. Dressed head to toe southern belle proper, Lynn showed us all what it was like to be sassy and sweet at the same time. “It’s hotter than a firecracker,” she quipped. After braving the heat on her feet for a few songs, her band brought her a chair. “Don’t fuss over me,” she snapped playfully. Then, on second thought, she took that seat saying, “I sing just fine sitting down.” With legs crossed and impeccable posture, Lynn sang about love’s ups and downs, the value of hard work and being a honky tonk girl. Her twangy delivery was echoed by the slide of a steel guitar as she got our toes tapping to classics like “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and my favorite – “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” While the titles to the songs are what they are, the only title befitting Loretta Lynn is “Elegant.” She is in every way.
Up next… Zac Brown Band. These guys are easily becoming my favorite act. I’ve seen them in San Diego, Austin and now Louisville. Zac Brown is so hungry in everything that he does that he even released a cookbook this year. He’s spent more than fifteen years trying to get heard, and now he has a Grammy for “Best New Artist.” And that’s exactly what Brown and the boys bring to the stage every night – something new. Their sound blends Charlie Daniels fiddle with Highwaymen vocal angst. At Churchill Downs, Zac Brown Band put its toes in the water and ass in the sand playing popular cuts off The Foundation, but the guys also introduced new cuts off their upcoming album due out this fall. “This is my favorite song that I’ve ever written and been a part of,” Brown said before singing the vulnerable ballad “Colder Weather.” The song is about relationships, but much could be read into the title on this day. Wearing his trademark skullcap, blue jeans and lumberjack beard, Brown said, “It’s too hot for clothes up here.” While a naked rampage would have been interesting, Zac Brown Band instead scorched a fully-dressed “Devil Went Down to Georgia” cover, and they also opened the genre vault performing Bob Marley’s “One Love,” Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” and John Mayer’s “Neon” – co-written by the band’s own Clay Cook. ZBB made it clear that they’re not just going to keep pushing music’s envelope, they’re going to rip that son of a bitch to shreds.
Then, to close our inaugural HullabaLOU experience, we witnessed the 8th Wonder of the World – Dwight Yoakam’s jeans. It’s not the style or periwinkle shade that’s earned the title, rather the mind boggle of how his legs and junk can fit in ‘em. European models ain’t got nothin’ on this Los Angeles cowboy. Without knee bends he spun in circles and stomped his boots as though he were slowly crushing lit cigarettes. Like a true movie star, the perfectly perched brim of Yoakam’s hat shaded most of his face, directing a single stream of sunlight to his mouth – highlighting the importance of his words. Yoakam is Jen’s favorite, and we shuffled along with her as he sampled songs from a variety of his 21 albums. His authentic hillbilly sound had us sling-blading all over the grassy field. Throughout his set, Yoakam paid homage to country music in the same vein as Buck Owens and the woman who played before him. “It’s an honor and privilege to share a stage with Loretta Lynn,” he beamed. He also gave a tip of the hat to his Southeastern Kentucky, coalmining roots exclaiming, “You can’t come all the way to Churchill Downs without playing some bluegrass.” So Yoakam and the boys did just that, sending us home in a “Long, White Cadillac.” As the sun set on day three, my brother and I looked at each other, and without saying a word we both knew we should be arrested for having this much fun.
No doubt the horses will continue to run in Louisville, but Churchill Downs… please don’t stop the music. The spires have proved a worthy pulpit and HullabaLOU a glorious sanctuary of song.
Written by: Ben Bamsey