KILKENNY is gearing up for the 15th Smithwick’s Rhythm and Roots music festival this May bank holiday weekend.
The boutique festival, which started in 1998, features Americana, country, blues, bluegrass and folk, and is one of Europe’s premier assemblies of North American roots music.
It’s now a badge of honour for established acts to brag about cutting their teeth at Kilkenny.
The festival’s director and founder, John Cleverer, says its ethos has remained the same since its foundation. “Over the years, we’ve mixed long-established roots acts such as Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Buddy Miller and Alejandro Escovedo with up-and-coming performers, many of them making their first visit to Ireland. Calexico, Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne were all given their first Irish gigs at Kilkenny roots festival. This year, we signed Alabama Shakes before anyone else had heard of them. We have a very tight budget but we work hard to deliver a quality event.”
Aside from Alabama Shakes, whose debut EP and first album, Boys and Girls, propelled them swiftly to prominence, this year’s event highlights the talents of acts such as Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, Willy Vlautin, Hiss Golden Messenger, Israel Nash Gripka, Amanda Shires, Richard Buckner and ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird, among others.
Willy Vlautin has performed in Kilkenny before, fronting his acclaimed band Richmond Fontaine, but this year he will appear in an acoustic duo with Dan Eccles.
Vlautin says of his first appearance at the festival. “It was our first trip to Ireland and Kilkenny was our first Irish gig. We were very nervous. It turned out to be one of the best weeks I’ve had, playing music. There were great bands everywhere. I met so many nice people, and best of all, they seemed to like us. It was a huge relief. We were lucky enough to play in Ireland and no one threw bottles at us.”
Vlautin, who is also an acclaimed novelist — his first book, The Motel Life, has been adapted for a movie release this year — says that the roots gathering is unique. “The thing I like about Kilkenny is that it’s small enough that you can see everything you want to see. You’re not overrun by the masses. But it’s big enough that you get to see a wide array of music. And the best thing is you can see a great band in a small venue, and as a fan, that’s always the best.”
Though compact, and somewhat unheralded outside of the hardcore roots brigade, the Kilkenny festival is a money-spinner for the city. “The festival gives a great early-season boost to tourism in the area. Pubs, hotels and restaurants all do well over the four days,” says Mr Cleere.
Mr Cleere says much hard work and deliberation goes into gathering a quality line-up. Bringing Alabama Shakes to Kilkenny this year is a coup. “I first came across them early last summer,” he says. “I remember discussing them with Enda McEvoy, better known as a GAA reporter. They were just known as The Shakes, at the time. It took about six months to tie the gig down. The main concern was that they might get too big for Kilkenny Roots, but we caught them just in time. It’s going to be one of those memorable nights.”
Another exciting act on this year’s bill is west Texas fiddler and singer/songwriter Amanda Shires. A chance encounter with the young woman’s inimitable sound set Mr Cleere on a quest to bring her to Kilkenny. “I heard a track called When You Need A Train It Never Comes on radio one night, and immediately started a Google search to find out who the singer was. It was a young Texan called Amanda Shires. She’s a great songwriter and a brilliant fiddler, also, appearing on albums by Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell and Todd Snider, recently. I think she is going to be one of the surprise hits of the festival,” he says.
Shires got a green-and-orange pawnshop fiddle when she was ten. Six years later, she was playing with The Texas Playboys, the backing band for Bob Wills, the father of Texas swing.
Three solo albums, as well as a duet record with Rod Picott, have emerged in recent times. Her current release, Carrying Lightning, has increased her profile, and one of its tracks got included in the American songwriters’ top 50 songs of 2011. Shires is in good company on that list, alongside the likes of Tom Waits, Adele, Wilco and Gillian Welch.
The Lubbock, Texas native says that her home has had a big bearing on her music. “When I was ten, I got a fiddle and started to check out Bob Wills’s music. But the musical heritage of where I came from has had a lot to do with Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Roy Orbison. They were all obvious influences,” she says.
From early on, Shires was part of a kids’ western swing band. “I started learning from Texas Playboys records and there were two others, besides me, who were learning old fiddle songs from the aural tradition. So we’d just go on the porch and learn songs by ear and then we’d go play them at heritage days — they’re like western re-enactments. It was good for me, because there were other kids my age doing the same thing and I learned how to play on stage,” Shires says.
What was it like to play with The Texas Playboys at such a tender age? “Well, you know I was so young then that I didn’t quite understand,” says Shires. “All I knew was that there were these guys who were so much part of the music that I fell in love with. I was hanging around six grandpas, so at the end of the day, at mealtime, I had six desserts. That was fun.”
Shires has developed into a fine songwriter, as evidenced by her solo output. “I’ve been writing songs since I was kid,” she says. “I remember when I was a side musician and I played a couple of my songs for Billy Joe Shaver. He told me I was a good writer and I should keep writing songs. He also told me that there was no real loyalty in just playing fiddle for other people and so it made me think about it more. You know, fiddle can go out of style next week. Somebody might want more banjo, or whatever, next year and I’d be out of work. It turned me in a different direction.”
Shires will play three gigs at the festival. But whether it’s her brand of western swing, the soul-dripping southern rock sound of Alabama Shakes, the rockabilly delights of Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, or Willy Vlautin’s gritty songs of the dispossessed, Kilkenny roots has much to choose from. With 20 ticketed shows and 60 free gigs, the choice is endless.