Music lovers flock to Salem for Roots, Music and Mead Festival

By John Butters, The Mt. Pleasant News


SALEM ? For those who love the sound of traditional music, East Grove Farm provides a must-hear summer concert series.

Its latest offering, a Saturday night gig for folk musicians, brought a large, enthusiastic crowd to the 1837 farmstead. Located a few miles outside of Salem, the festival attracts dedicated artists eager to share their talent and love for the music created in the American heartland.

?It?s roots music,? said April Dirks of the Cedar County Cobras, who were making their first appearance at the festival.

She and fellow band member Tom Spielbauer came to the farm on the recommendation of their friends in the bands Flash In A Pan and Awful Purdies.

The farm offers the perfect backdrop for their bluegrass sound, she said, and the open air venue encourages a friendly intimacy between the musicians and the audience.

?This is the perfect Iowa festival. Everyone is friendly. Everyone is smiling,? said April.

She and her band mates play almost every weekend in Iowa City. Later in the month, the band is scheduled to play at Bunker Mill Bridge near Kalona.

?This festival gives us an opportunity to share our music with a different audience,? she said.

The Cobras are an example of the dedicated musicians creating new audiences for the raw, homespun harmonies of mountain and folk music.

Roots music embraces an eclectic style that includes influences from the early sounds of blues, country, folk, rhythm and blues, and rock.

The concert was organized by the East Grove Farm family of Kurt, Joel and Justin Garretson. All three play multiple instruments in the Whiskey Friends band.

Speaking for the family, Kurt said his father, Joel, always played guitar and harmonica, but he didn?t take up the banjo until he joined the Peace Corps.

?Since I didn?t have access to electricity, I thought I would learn to play an instrument,? Kurt said.

This is the third year of the folk music festival and the most successful of the three annual festivals the farm hosts. It?s a lot of work, but a labor of love.

?We all play music, so we wanted to get people out and about. We wanted to stage the type of music festivals that were popular 30 years ago,? he said. ?We wanted to bring this style of music back to southeast Iowa.?

A mead master, Kurt brews his East Grove Mead on the farm his family has owned since 1837, making it the oldest, continuously owned family farm in Iowa. The mead is available at grocery stores and selected drinking establishments.

Roots music is often identified with the traditional country harmonies of the Carter Family?s ?Wildwood Flower,? Bill Monroe?s blue grass standard ?Foggy Mountain Breakdown? or the Stanley Brothers ?Worried Man Blues.?

But country music has always adapted to change and regional influences: Think of Hank Williams Sr. and his ?Honky Tonk Blues,? and Bob Wills? Texas Swing favorite, ?San Antonio Rose.?

The American Song Book of country tunes now includes the disparate voices of Whispering Bill Anderson, Jim Reeves, Tammy Wynette and the beloved Patsy Cline.

Shannon Mercer of Mercer and Johnson, says the world of country music has evolved several times since he became a fan in the 1950s.

A one-time rocker, he has returned to the traditional county music he heard growing up in small-town Missouri.

?I remember when they said rock would destroy it when we got ?rock-a-billy.? Then they said Nashville would kill it with all that rhinestone flash. But it just adapts. Now we look back on Buck Owens and his Bakersfield sound and Don Rich and his cross-over style of guitar playing and view them as keepers of the tradition,? Mercer said. ?Of course, there will always be a place for the original folk music too. That will always be there.?

Mercer, who will show you his tattoo of Bill Monroe on request, said his influences include not only Monroe, but the Stanley Brothers, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

With a stage backed up against a barn, Nashville Flash would likely have been out of place Saturday night. Boots were optional and most of the attendees wore baseball, not cowboy-style hats. Many fans, like some of the performers, showed up barefoot.

The grounds just seemed better suited to the acoustic sounds of banjo, bass and guitar, and those who came were complimentary.

?It?s great. It?s really nice out here,? said Dave Camp of Mt. Pleasant. ?I?ve been coming for four or five years.?

Wayne Schwartz who lives nearby was equally enthusiastic.

?This is the best place to listen to the music,? he said.

To paraphrase an Alabama song: ?If you?re going to play in Iowa, you gotta have a fiddle in the band.?

A local favorite, Iowa City band Flash in A Pan delighted the crowd with its interplay of acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle.

After completing their set, the band closed out in typical country style.

?Thanks for coming. We enjoyed playing for you. We?ll probably see you again next year.?

And it?s a good bet that they will.