Just about every time I’ve eaten pizza with pineapples, I’ve wondered how such a combination was ever discovered. Who is the twisted genius who first thought that adding fruit to pizza would taste good at all? I’ve also wondered about who first discovered that peanut butter can remove chewing gum from hair.
I can’t be alone on this. I can’t understand the thought processes that led to these common practices and I probably can’t even explain how peanut butter removes chewing gum from hair. These things just work and I roll with it. In the same way, I don’t understand how an old barn loft in the middle of the Mississippi countryside became a hotspot for musicians from around the country to come and perform small shows filled with character. I don’t know how the idea came about or why it works. In the end, it’s not so important but sometimes these questions keep me up at night.
When a friend first told me about weekly concerts held at a Water Valley ranch called Fiddlin’ Rooster Farm, I knew I had to check it out. After a little research, I had a strong urge to see it for myself. I invited a friend to come along with me and we made the expedition through the dark Mississippi countryside. What I read about Fiddlin’ Rooster Farm’s from their Facebook page, it seemed like a rustic and casual barnyard get-together. I anticipated simply showing up, finding an empty spot on a hay-bale, and clapping along to a three-piece string band. After driving 20 minutes down a lonely road to a quiet farm outside of Water Valley, MS, I was surprised and somewhat perplexed to find a well-attended and organized barn-loft concert in progress. I didn’t understand most of the details of what was happening but I rolled with it. When I reached the top of the spiral stairs to the loft, someone took our jackets and directed us to two open folding chairs near the front of a well-staged show.
When I say well-attended, I don’t mean that people were packed shoulder to shoulder or even that we had trouble finding open seats. There were enough people to organize a good game of basketball which still well-exceeded the barn’s normal capacity of two horses. We took our seats as local musicians Greg Johnson and Shaundi Wall played an Irish folk song I didn’t recognize. Tall and skeleton-like, Greg loomed over Shaundi who sat playing an animal-skin drum. His long straight hair pulled neatly behind his hears somehow made him look even skinnier. Behind them on the stage were several instruments propped up waiting for the next performers. Well-placed stage lighting and the rustic backdrop cast a refined and almost church-like mood over the performance. I almost felt guilty for thinking I would get to clap along. The audience watched in motionless silence. I had not expected anything like what I just walked into so I sat quietly hoping that I would absorb some of the barn-concert etiquette.
In between each Irish classic that everyone seemed to be familiar with except for me, Greg and Shaundi would give background info on each song. One of the songs they played was a cautionary lullaby used by mothers to warn their kids about the gory consequences of not being obedient at bedtime. They spoke calmly and in low tones, sometimes chuckling to each other at their own witticisms. They finished out their tribute to Irish music after playing about eight songs on no fewer than five instruments.
After a short coffee and cookie break where I got to mingle with my fellow barnyard concert attendees, Daniel Lee Perea , a young rockabilly singer/songwriter from Tupelo, took to the stage. Daniel played a nice mixture of classic rockabilly tunes and his own original music. He wore thick rimmed glasses reminiscent of Buddy Holly and goofy gelled-back hair à la Elvis Presley. His self deprecating jokes about his guitar skills went over well with all of us in the audience. Eventually, he received some enthusiastic crowd participation.
After another break, more coffee, and more new friendships, everyone settled down to hear the locally legendary trio, The Okratones, reunite for the first time in a few months. The Okratones gathered a following in North Mississippi over the last few years and it’s not hard to understand their appeal. They play their instruments well, they have clean harmony, and most of their songs are relatable in a humorous way. Because they all have musical careers outside of The Okratones and young families on top of that, I’m told they don’t get to play shows together very often. They weren’t unprepared, but was obvious to everyone that they had not practiced together before the performance. Often someone wouldn’t remember the chord progression or lyrics to a song so one of the members who remembered, would quickly summarize it for them. Apart from a couple false starts to jog memories, the performance sounded flawless. After their set ended, the audience still wanted to hear more. They coerced The Okratones into playing two more songs before the night ended.
Because Fiddler’s Loft is a family-friendly event, The Okratones wrapped up the night at ten and parents started gathering their kids to take them home. The couple behind Fiddlin’ Rooster Farm, Doug and Rhonda Webb, waited at the entrance to wish everyone a goodnight as they left. Musically inclined themselves, Doug and Rhonda will often perform at these loft events by joining other acts or playing solo. I left feeling teased and determined to come back and see the Webbs play.
While driving back to Oxford through miles of dark country roads, I tried to fit together everything I knew about that night. I was impressed by how many Mississippian artists knew about Fiddlin’ Rooster and Doug and Rhonda Webb’s events. I had a lot of questions interrupting eachother in my head. Are barn loft concerts commonplace in rural America? Is there an underground Irish folk scene in Water Valley? I still don’t understand most of the details of the unique music scene Water Valley has going. I probably won’t look like I fit in next time I attend Fiddler’s Loft but I’m going to try my damnedest to roll with it.