Today I found a little piece of notepad paper with the words “rainbows and sunshine in a tin can” written by a child’s hand and left on our desk. I found the phrase to be rather poetic. We had spent the morning cleaning out the dust and old wasp nests from our “tin can” travel trailer that we take to the Red Wing Roots Music Festival every year.
Nearly a decade ago, The Steel Wheels dreamt of an event that would bring together music lovers for a weekend in the Shenandoah Valley. We had been traveling to many festivals, including some which had 30 or 40 year long legacies of building community around traditional music. We longed to have some ownership in that kind of community, to create a place for our kids to grow up listening to and playing the kind of music we love. We found capable partners and started forming a vision for just such a place. From the very first year, Red Wing has felt like a coming home for our band. A gathering of family and friends. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Well, there’s a lot of that. But there’s also an incredible amount of hard work from many many people that put on the festival every year. And the crazy thing is, it worked. Our kids adore Red Wing. It was hands down Norah’s favorite weekend of the year. A time to ride bike with friends, eat burgers and ice cream, stay up too late, and fall asleep listening to the sound of laughter and music around the campfire (except usually it’s too hot for a fire, but that’s how I remember it).
Norah owned that campground for a weekend every year. From the time she was 4, it was a place where she also took ownership and pride. I remember those first couple years when she discovered that not everyone was allowed backstage, and she began sneaking drinks out of the green room for her friends. The campground was a place where she was allowed to come and go as she pleased, as long as she told an adult, and she relished her new found independence. She was crushed when we took her bike away one year after she stayed out past dark, ignoring our rules.
Starting in 2015, The Steel Wheels teamed up with some area violin teachers to form a string camp for kids. Norah was an inspiration for this program, as she was already taking violin lessons in the Suzuki program at Shenandoah Valley Prep Music. This year, as every year since it’s inception, I’ll be the host of Red Wing Academy. 118 kids will carry on that legacy of learning traditional tunes and Steel Wheels songs and performing at Red Wing alongside the band.
For me, Red Wing is exhilarating and exhausting. It has always been a great joy to play for the kindest of hometown crowds, and even more so to look down front and center and see two girls adorned with glow sticks and their treasured all access passes. There are so many friends and family members that travel in for the weekend that it feels like a big family reunion. When it’s all over it takes at least two days of zero human interaction for this introvert to recover from all the people time.
This year there will be a huge hole. These days I’m not sure how running into someone at the grocery store will feel, let alone running into 4000 people in a campground. Norah’s spirit will feel close, which is a good thing. We’re hoping that this event that always brought us joy will continue to nourish us in some way. It will be different now, as everything is.