When a melancholy fog consumes my attention, a memory of stages I’ve performed on is a nice antidote. Oh no, there’s no Shea Stadium, or Carnegie Hall on the list. I’m from Kingsport, Tennessee. Even though it’s unlikely either of these venues will wind up on my bucket list, J. Fred Johnson Stadium is good enough for me.

Last week, Folk Soul Revival invited me to play their opening set for Travis Tritt at Kingsport’s Fun Fest. Daniel Davis asked me about the gig on State Street in Bristol just before our set at 620 State Street a week or so earlier. It continues to amaze me these young musicians still invite the old man out to play, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my excitement to be back at this Summer festival.

It’s hard to believe the last time I played this stage was the very first Fun Fest back in 1981. My friend and later “Mad Man” and mentor Bill Robinson was music chairmen for the first year of this community festival. At the time, he was also the manager for our dance band – TenPenney. It was one crazy night and the biggest crowd I’d played for as a college student and somewhere out there, hides a beta-max tape of the performance.

But that’s not the only reason this year’s performance was so anticipated. I truly enjoy playing with this band of ‘Rowdy Roots’ players from Bristol, TN. They’re getting ready to release their third album, ‘Prompting the Dapperness’ and there’s a lot of pride in being on the same stage with these young troubadours.

Before the night was over, I saw first hand the difference between a humble act and a glorified country star.

Charles Fontaine always has a way of showing up when there’s confusion in the air. The folks backstage were calling him Mr. Fontaine on Friday as he helped me find my way to the stage to unpack my gear for the 4.00 sound check.

Our first conversation was about the weather. Each year, Fun Fest rolls the dice as humidity and heat spawn a daily monsoon – or so it seems. In fact the night before, the Jeremy Camp concert was moved indoors because of the threat of lightning.

The guys arrived in the Folk Soul van about 4.00 and we didn’t take long setting the stage. The sound crew was extremely helpful and this time, we had plenty of room. Tritt’s gear was already in place and since there were no other acts, were ready in no time.

We played through a few songs in the empty stadium, got the monitor mix dialed in just right and listened as Carla Karst sang the national anthem as the echoes of ‘Rockets Red Glare’ echoed across the mountains.

One of the most interesting moments about our preparation for the sound check was watching Daniel Davis talk about his guitars. I didn’t think much of until after the show and noting one of the Folk Soul fans photos.

One of the guitars Daniel was playing has a red-white and blue guitar strap. It was especially meaningful to me to find out later that the strap actually belonged to Allun Cormier – another deeply enduring part of the soul of this band.

Directly behind the stage, the Dobyns-Bennett field house served as our green room. What a treat that was – really!

The last time, we played Bluefield, our hospitality was a pocket of shade, so this time, we felt like entertainers. Steve LaHair and the folks with Chef’s Pizza were serving us barbecue, banana pudding and we had plenty of time to relax and get ready for the set.

One of my favorite moments was hanging out with the band minutes before the set as Daniel and his wife were playing with their one-year-old son. He’s a happy little boy who seems to wash over the pretense of a stage anxiety with a playful ‘higher-purpose.’ Dan Witt was on a stationary bike, Justin was crackin’ jokes about a ‘snake’ and DV and Brandon were staying close to their fiancees who were with us in the green room.

Just before we were to play the 6.30 set, the guys in the band paused out front of the field house to shoot photos with fans and sign autographs. They were particularly humbled by the interest of people sharing the moment with them and that’s certainly a contrast to the headliner – which I’ll return to in a moment.

The color guard were on stage introducing the Star Spangled Banner and Carla did a stellar job with the patriotic open. In a few moments, Justin Venable was on the mike and his familiar “Howdy Friends” introduced the band as we all performed ‘Derailed’ from the new album.

It was a great set and people seemed to enjoy the music. The toughest part about the J. Fred Johnson stage is the fact the stage faces due West, so a 6.30 sun in late July still packs a lot of heat. In fact, by the middle of the set, my eyes were closed because of the sweat behind my sunglasses, but that’s my own little secret.

Will Trotter was in the audience and as usual captures great footage of the Folk Soul set and we owe him a lot for capturing these moments. (His work is below from YouTube)

We wrapped up the hour–long set with a version of Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’ and one of my favorite Folk Soul original songs, “Sweet Virginia.” I think it means a lot to me because I get to work with Brandon Sturgill who plays the upright bass with a bow and I get to craft a special soundscape using orchestral samples – but this song always seems to please the congregation too.

As soon as our set was over, the gear was taken back stage and the guys in the band signed autographs and sold some merchandise out front.

I was amused by the stories Charles told about the T-Shirt vendor for Travis Tritt who insulted a fan who wanted a small t-shirt. I believe the comment went like this, “”Honey you can’t wear a small… your bosoms are too big.”

When things settled down a bit, we packed our gear into the van to watch Travis Tritt perform at Fun Fest.

I’ll have to admit that although his songs were good, his personality, or lack thereof, influenced my appreciation of the country star that seemed to be out of touch with his fans and for that matter his employers for the evening.

We were walking back behind the stage and watched Tritt leave his bus. We heard he refused to sign autographs earlier and was vocally underwhelmed with the hospitality room. I tried to snap a photo of him as he walked behind the stage, but his handlers and two camo-dressed security personnel waved me off limits – which was a first in a public place. I learned later that the last time Tritt played Kingsport, he required a private tunnel entrance to the stage – so perhaps he was a little more pleasant this time around.

I didn’t stay around too long. Their band was good, his songs were entertaining to the fans. I was a bit puzzled that the entertainer brought a recliner with the words ‘Travis Tritt’ etched into the head rest to perform out on stage. Despite the eccentricities the crowd of about 5,000 seemed to enjoy the show.

This year’s Fun Fest show was another memorable experience with Folk Soul. Those guys have a busy schedule throughout the rest of the year and with the new album just around the corner, I sure hope we get to share another stage soon.