UNLESS YOU’RE A FAITHFUL LISTENER TO SIRIUS XM’s Outlaw Country station (I don’t own a car, so don’t ask how I even know what that is), you’ve probably never heard of the Red Dirt music movement. Born in Stillwater, Okla., and so named for the color of the soil found there, Red Dirt is a rebellious, boot-stompin’, guitar-pickin’, impossible-to-define mix of blues, folk, country, rock, bluegrass and honky-tonk that defies any strict classification.
Though its winding roots appear to stretch back to the 1970s, Red Dirt didn’t gain traction as a specific genre until the 2000s. Its foothold in the Americana music scene is already strong. And from Feb. 7-10, Key West will get its first official taste of Red Dirt during the Mile 0 Fest, a four-day festival featuring 54 artists playing 70-plus shows on six different stages across town – including the new Truman Waterfront Park Amphitheater.
“The Mile 0 Fest is the largest Red Dirt and Americana festival of its kind in the southeast,” begins Kimberly Brian, public relations director for the festival. “What makes this genre really special is that it encompasses both Red Dirt and Texas country and, although it’s difficult to explain the difference, there is a little bit of a dividing line between the two. If you’re familiar with it, you can tell if someone is from Oklahoma or not by how they make the music.
As an equal-opportunity music lover and shameless shower singer, I was shocked to discover a genre I had never heard of. You mean to tell me that Red Dirt isn’t just some delicious sounding hybrid of Dirt, the messy chocolate pudding and crumbled Oreo delicacy that appeared at every summer BBQ in my youth, and Red Velvet cake? And yet a simple Google search revealed that, while it’s (sadly) inedible, Red Dirt has a massive and widespread following.
“The Oklahoma/Texas region has a huge music scene,” Kimberly explains. “It’s a multimillion-dollar industry and the fan base is rabid. There are a lot of Red Dirt festivals in Oklahoma and Texas, where people literally go camp for five days just to catch all of their favorite bands. Our events have gotten compared to a lot of bigger festivals, like the Steamboat Festival in Colorado, because it’s not just a festival but a destination. You’ve got so much else to do other than listen to music.”
But with headliners like Turnpike Troubadours, Cody Jinks, Pat Green, Wade Bowen and Shooter Jennings, you might find it difficult to tear yourself away from the dozens of live shows all over town.
Key West has historically been a hub for live music (who hasn’t wasted away in Margaritaville at this point?), so bringing a typically Southern style of music to the tropical southeast was a no-brainer for the festival’s organizers.
“Our founders have been fans of this music forever, specifically Kyle, the brain trust behind all this,” Kimberly asserts. “He has been going to Red Dirt festivals for 15, 20 years and he and his wife are huge fans of Key West and they just kept thinking it would be so great to have a festival here. Then they were down there on vacation and, lo and behold, there’s an amphitheater being built. It was fate.”
Aside from the Amphitheater, festivalgoers will have their choice of live music venues around town, including Smokin’ Tuna, Durty Harry’s, Irish Kevin’s, Southernmost Beach Resort, and the historic San Carlos Institute. The support of so many local establishments has enabled the festival’s organizers to schedule four full days of music with barely a minute to grab another Corona Light before you have to dash from one venue to the next.
“Charlie Bauer at Smokin’ Tuna has been a huge help,” Kimberly says. “I also can’t say enough about Mayor Cates and the City Council. Everyone in Key West has been phenomenal to work with. Red Dirt is such a unique genre and I’m so excited to have a festival here because I think Key West is such a unique place. Everyone is so open and laid back and that’s what this music is about. It’s all for the love of putting on a great festival and starting something that has the potential to grow into a pivotal event in the future.”
Red Dirt is associated with a devil-may-care, “break all the rules and make new rules just so we can break them again” attitude and Kimberly is adamant that that philosophy will be accompanying the movement across the Cow Key Channel Bridge into Key West.
“We kind of want to be y’all’s Crazy Uncle Eddie. We won’t be around all the time, but you’ll get to have a special kind of crazy in your lives once a year. We want to be a part of the Key West family and we’re going to come in and bring 3,000 of our buddies from all across the country for a few days of great music and great fun.”
To the organizers of the Mile 0 Fest, becoming a part of the Key West family means giving back to the community through two charity events – a fishing derby on Wednesday, Feb. 7 and a golf tournament on Friday, Feb. 8. Proceeds from both events go to three different charities, two of which are based in Key West – the Michelle Halpern Foundation and the Bahama Village Music Program (which will get the added benefit of hands-on sessions with some of the festival’s artists throughout the week). The third charity is the Red Dirt Relief Fund, which helps musicians pay medical bills.
“It’s a community, not just a business or an industry or a genre,” Kimberly contends. “It’s a family of people and we want to take care of each other and the community as much as we can.”
Although many of Mile 0 Fest’s artists aren’t necessarily in the mainstream, they’re definitely known in the burgeoning Red Dirt community.
“In fact, two of the bands playing the Mile 0 Fest are releasing their new, highly anticipated albums the week of the festival, so it’s a very exciting time for Red Dirt,” Kimberly states. “So many of the festival participants are acts that are phenomenal that no one has ever heard of, but they’re right on the cusp of greatness. For example, Mike and the Moonpies are about to debut one of the most anticipated new albums of the year. But you’re not dealing with big-name artists and that’s why this festival is so special. This isn’t major label stuff. Some artists are signed to smaller independent labels, but probably only 25 percent of these guys have publicists and only 60 percent of them have a full-time crew. A lot of the acts coming in on our acoustic stages didn’t have band Facebook pages until recently. They’re so small but so talented.
“The definition of folk music is music that tells a story, a narrative. The roots of Red Dirt are based in this folk world where the music tells stories, but the individual artists have thrown in rock, blues, and country. Each artist has their own groove and their own sound. It’s nothing you’re going to hear on the radio these days.”
Just think, music snobs among you, you may be able to say “I saw them on the Smokin’ Tuna stage” when your new favorite group starts playing Madison Square Garden in a few years.
Part of the beauty of a genre that encompasses so many subtypes is that anyone with two ears and even a modest appreciation of artistry will find at least one band they’ll love. “There’s a great variety of Red Dirt artists playing the Mile 0 Fest,” Kimberly says. “There are the old stalwarts that have been around forever, like Stoney Larue, Pat Green, and the Great Divide. The Black Lilies are more Americana and John Moreland’s new album, ‘Big Bad Love’ blew the Americana scene out of the water this year. And then we’re going to have fun shows like the Jamie Lin Jamboree – each night she’ll have a completely different band with different musicians from other bands playing the festival.
“We really want there to be an awesome vibe,” Kimberly continues. “We want you to just have a blast listening to great music for four days. You’re going to have artists walking around everywhere and you might not know them, but they’ll be out parasailing with you and lining up to see musicians just like you are and ordering a beer right next to you.”
You can buy tickets to Mile 0 Fest and check out the full lineup and schedule at www.Mile0Fest.com. ¦