After several pandemic-induced years of silence, the fields and hills of Pop’s Farm in Axton will once again come alive next weekend when the Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival makes its much-anticipated return with its 12th annual festival.
The festival was created by close friends of Edwin “the Rooster” Penn and Walker Shank, who both passed away in their 20s, in 2007 and 2008, respectively. According to the festival’s website, Rooster Walk “celebrates life and the notion that you shouldn’t waste a moment of it.”
“It’s coming back to the full-size, full-scale Rooster Walk that folks knew and loved before COVID,” said Rooster Walk Executive Director Johnny Buck. “We’ve got our strongest lineup ever,” including headliner Grace Potter, described by “Spin Magazine” as “one of the greatest living voices in rock today,” and the band Little Feat, who are set to perform their entire “Waiting for Columbus” album.
Other artists in this year’s lineup of more than 50 bands include Moon Taxi, Lettuce, Tab Benoit, The War and Treaty, Yarn, Mountain Heart, Sol Driven Train, Crawford & Power, The Wooks, Dead Reckoning, the T.C. Carter Band, After Jack, and Striking Copper.
On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Buck said the music begins at 10:30 or 11 a.m., and will continue until midnight or later. The last acts on Friday and Saturday are scheduled to wrap up around 2 a.m.
In addition to the more traditional line up bands, Buck said the festival features a number of Artists at Large who will bring an element of spontaneity to the weekend. Artists at Large are “artists we’ve hired to come solo, but who often are members of nationally touring bands,” he said.
Each artist plays a different instrument, Buck said, adding that each is already familiar with a number of other bands in the lineup. As a result, they are invited up to play a song or two with different bands at throughout the weekend.
“If you’re a fan of one particular band, you’ve seen them plenty of times, but maybe you’ve never seen them with a guest saxophone player or with an extra guitar or extra drummer,” Buck said.
In addition to surprise guest appearances, there also are scheduled Artist at Large sets on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons.
“They get together as a band and they perform once each day, even though they have never rehearsed together,” Buck said.
This year, each set has a different theme to help provide the performers with some direction. Friday’s set will be classic rock, Saturday’s is jamgrass (bluegrass, but with drums and electric instruments), and Sunday will feature blues music.
The Artist at Large sets, Buck said, are part of what makes the Rooster Walk experience unique. While other music festivals have Artists at Large, he said he is unaware of another festival that brings all the artists together as a band to jam.
“It’s become a Rooster Walk tradition over the last four or five festivals,” he said. Initially, the set was offered only at the VIP stage, but many of the event’s general admission ticket holders expressed interest in enjoying the performances as well. Ultimately, the sets were moved to general festival area, “and it got some of the strongest response of any set we had all weekend,” Buck said.
One of the things fans love most about that aspect is “they know when they’re watching that set that it’s just totally off-the-cuff, with musicians relying on their skill and improvisational abilities to make it happen on the fly … It really has become one of the things the fans love the most.”
This year’s Artists at Large are saxophonist Ron Holloway, who has performed with the Allman Brothers and the Susan Tedeschi Band; Bassett native Josh Shilling who is the lead singer of Mountain Heart; Roosevelt Collier of the Lee Boys; guitarist Wallace Mullinax who has won Charleston Guitar Player of the Year for 6 of the last 8 years; and drummer John Bryant, a Martinsville native who has seen huge success since graduating from Martinsville High School in the ‘70s, including working as a full-time touring member of Ray Charles’ band and playing frequently with Stewart Copeland of the Police.
“This is one of his (Bryant’s) first public performances in Martinsville since graduating high school,” Buck said. “We’re really excited to have him back in Martinsville for the first time in a long time.”
Buck added that each day may feature another Artist at Large or two who will only be performing that day. On Saturday, for example, Sammy Shelor of The Lonesome River Band, who Buck described as one of the best banjo players in the world, will sit in on the day’s jamgrass set.
Another unique feature of Rooster Walk is the festival location itself.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have Pop’s Farm as our home,” said Buck, who recalled the festival initially was held at the Blue Mountain Festival Grounds in Figsboro for the first six years.
“As the festival grew, we were getting very close to outgrowing the geographic confines of Blue Mountain. We were having issues with running out of room to park cars, and it wasn’t going to be long before we were running out of room in front of the stages for some of the headlining acts,” Buck said.
So, the festival team put the word out to the community that Rooster Walk was in search of a new home, and “we were very fortunate to be approached by a supporter who said he knew of a beautiful farm in Axton that could make a truly incredible music venue if we were able to raise the money,” Buck said. A capital campaign was launched, and the funds it earned were used to build roads, run underground power and water, and create the infrastructure needed for a large-scale music festival.
“It’s turned out better than we ever imagined,” Buck said. “It’s a beautiful piece of property. There’s a large pond that’s the centerpiece of the venue, and one of the stages is set directly on the shore of the pond. When you’re on the hill looking down at the band, you get to see the pond in the background.”
That stage, Buck said, even has its own separate lighting rig, designed to make the pond even more picturesque at night as the colored lights bounce of the water and onto the surrounding trees.
The trees are another asset of the festival location. Buck said that nearly 100 percent of the tent camping areas are under mature hardwood forest canopy. “You’re not camping in the middle of the field, baking in the sun,” he said.
Additionally, a copse of 50-year old pines encompass the Pine Grove Stage. “You have full shade all day long underneath these towering pine trees,” Buck said.
In addition to its adult ticket holders, Rooster Walk also ensures plenty of activities for younger festival goers. Buck said the team has made it a priority over the years to develop a specific youth area, which now has a permanent playground a large picnic shelter built with a grant from the local Kiwanis Club, and “scores of kids’ activities going on,” ranging from drum circles to arts and crafts projects, magicians, jugglers, stilt walkers, and even a giant slip-n-slide.
Buck said there are even bands performing in the youth area, with songs geared specifically toward a younger audience, and each day of the festival features a kids’ open mic, allowing young performers to showcase their talents.
Ticket sales for the first post-pandemic Rooster Walk have been strong, Buck said. Typically, the event attracts 4,000 to 5,000 attendees. “We’re there, or maybe a little above it this year,” he said. “It is one of our strongest band lineups ever, and we’ve seen that reflected in ticket sales.”
Based on advance ticket sales, “we’ve sold more tickets now, at a week and a half out than we’ve ever sold for a previous festival a week and a half out,” he said.
The festival, he said, welcomes locals as well as national and international visitors, he said, adding that Rooster Walk 11 attracted attendees from 32 different states. This year, he has corresponded with some visitors from Norway, who are flying in specifically to attend the festival.
Kelly Rowland, tourism and client relations manager for the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation’s Tourism Division, said the festival brings thousands of people to the community each year “and those visitors spend tourism dollars at our restaurants, shops and stores, hotels, gas stations, and other businesses” in addition to providing “future and growing opportunities for other festivals and events” in the area.
“Rooster Walk is truly a gem for our community,” she said. “With our 12th festival about to kick off next weekend, Rooster Walk attendees continue to be blown away by the natural beauty of our venue, the quality of musical acts, and the extreme professionalism and attention to detail by the festival team.”
That festival team, Buck said, is comprised of around 400 staff and volunteers, all working diligently to make sure all the moving pieces of the festival come together into one cohesive, unforgettable weekend.
“Without exaggeration, it’s grown into something far bigger than we could have ever imagined,” Buck said, reflecting on the festival’s history.
The first Rooster Walk was a one-day event with 13 bands playing on two stages for an audience of 3-400 people. Now a 4-day event with 6 stages, 50 bands, and 4-5,000 people, the festival has “turned literally into a year-round endeavor. It’s hard to believe sometimes that what started in 2008 and 2009 has turned into what it is now,” Buck said.
“We put about 11 months of work into each festival,” he said. When the last lingering notes fade at Pop’s Farm next Sunday, the team will spend a month to clean up, pack up, and recover. Then it’s time to get to work. Rooster Walk 13 is just a year away.
The 12th annual Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival will take place Memorial Day weekend, May 26-29, at Pop’s Farm in Axton. More information and tickets are available at www.RoosterWalk.com.