Zinger/songwriters

They write quirky songs with bouncy rhythms, jest between numbers, and entertain in styles ranging from simple wit to colorful extravagance. That’s the rap on the roster of humorous headliners slated for this weekend’s Flat Rock Music Festival.

The annual event, staged at the 365-acre Camp Ton-a-Wandah, is unveiling some new features this year: roving bluegrass musicians, the Hank Williams Songwriting Competition, an entire day of contradance instruction and rug-cutting, and a children’s parade.

If LEAF is a world-music mecca, the Flat Rock event is gaining a name as a showcase for serious songwriters. But this year’s whimsical main-stage acts — including Trout Fishing in America, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, Snake Oil Medicine Show, Michael Reno Harrell and Christian/Durand — remind us that roots music doesn’t have to be deathly earnest to be good.

Christian/Durand (that’s Lisa Christian and Lisa Durand) like to kid around between numbers. And one of their jokes — about a club patron sneaking off to the bathroom — even turned into a song. Determined to help female singers get noticed more for craft than for looks, they distinguish themselves with quips, penetrating vocals and driving guitar in a base of bluesy country-rock. United in their mission, the two have bucked the typical Nashville pressure to simply “wear tight jeans and shake it,” says Durand.

It takes two

The Grammy-nominated Trout Fishing in America, on the other hand, are a yin/yang folk duo if there ever was one. It starts with the visual humor: They’re a classic Mutt and Jeff pairing, with Keith Grimwood standing 5-foot-5-1/2 inches next to Ezra Idlet’s 6-foot-9. And they act like cartoon duo Rocky and Bullwinkle — the serious little squirrel playing off the big, silly moose.

But their opposite personalities, dual harmonies, two-tiered lyrical meanings and apt balance of poignancy and wit also enable them to go much deeper, approaching the ultimate yin/yang songwriting genius of Lennon-McCartney.

“In our show, we travel a great distance — musically and lyrically,” Idlet said in a recent interview. “We try to make you dance, think and laugh. We balance humor, introspection and flat-out joy. … We feed off a crowd’s dancing or [their] laughter from delivery of a line. It becomes art when you move people.”

Children typically enjoy the duo’s light melodies and surface lyrics. Adults are amused but also grasp the occasional deeper, more serious message. “My Hair Had a Party Last Night,” for example, sounds carefree, with lyrics full of singing birds, waffles and the joy of being a football captain. But then, “You realize it’s just a dream,” continues Idlet. “There’s sarcasm, since so much kids’ music is about a perfect world.”

Both Grimwood (50) and Idlet (48) were influenced by such comic-music masters as the Smothers Brothers, Tom Lehrer and Randy Newman, and the two have earned rave reviews feeding on Baby Boomers’ memories (they stole their name from Richard Brautigan’s classic novel) and their experiences as parents. Their children, now teens, inspired such songs as “Big Trouble” (referring to young Kevin Grimwood’s exploits) and “My Hair Had a Party Last Night” (a phrase that first came out of Steven Idlet’s mouth). Kevin (now 19) used to listen to his dad’s band’s new CDs for days before giving his verdict. And the duo knew their melodies passed the danceability test whenever Idlet’s daughter Dana (now 16) skipped to the beat.

TFIA loves wordplay — they’re fond of using tongue twisters in their shows (“she sits and sips Schlitz”), and their song “Your Name Backwards” is about just that (i.e., Rachel is “Lehcar”). The group’s latest release, Infinity (Briarpatch, 2001), was nominated for a 2002 Grammy for best kids’ album. And the band has won dozens of awards for its recordings for both children and adults — most notably the ’92 INDIE award for pop album of the year (for Over the Limit).

Grimwood — who once played bass in a symphony orchestra — is reportedly the more grounded of the two. He says he’s like a baseball catcher who “settles the pitcher down when he gets too crazy. Ezra’s darn impulsive, but has a fountain of ideas. I rein them in and say, ‘We can’t do all this.'”

The diminutive musician is a detailed note-taker, following in the footsteps of his father, retired NASA historian James Grimwood. Keith writes prose first, then conversational verse that flows with Idlet’s melody. “Ezra will bring in chord progressions he’s working on, and I’ll see what [lyrics] fit. Then we go after it,” Grimwood explains. “My favorite verse is the one Ezra jumps in on. He’s so insightful.”

Dose of thrills

Hometown talent Snake Oil Medicine Show serves up a chaotic sampler of performance art, combining a pinch of down-home frolic with funny lyrics, zany costumes, Caroline Pond’s sultry singing, joyous harmonies, pulverizing picking and frenzied horns. The potion simmers into the band’s self-described “acoustic flim-flam razzmatazz” of bluegrass, swing, ragtime, jazz, hip-hop, funk, reggae and world music.

For extra-potent big shows, they even bring in jugglers, dancers, puppeteers and a painter, becoming a 23-member multimedia circus.

One Halloween, the band staged an “alien autopsy” on-stage, hurling artificial guts, recalls mandolinist Jason Krekel. But that quirky individualism is necessarily grounded in teamwork: “We aren’t trying to outdo each other or shock anyone. We just play music from a repertoire that is colorful, like [band member] Phil [Cheney]’s art,” Krekel says. “That’s why we fit together so well. Snake Oil is fun.”

Another fun-loving local is Manic Pianic, a.k.a. Jake Hollifield, late of the Blue Rags. The madcap boogie-woogie pianist lives up to his name, returning to Flat Rock where, this spring, he played both indoors and on the grounds.

“New Age crystals and Dale Earnhardt”

The Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is an electrifying honky-tonk pianist in the manner of Jerry Lee Lewis. He admires Lewis’ “energy — a gospel-ish fervor like his cousin, [televangelist] Jimmy Swaggart.” Wirtz derived his style from the storytelling radio preachers he heard as a boy in Aiken, S.C.

The 47-year-old pianist got his clerical title by mail in 1978 and had it sanctioned on-line five years ago; converted critics have tabbed Wirtz a “tent revivalist of boogie blues” and “the high prophet of polyester.”

He says his worst gig was opening for mud wrestlers in New York — the sound system blew up on the first song, and the tough crowd didn’t exactly take it in stride. But he enjoys the Asheville area’s mix of tradition and avant garde (or, as he puts it, “[wrestler] Rick Flair and codependency, New Age crystals and [deceased racer] Dale Earnhardt”).

Wirtz’s clever titles include the singles “Inbred” and “Fourth Wife Blues” and the CDs Deep Fried and Sanctified (High Tone, 1989) and Unchained Maladies (High Tone, ’94). The spontaneous musician finishes songs in a draft or two — after his own gig at Flat Rock, he’ll likely share the stage with tour colleague Bob Margolin, who played with blues legend Muddy Waters.

Another satirical songwriter, Michael Reno Harrell, was the most-requested artist in the past half-year on WNCW-88.7 FM (a festival sponsor). Harrell’s tune “The Baby’s Name” won the Merlefest songwriting contest this spring. He and noted songwriter Rock Killough (who penned hits for Randy Travis and others) will teach the advanced-songwriting workshop, demonstrating lyrical clarity and how to blend melody and words.

Harrell, a mountain native who was a teen during the ’60s folk revival, writes about common, everyday experiences. Musing about the dog days of summer, he laments, “a lawn mower ain’t no friend of mine — in the summertime.” His songs about down-home culture include odes to grits, chewing tobacco, drag racing and “good ol’ fights.” In “Tommy Stops By,” Harrell immortalizes such a run-in, declaring, “A pissed-off redneck with a ball bat can ruin more than just your day. If I had my druthers, I’d ruther get hit by a truck.”

2002 Flat Rock Music Festival

The Flat Rock Music Festival happens Friday, Sept. 6 through Sunday, Sept. 8 at Camp Ton-A-Wandah in Flat Rock, N.C. Day passes are $30/Friday, $35/Saturday and $20/Sunday. Weekend passes ($65) include camping. Youths 11-17 are admitted half-price, children 10 and younger free.

Headliners include Trout Fishing in America, Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, Snake Oil Medicine Show, The Larry Keel Experience, The Filthy Rich, Michael Reno Harrell, Rock Killough and the Dixie Flyers, and Christian/Durand. For band schedules, directions, information or tickets, call (828) 692-2005 or check out www.flatrockmusicfestival.com.

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