Cold Mountain Music Festival’s unplugged nature is a feature, not a bug

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? Launched in 2017 as a fundraiser for the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, Cold Mountain Music Festival returns Saturday, June 4, after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. Bay Area rockers The Mother Hips, pictured, are among the scheduled acts. Photo by Andrew Quist

There is no cellphone service at Lake Logan, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, located in Haywood County. “And we don’t have great internet connection, either,” says Lauri SoJourner, the organization’s executive director.

But after two years of social distancing, working from home and virtual happenings, these technological limitations feel like a breath of fresh air for the site’s upcoming Cold Mountain Music Festival.

“People [who attend] will be looking at each other and looking at the musicians, because they don’t have phones in their faces,” SoJourner says. “It’s a strength of the festival that people really immerse themselves in the experience.”

Launched in 2017 as a fundraiser for the ministry, the gathering returns Saturday, June 4, after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19.

This year’s performers include Hiss Golden Messenger, Chatham Rabbits, Futurebirds, I Draw Slow and The Mother Hips. The lineup packs a full weekend’s worth of entertainment into eight-plus hours. And for attendees who camp at Lake Logan the night before, SoJourner promises special live music events “with a local flavor.”

Bringing both varied styles and experiences, Xpress touched base with The Mother Hips and Chatham Rabbits about the upcoming gathering and what festivalgoers might expect.

Strangers in a strange land

Founded more than three decades ago in Chico, Calif., The Mother Hips have charted a varied musical path: The band’s 11 studio albums explore folk, rock, psychedelia, jam and other styles. A popular fixture on the festival circuit in the westernmost states, The Mother Hips are comparatively unknown in the Southeast. But guitarist Greg Loiacono says that the group won’t radically alter its approach when meeting a Western North Carolina crowd.

“I don’t know that we will do too much differently,” Loiacono says. “We may be inclined to go with a really strong set of our favorites to play, songs that seem to be more widely received.” He adds that participants can expect at least a few numbers from Glowing Lantern, the band’s latest record, released in December.

Like many groups, The Mother Hips took advantage of pandemic-imposed time off to focus on making the new, self-produced album. “We have typically used an outside producer or co-producer,” Loiacono explains. “And that has worked well. But having the time and space to work closely together not only on the writing but on the sonic landscape was really wonderful. I think that helped create an evolved sound that was different from all of our other albums.”

With Glowing Lantern’s release and a follow-up already completed, The Mother Hips have once again turned their attention to live performance. “Along with every other touring musician, venue and promoter, we have gotten used to the idea that things could shut down at any moment,” Loiacono says. “But it has felt really good getting back [onstage].”

And the band is intrigued by Cold Mountain Music Festival’s slightly off-the-grid approach. “Playing in a ‘dead zone’ sounds fantastic,” Loiacono says. “These days it seems like a special treat when humans gather in areas where they are unable to use their smartphones.”

Leaving the burrow 

Wife-and-husband duo Sarah and Austin McCombie lead the Chatham Rabbits, a bluegrass/Americana group based in rural Chatham County, 50 miles southeast of Greensboro. The pair’s tuneful, rootsy approach is showcased on the band’s latest album, If You See Me Riding By, scheduled for a Friday, June 3, release — one day before the McCombies appear at the Cold Mountain Music Festival backed by a full band.

Chatham Rabbits have enjoyed a rise in profile of late. Earlier this month, their limited television series “On the Road with Chatham Rabbits” premiered on PBS North Carolina. The show documents the couple’s shared lives, filled with plenty of touring, farming and songwriting.

Sarah says that while she and Austin started out by composing songs individually, they’ve developed into a songwriting partnership. “We’re like, ‘OK, we’re in this together, so we’ve got to work together. We’ve got to strengthen these songs and sharpen them using each others’ skills,’” she says.

While working on their farm last summer, the couple decided to build an open-air barn to host concerts. “We started out [allowing] 50 people at a time,” says Sarah. “But it ended up being so popular that by the end of the summer, we had 150 people out to our house each Sunday.” They hope to host additional installments of their barn concerts at The Burrow during periods when they’re off the road.

Sarah says that the Cold Mountain Music Festival’s “condensed” lineup really appeals to her and Austin. “They keep it very curated,” she says. “And that’s exciting. Plus, the fact that it’s family-friendly is a huge perk for us. And it’s going to be really nice to unplug, not look at my phone or worry about anything else for the whole day.”

WHAT: Cold Mountain Music Festival
WHERE: Lake Logan, 25 Wormy Chestnut Lane, Canton,
WHEN: Saturday, June 4, 1 p.m. $60


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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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