Festival whiteness: Hinterland was a success — but for whom?

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Hinterland Music Festival, 2018. — photo by Andy Hewitt

By almost every metric, the 2018 Hinterland Music Festival was an incredible success. It drew in 9,300 people for Friday and 11,500 for Saturday. As a reference, in 2010, Madison County (home of St. Charles, Iowa, where the festival is held) had a total population of 15,753. Even if the total for Saturday included event staff, volunteers, roadies, band members, etc., the gathering at Hinterland would still constitute a population larger than 35 of the counties in Iowa.

Fortunately, the growth of the festival has been attended by small changes that have made it more user-friendly despite the population boom. As an example, parking was a little over a mile away and people could choose to walk or wait for the shuttle (two buses running every 10 minutes or so at peak times). This resulted in a continuously moving line that effectively eliminated the tedium of waiting in traffic to leave. Bathrooms, at least the ones I used, were conveniently placed and relatively clean. The five campsites (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Kind, RV), filled with grills and guitars, sprawled deep into the fields between the festival grounds and parking. It allowed camping concertgoers easy access to food, beverage and naps.

Combining camping and music, which Iowa City’s Grey Area festival also does, creates the context in which communities form. Eliminating the worry of driving away at the end of the night creates an atmosphere geared more toward safety than excess. Hinterland does a good job of providing a space that is tolerant of intoxication without making it a central focus. Despite the heat, which a stiff breeze and decent cloud cover made bearable, only a surprisingly small number of individuals required medical attention.

The festival was definitely festive but lacked the sort of drive toward drunkenness that fuels football games or holidays: Instead, people seemed content to float in a mellow buzz. This resulted in a family friendly affair. It was nice to see older patrons mingling with kids that came up to my knees, most wearing serious ear protection. Conversations about new friends made over campfires, or the joy at meeting friends from past camping experiences, proliferated. Wandering through crowds of friends relaxing, smiling and laughing together — many wearing Hinterland-branded merchandise from years past — showed that the event has become its own welcome institution.

This raises the question: What is the central focus of the event? The music, of course, is a huge draw — clearly, several people Friday night were there for Chvrches and Band of Horses. Saturday was primed toward Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and Sturgill Simpson. A few people wore shirts of some of the opening acts and thronged in the open, general admission spaces in front of the open-air stage accordingly. Most people stayed on the hillside of the natural amphitheater throughout the festival, with clusters of inflatable couches or blankets providing new spaces where temporary communities, and sometimes friendships, could become forged. At the same time, the flow of people moving to and from the campground throughout the day and the number of conversations from people clearly not actively attending to the music made it clear that, for a good part of the attendees, the music was a secondary albeit welcome concern. The community came first.

Hinterland Music Festival, 2018. — photo by Andy Hewitt

The lineup was successful, as usual, at balancing headliners that would turn heads adequately to support the festival with less well-known names that would provide entertainment before the headliners. These largely solid performers inspired varying degrees of enthusiasm from the crowd and, with the exception of Chvches, provided a pretty consistent soundtrack of contemporary alt-country and Americana-style rock.

To be more clear, the programming behind the Hinterland “sound” generally involves musicians who draw from a peculiar aesthetic in American music: Neither retro or revisionist, this aesthetic snubs what is modern and trendy and immerses itself in cultural contexts prominent 30 to 50 years ago — but does not thereby ground itself in simple nostalgia. It’s a tricky balance that Hinterland does well. A prime example is Margo Price, who literalizes this sort of innovative recreation of the past in her song “Long Live the King,” which eulogizes Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King and John Lennon as cultural landmarks — the most modern part of her set, in fact, was a cover of Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” which turned 25 this year and is itself a throwback.

This, along with the secluded and picturesque countryside surrounding the amphitheater, creates a sense of timelessness that hazes around the Hinterland festival grounds. Like Price, performers Tyler Childers, Blackberry Smoke, Anderson East and J. Roddy and the Business make music that really could have been on AM or FM stations at any point in the last 40 years. These artists primarily feature sounds that never quite emerged from the country, folk or blues traditions that informed musical traditions until the radio determined the formulas that rock, disco and eventually dance music would undertake. The music is terribly non-offensive and non-invasive, wonderfully pleasant, invariably competent, generally enjoyable.

The ebb and flow of crowds for each of these performers showed that they, at least, were not the main focus of the event, at least for most people. The local acts — Ancient Posse and the Nadas — likely (I mistimed traffic and so missed these sets) drew in some friends and supporters that may not have otherwise come, which make them a logical choice for the first act of the day (never likely rise to the status of a must-see for those who are not friends and supporters of the local band in particular). All in all, the choice of this as a “sound” creates a world for the Hinterland community that feels safe, relaxed, secure and calm but thereby sacrifices the kind of star-studded line up that has people racing about from one stage to another with an overflowing excitement fueled by the fear of missing out. There’s only one performer at a time at Hinterland, with time between to get food and use facilities: Nobody needs to miss out, ever.

So: Is the festival about the headliners? To a larger extent, yes. These bands were worth seeing. Chvrches, again, were the outlier — perfectly listenable dance pop but without any sort of unique musicianship to make them stand out from other music played at the grocery store. Band of Horses, closing the first night, showed that they were as technically competent as they were a decade ago: They started with Great Salt Lake and closed with Funeral, sprinkling their set with their strongest material — that from the first two albums. That the band is aware of this showed through both in a sense of tension within the band (which never affected the timing of their flawless, unhurried harmonies) and in the disdain with which lead singer Ben Bridwell referenced recent efforts. That said, the music lilted over the beards and sundresses on the surrounding hillside, passing over the twinkling lights of the food vendors and drifting toward the stars above. It was beautiful.

Saturday night’s headliners were equally compelling. I liked Nathaniel Rateliff in the first phase of his career as a sad balladeer, and I find that his new work with the Night Sweats, adding horns and an organ into the guitars, to be less innovative but still pleasant. “S.O.B.” was fun to watch — the band mmmed through some excellent a capella harmonies before exploding into music, and overall seemed to have more fun than Band of Horses — you could see the Night Sweats jumping up and down and clapping at the beginning of each song, which is a nice way of generating energy and letting the crowd know that the band still cares about their music. The show was completely solid, energizing, enjoyable and even fun! Nobody seemed discontent, disappointed or displeased.

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Sturgill Simpson introduced a new level of loud genius as a way to close the festival. Stripping down from previous touring incarnations to a power trio of guitar, bass and drums allowed audiences to focus both on the insight and wit of the lyrics and on the depth of Simpson’s guitar work. Despite his tensions with Nashville, Simpson clearly plays country music. Like many of his companions on this year’s bill, his relationship with this legacy is different. Moving beyond those others to show his genius, Simpson’s playing of country opens up a world without formulas.

The guitar solos are one example: while most bands will feature a guitar solo that deviates slightly from the melodic foundation, Simpson’s guitar explored a level below that (which better bands do, also), and then continued to explore nuances that opened for his fearless fingers. Unlike jam bands, whose solos tend to move horizontally, Simpson’s persisted on iterations of the same theme but with a depth rarely seen in any genre. These instrumentals were beyond classification, as is true of the best jazz or the best punk: They were simply genius. He was one of two performers I had truly come to see, and I was enraptured. All in all, it was a festival that seemed almost perfectly designed for a middle aged white guy (which I am) and his friends.

It is probably only because I’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me that I could even notice the fact that Hinterland features a very strong representation of white people in the crowd. Even in Iowa, which is not the most racially diverse part of the country, there were oddly few people of color (beyond, perhaps, the volunteers helping to park cars). There were young and old people, gay and straight couples, but the crowd was almost purely white. The performers, of course, were also predominantly white — except for a back up singer behind Anderson East, perhaps an organist tucked behind a speaker, Tash Sultana, and half of Ancient Posse, I believe that all of the performers were white. Perhaps it is just as interesting to note that the performers were almost all men — the back up singer, Sultana, Price, and part of Ancient Posse the few exceptions.

In his book, Coates describes the American Dream as a beautiful space from which he, as a black man, is wholly excluded. I felt that during the festival — both the dream, and those who were not part of the community that gathered. Different people have different tastes, of course, and not everyone is interested in Making Americana Great Again. Politically, one sensed the proliferation of progressives: The white people present were invariably the sort of kind-hearted liberals who genuinely care about others and even pick up and throw away litter left behind. I saw nothing that would indicate even a hint of the sort of racial antipathy sometimes prominent in similarly sized gatherings of white people.

But this caused me to return to the question: What is the focus of this event such that it draws such a non-diverse crowd? What is it about this event that frames it so squarely toward my particular white, middle-aged, male demographic? Can this be helped, or is the combination of camping and Americana something simply made for middle class white Americans (as philosopher Theodor Adorno, perhaps, may have thought)?

Although I honestly assume that the decisions are based more on marketing than active bias, one wonders why the festival emphasizes music that plays with the American soul tradition — including the Night Sweats — performed by white men, even though it is a sound that emerged through Motown as a black alternative to white appropriations of “black” music (Elvis, for example). The hazy dream of Hinterland highlights the hard work and contributions of white men, but only white men. Even Margo Price was moved to comment on the lack of female representation on the lineup — she was the only female performer on Saturday. And while this perhaps is a reflection of the industry of Americana today, one can also imagine booking someone like First Aid Kit who are as known for harmonies as Band of Horses and would provide a bit more balance without disturbing the cultivated and enjoyable continuity in music — but aren’t white American men. This would seem to be a pretty low risk way to incorporate a bit more diversity without unduly altering the Hinterland sound.

Hinterland Music Festival, 2018. — photo by Dan Welk

Even better, future iterations of Hinterland can continue to feature musicians like Tash Sultana, who provided some of the most innovative, brilliant and joyful music of the weekend. A one-woman band who creates depth in music through live looping, Sultana sang, played guitar, played drums, played trumpet, played mandolin, beatboxed, played flute pipes — and did it all while dancing in an enraptured state. Because campers tend to schedule naps during opening acts, especially over a long weekend, it was unfortunate that Sultana did not have the audience to inspire that a (perhaps less inspiring) Chvrches did. The crowd grew during Sultana’s set, massing with people gazing with awe at her performance of song — and her name echoed as a favorite in the conversations that I overheard. Although a different kind of genius than Simpson, infusing different kinds of sounds, her work nested perfectly well within the overall weekend. Perhaps the festival could acquire acts with a bigger national reputation than Ancient Posse, or could move acts that feature performers who aren’t white men toward more prominent positions in the line up.

In other words, please understand that the programmers at Hinterland succeeded at passing the festival equivalent of the Bechdel test by featuring four acts not fronted by white men (Chvches and Ancient Posse should join Sultana and Price). This probably surpasses minimal expectations for a “diverse” lineup. The programmers should be commended for including these acts which, except for Price, largely did not conform to the Hinterland sound. At the same time, the whiteness of the audience shows that the crowds — those who attended and those who did not — understood these acts as exceptions to the rule rather than constituting a core part of the Hinterland experience. If Hinterland exceeded the minimal expectations for diversity but still drew such a disproportionately white crowd, perhaps it is necessary to ask for more than the minimum in the future. One suspects, also, that this is not solely a problem with Hinterland.

Again: my point is less to say that Hinterland does anything wrong in featuring the musicians that it does, all of whom are competent, if not excellent. Instead, my hope is that, in a political climate in which longstanding racial rifts have become more prominent in the national attention, the arts community can lead the way in creating communities and environments that welcome diversity beyond facial hair, tattoos and “alternative lifestyles.” Music festivals can intentionally work to include Americans in a bigger way than those already incorporated into a non-corporate American dream.

I really appreciated the space, the community and the vision of Hinterland and am genuinely impressed with how it expanded its operations in a way that still felt welcoming and intimate. But everyone deserves to feel welcomed here, and if (as seems to be the case) the line up is a way of showing welcome — I hope that the Hinterland programmers will find a way to include a more diverse set of musicians without compromising everything that they already do well so that the festival does not end up becoming merely another part of American culture made for white people, featuring white men, with minorities left to the margins. This will ensure that the point of the festival, in other words, does not accidentally and without malice become yet another successful celebration of whiteness in popular culture.

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