By Richard Skanse
I may be asking for a stoning here, but — enough about dancehalls, already. Corner just about any artist even loosely associated with the current Texas/Red Dirt music scene, or any fan who’s ever gotten goosebumps upon hearing the line “Sherry was a waitress at the only joint in town” that kicks off Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever,” and chances are they can talk your ear off about Gruene Hall, Luckenbach or any other rickety old Texas beer joint where they’ve ever hoisted a Shiner while playing or listening to live music. And that’s all well and good, but let’s be honest here: all that dancehall love really isn’t fair to that other foundation upon which this whole scene was built, a hallowed tradition going all the way back to the first Willie picnic in the early ’70s. People, let us all hail the Texas music festival.
Ah yes, the festival: where thousands of fans come together to drink beer in a hot field and crane their necks for a clear view of the stage. There’s invariably mud, dust, expensive concessions, long lines at the smelly Porta-Johns and sometimes even longer waits between sets. But for the diehard music fan, it’s all heaven on earth. And for artists big and small, there’s nothing quite like a big-ass outdoor music festival for getting one’s music across to as many fans as possible, both new and old. From Larry Joe Taylor’s epic bubba gathering in the middle of nowhere to the much ballyhooed Austin City Limits Music Festival deep in the heart of Austin, festivals, not postcard dancehalls, are the true lifeblood of the Texas music scene.
Fighting words? Maybe. But here’s the real corker: the best Texas music festival around today isn’t even in Texas. Or Oklahoma. It’s all the way up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, smack in the middle of a picturesque ski resort. In January. Mind, the word is “best,” not biggest; because even though it’s billed as the “largest group ski trip of its kind in the nation,” the rather unassumingly named MusicFest is a lot more like a great hang than an overcrowded, marathon endurance test. Indeed, ask anyone who’s ever made the trip up to Steamboat, and they’ll tell you its more like a big, weeklong party. Even for the musicians providing the non-stop entertainment (spread across multiple stages and going long into the night all week long), MusicFest is as much a paid vacation as it is a gig. For proof, just watch the behind-the-scenes shenanigans documented in No Sleep ‘til Texas, the new DVD on the MusicFest experience put together by Willy Braun of Reckless Kelly and Bryan T. Shaw. As Cross Canadian Ragweed frontman Cody Canada candidly admits in the film, “We’re not really working .” Then again, footage of Ragweed, the Randy Rogers Band, Robert Earl Keen and others ripping it up through balls-out live performances proves that MusicFest artists do a lot more than just hit the slopes. For even more compelling evidence of the great music that goes down in Steamboat, check out Undone: A MusicFest Tribute to Robert Earl Keen , a double live CD recorded at last year’s festivities.
Among the artists playing this year’s MusicFest (already underway, Jan. 5-10) are Keen, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jack Ingram, the Randy Rogers Band, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, Wade Bowen, Stoney LaRue, Reckless Kelly, Walt Wilkins, Micky and the Motorcars, Roger Creager, Ryan Bingham, Chris Knight, the Band of Heathens and the whole family Robison (brothers Charlie and Bruce, sister Robyn Ludwick and Robison wife Kelly Willis). Most all of them are MusicFest veterans, and chances are, a lot of them will be back next year, too. Any one of them could surely go on and on about what makes that party in the Rockies so special — maybe even every bit as special as a storied old Texas dancehall. But for Lone Star Music’s own tribute to MusicFest, we went right to the man in charge of the whole thing: John Dickson of Buda, Texas-based Dickson Productions. We caught up with him the week before MusicFest ’09, already hard at work not only on this year’s event but next year’s, too.
So you’re already in Steamboat, aren’t you? Do you always get up there about a week early?
Yeah. I got in last night, and I’m getting ready for the party. We’ve had a crew up here for the last couple of days, and then we’ve got another big team about to come in — we’ve got about 150 people who make this thing happen. We’ve got to get everything together before everybody arrives. But this being our 24th year doing it, we kind of know the drill by now.
Can you give me an example of a type of challenge that might come up year after year in regards to putting this thing on?
Well, it’s just basically … there’s so many musicians coming up here, and the schedule’s so intense — there’s so many things going on all at one time — so it’s just coordinating everything. A lot of these folks, like this crew coming in, are folks I’ve been working with for over 20 years. They came as college students back in the day, or they’re friends or whatever, but everybody knows how it all works and how to do it. I couldn’t imagine trying to do this from a fresh start. There’s a lot of experience that goes with it. One of the key things is everybody has to have the right demeanor. Everybody here knows how to work with people and be friendly and professional, because we want everybody to have a good time. This is a good time trip. So we just want to make sure that everybody is taken care of.
When in the year do you start planning these things?
Actually, right now; we’re already talking about next year’s festival. We had a meeting last night. This is actually the best time to talk about next year, when we’re already immersed inside of this thing. We always strive to make it better, even if it’s just the little things. The more efficient it is, the more we’re able to extend the quality of the trip for a reasonable price. We pride ourselves on being able to do that. You really can’t find a trip like this for this price that includes this level of entertainment anywhere else.
What do the packages range from?
This year they started at $199, and it goes on up; we have people who get penthouses and private homes, things like that, so that’s the other extreme. But the medium package probably runs between $600-800 a person. But for $199 per person, they get a four-day lift pass, five nights lodging and credentials to get to all the MusicFest performances. Plus we have a lot of other little activities and freebies and things like that that they get. If you just went and bought a four-day lift pass, you’d be looking at around $200. So here you’re actually getting a free room for five nights. And we’re able to do that just because of the amount of people we bring up here, and because of the great relationships we have with the people at the resort here and all the other properties and so forth from over the years.
You’ve been doing MusicFest for more than two decades now, so I want to ask you about how it all got started. But first, a little background on you. Where are you from originally?
I originally grew up in Houston, Texas, and now live south of Austin.
Did you ever play music yourself?
No, but everybody in my family did. I’ve had a lot of relatives in the past who have been pretty instrumental in Texas music. My dad’s uncle, Charles Dickson, had a lot of success as a big band leader in the Houston area. And another relative, John Dickson Kelly — aka Peck Kelly — was known as the best “white” jazz pianist of his time. He had offers from many big bands to travel nationwide, but turned them down to stay true to his jazz music. He actually produced the first ever “Jazz Festival” in Galveston. And I’ve got a brother who’s in a band right now. So I’ve always been around music, and I’ve always enjoyed it — but I can’t sit down long enough to pick up an instrument and learn it.
What path did you take in college?
I went to South West Texas [in San Marcos] back in the day. That’s when I really got immersed in music. There’s a real cool music scene in the San Marcos area, with a lot of garage bands and places like Cheatham Street and other bars like that which were really bringing in quality music. And then I started bartending at Gruene Hall and at the Gristmill, and got even more immersed in that stuff. It was just one thing after another. So that’s when I really started getting into it.
Also, when I was in college, I noticed there were a lot of companies that were kind of taking advantage of these college students with different ski trips [and vacation packages]. I thought, “I can do this better than that .” At the time, I didn’t have enough money to go on a ski trip or anything like that myself, but I found out that if you become a representative, you can sell these packages and get a free trip. But I made sure that everything people were told they were going to get with their package was actually delivered. So we gained a lot of popularity through that, and then I started tying in the music with it. Like I said, I dug music, and I had friends who were musicians, so I had them come up on ski trips, let them stay in my room and said, “I just need you to do a couple of jams.”
Are we talking early ’80s?
Yeah. This is our 24th year, so I think the first one was in ’85 or ’86.
Who played that first one?
I want to say it was a band called the House Flys. Kind of a blues style band, from San Marcos. They were really good.
But one band does not make a music festival. I take it you weren’t calling it MusicFest yet at that point.
No. I think we called it the All Campus SkiTrip. It was just more or less … I was actually working through the university, through the rec/sports department. But that was pretty short-lived, because word spread about the trip and people started coming from all the other campuses, like UT and A&M. It got so large that the university said, “Hey, this isn’t just our university, it’s all the other ones, and that’s really not what we’re supposed to be doing.” So that’s when I took it off campus and started doing it on my own.
When did the music really start to take center stage?
We’ve always had music involved in this thing, and the music’s kind of changed over the years, but it’s always been kind of grassroots, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, progressive country. But I would say it was about 12, 13 years ago that I asked Roger Creager and Dub Miller to come up and perform. Those guys were big Aggies, and there were small rooms that they played in, but it really worked real well. So we expanded off that kind of music. I was doing a lot of shows throughout Texas with those guys, and we just sort of tied it all together, bringing all those shows up to Steamboat. They were both big skiers, and liked to be a part of that thing, so we were just having fun.
Did it snowball pretty quickly after that?
Yeah. I mean, we had some really good people come in, and we just kept expanding on that style of music. We started bringing the Ragweed guys up, and they played a real small room here — they were just starting out at the time. So we were real fortunate that we got those guys on board; word got out, and that brought in a lot of attention from Oklahoma. And what really did it was when Jessie Scott with XM Satellite radio, which at the time was still fairly new, came to us and said, “Hey, we’d like to do a broadcast from this event.” There weren’t that many satellite radio subscribers at the time, and I couldn’t really get anybody to help me out sponsor wise, because it was such a new medium, but we pulled it off anyway. And I think that year, satellite radio was the No. 1 selling Christmas present, which was perfect, because everybody got their radios for Christmas and by the time they got everything set up, they were listening to MusicFest. That really helped get the word out to the nation. We now have people from 50 states that come to this thing, and from several countries, too.
Do you remember what year that was?
It was seven or eight years ago, so it might have been 2000.
I made it up to MusicFest in 2002, when I was doing a story on Pat Green.
Yeah, Pat came up that year. In fact, he came up the first year I had Roger Creager and Dub playing. Pat wasn’t performing, he just came up to party and have fun. And the next year, Pat came back to perform, and we also had Cory Morrow.
Has it changed much since 2002? It seemed like a pretty well-oiled machine at the time.
Well, since then, we’ve added a huge tent. It’s just like the inside of a big dancehall. So that’s the big thing addition. And we’ve increased the music to where we start at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and it goes to 2 o’clock at night. And there may be four to five stages going on at one time. And the reason we did that is, one night you can go to the big dancehall, and party; I mean, it’s a quality listening room, but it’s a good party. Or, you can go to the Bear River at night where we have an acoustic set, and sit down for a more personal show. That’s the range that happens, and everything in between. We also have the Steamboat Grand Ballroom, which I think had just come in back in 2002. That’s at the luxury hotel, and it’s a really fun room. And we do a deal at the very top of the mountain. That’s the best backdrop in the world, to be up 10,000 feet, watching one of your favorite bands, and behind it you see half the world underneath the moonlight. And we also do an outdoor stage event. I know the Colorado folks think we’re crazy as hell doing stuff in the middle of winter outdoors, but we’ve always pulled it off and it’s a lot of fun.
One of our sponsors, Shiner, has taken this under their wing, and they’ve really been very supportive. Together, we decided we’re going to do a washer tournament at the base of the mountain during the outdoor concert. And I’ll tell you what, that thing fills up so fast, it’s amazing. It’s a pretty unique deal to be throwing washers at the base of a mountain when there’s 20 foot of snow underneath you. A washer tournament! Me and the Shiner guys were just sitting around, going, “It sure would be fun to throw some washers around right now.” Then we went, “Hell, let’s do it!” We didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but … I think we’ve got like 46 teams. It fills up immediately. We’d have more if we could have more space, but we’ve also got a concert going on. [ Laughs ]
How many acts are playing this year?
You know what, I think there’s 54 acts.
Do you cap the attendance?
Absolutely. I believe we have, with all the artists and musicians, about 5,000. That’s media, industry folks, everything. That’s one of our things; we don’t want to open it up to where it becomes an over-commercialized event. We want to keep the experience to where it’s comfortable in the venues, and it’s still an intimate and unique community. There’s a lot of people for whom this is like an annual gathering spot; every year, we’ve had people who’ve been returning for 10 or 15 years. So while we’ve expanded, we try to grow smart and not overdo things. It does sell out as soon as we start taking reservations, and yes we do have a wait list, and we’d love to be able to accommodate all those people and open up the doors, but I just feel like it would take away from the festival.
Out of all the artists who have played MusicFest before, who’s made it the most consecutive years in a row?
You know, Roger Creager’s still coming up. I think this is his 11th or 12th year. There’s a lot of them who’ve been around for a long time. Cory Morrow’s been up here for quite a few years, and Cross Canadian Ragweed now, too. Robert Earl Keen, he hasn’t been to that many, but I think this is his fourth or fifth year.
Sounds like you’ve got him hooked.
Well, I gotta say, it’s not me who creates this ambiance up here. It’s the people, it’s the artists. It’s a really unique group of musicians. I’ve worked with musicians for going on 30 years now, but what’s going on with this scene now, it’s pretty amazing. It’s just a real tight-knit community, where it’s not about me, myself and I — it’s about the integrity of the music. And you know, all these guys, they’re willing to help each other out. And you get up here in Steamboat with all these musicians, and you can feel that camaraderie. It really shows onstage. It’s really a cool scene; they’re all friends, and it’s a lot of fun to be around. And that spreads around; it’s the same thing with the group of people that comes up here. It’s kind of a lifestyle event. Everybody has the same interests, they’re all willing to make the trip up to Steamboat, they like to ski, they like the outdoors, they like music, they’re a little adventurous — you have a lot of like minds here. And that’s one thing that the folks in Colorado always recognize, is the community — it’s a really unique group. Just the whole picture; they enjoy having fun, they enjoy drinking beer, they enjoy listening to music and they enjoy hitting the slopes.
So the natives aren’t ever like, “Oh no, here comes Texas again.”
No. I mean, there is that “here comes Texas” feeling, even though we now have people coming from all over the country, but they’re pretty supportive. They really recognize how everybody has fun up here, and the people who come are all polite and respectful of the community. Plus with Steamboat, it’s a great match; it’s an old ranching community. So it’s got that Western hospitality that fits so well with this whole lifestyle.
We talked about Keen, who was the man of honor at last year’s MusicFest tribute concert. When did the tribute nights start? That’s kind of a new tradition, isn’t it?
This year will be our sixth tribute. That concept came about after I went down to the Center for Texas Music History in San Marcos. They put on some events down there where they’ll have an acoustic set with a mixed group of people, and just watching that — seeing the different musicians onstage together who all came from different backgrounds — was really cool. And, seeing some of the legends that they have — Guy Clark and so forth — I thought, “Everybody likes to do tributes to people after they’re gone. Why don’t we recognize them while they’re still making a difference, still contributing?”
I also kind of started the tribute as sort of a thank you to the musicians who have been coming to this festival; I wanted to put them in front of some of people who have inspired them to do what they do. And it was funny the first year, because some of these musicians, they play before tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people per year, but when they get in front of some of those influences, it’s like deer in headlights. But the performances are remarkable, because they’re so emotional; and they tell the stories about how and why these artists, these legends, have influenced them. To hear that first hand can be pretty amazing. It’s just a very emotional event, both for the tribute artist and for the artists performing. And of course, the tribute artist always gets up and performs a set, which is fun, too. They always tell some great stories. There’s a lot of personal things that are said on that stage that you probably wouldn’t normally hear otherwise.
You’ve got [Oklahoma-raised, recent Austin transplant] Kevin Welch as this year’s honoree, right?
Yeah. That’s going to be pretty remarkable. He’s a musician’s musician who’s kind of done everything his own way. A lot of musicians at MusicFest have always brought his name up, so I got to the Internet to look up what kind of things he’s done to inspire the community. But I really couldn’t find anything on his Web site. I finally asked one of the musicians, “What has he done? Have a lot of other musicians covered his songs?” And the thing is, he’s just so humble; he doesn’t brag about what he’s done. But once we did some research, it was pretty amazing some of the national acknowledgement he’s been recognized for, including some of the key artists who have recorded his works. So it’s always fun to find out those things; we all learn along with it.
Any idea who you’ll have next year?
I have a long list of names that we want to do, and it just has to work out with their schedules and routing. You know how it goes. On our wish list, of course there’s John Prine and Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. Heck, even someone like a Tom T. Hall would be great. Just all the people who have made a difference in the music community and in the music that we listen to today.
No Willie yet?
No, we haven’t had Willie yet. I think he’s sitting in his hammock out in Hawaii about this time of year! But, I did hear from the grapevine that he wrote Red Headed Stranger coming back from Steamboat.
Obviously, it’ll be too late for people reading this to make it to this year’s MusicFest. So when can people sign up for next year’s?
Well, one thing we do for the people who return year after year … it was about four or five years ago, a gentleman called me up and went, “Hey John, we didn’t know that you’d launched the ski trip reservations, and now you’re sold out! We’ve gone to your event eight years in a row. This is where we meet everybody, and it just sells out so fast now.” So what we do now is we give people who are at MusicFest a chance to pre-signup for the following year; they get a choice for their accommodations and to make their reservation. So we go through that reservation process, and then we open it up to the general public sometime in August. We announce it through our online newsletter and Web site, www.bigskitrip.com , “We’re going to start the reservation process at noon on this day.” And then it takes about a week and a half, two weeks for the festival to fill up. The phones are constantly going, and it sells out in that time frame.
Tell me about the other festival that you have in Steamboat right after MusicFest.
That’s the Ski Jam (Jan. 12-17; www.skijam.net). This is our sixth year to do that. It’s kind of our thank you to the local community, all the people working the resort and so forth. It’s more the Colorado style of music, that vibe; we just sort of do it to thank them, and to bring their kind of music to the community. And of course it attracts a lot of people from New York and California and other parts of the country. And we do have some Texas acts in there, too; the Band of Heathens and the Gougers will actually play both MusicFest and SkiJam this year. But we also have acts like the Wailers, Sam Bush, that kind of stuff. We had members of String Cheese Incident up here one time, and Gov’t Mule — that rocked the house. You know, there’s a lot of parallels between Texas and Colorado, and music is one of them; it’s just a little bit different style of music. But it’s a pretty cool scene of its own.
What else does Dickson Productions do during the year?
We do several other events throughout the year. We like putting on stuff that means something, that has something to it; we want to work on projects that become annual events or that become special gatherings for a group of people. So we have the Randy Rogers Sake of the Song event in New Braunfels (June 12), and we do the big music cruise, which is coming up in July. That’s a much more intimate, smaller music festival than the MusicFest; you’re on a boat with a bunch of musicians and an open bar, and you can imagine what happens after that — it’s a blast.
Two last questions. First, out of all the musicians you’ve ever booked for MusicFest, who’s the best skier?
Ooh. I used to be able to go out and ski with these guys, but lately … I dunno. I bet Creager’s a pretty good skier. And Doug Moreland, I wouldn’t say he’s a good skier, but he looks good doing it. [ Laughs ] Oh, and I’ll tell you who’s good, those damn Braun brothers. Geez. That’s a whole other level of skiing. Those guys are amazing.
And finally, I’ve heard — and seen photographic evidence — that you bare an uncanny resemblance to George Strait. Any comment?
[Laughs] Well, that’s pretty darn funny. I was at a social event just the other day, and it was a dressy occasion so I had my cowboy hat, and several people apparently thought I was George Strait. I was just kind of sitting back in the back. I’ve actually had a few comments like that. And you know what? That’s not a bad thing! I’ll take it.