In a time before Coachella and other big festivals, cities and towns all over the Deep South had their local music festivals. On some set weekend in the spring or summer, local organizers would scrape together what money they had, book some (mostly local) acts, erect a stage in a parking lot or a field, and sign up some food vendors, so we could all gather, sweat our asses off, and rock out to some good tunes!
Ours in Montgomery, Alabama was Jubilee CityFest, which closed up shop in 2012. I have no idea what year the festival began, but it was around when I was a child in the ’80s, and over the years, I saw acts ranging from James Brown to Leftover Salmon. Oddly enough, the highlight for me – the best show I ever saw at Jubilee – was Molly Hatchet followed by Foghat. But that doesn’t discount seeing Parliament Funkadelic, moe., Gov’t Mule, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Drive-by Truckers, Blues Traveler, Violent Femmes, and more. There was the year that Bo Diddley stopped everything because a guy in the audience was filming him. The old bluesman was livid, taking the microphone to rant about how he’d been cheated out of so much money over the years. Then there was the time Widespread Panic’s show was cancelled due to lightning, and we all stood outside the gates in the rain, hoping organizers would let them play.
Beyond Montgomery, there were City Stages in Birmingham, CityFest in Tuscaloosa, June Jam in Fort Payne, and other events. June Jam was put on by the band Alabama in their hometown of Fort Payne and featured mostly country acts through the 1980s and 1990s. City Stages, which started in 1989, was held for the last time in 2009. For a lot of us in Generation X, these festivals were our only chance to hear live music (without driving to Atlanta or New Orleans or Nashville). Though I liked some of the bands I went to see at Jubilee, I never would have bought a ticket to see Molly Hatchet and Foghat, but I went to see them that night for something to do.
What hurt this kind of event was charging admission and increasing security. In the early days, when they were free, people could park, carry a cooler and a picnic blanket, and stake out a home base for the day. Later, having to pay to get in and not being allowed to bring food and drinks meant that a day at the festival was going to cost you. That changed the crowd and the vibe of the event. What had been very democratic, an event for the people of the city, became something for people who could drop the dollars for a day pass and overpriced food and beer. When minimum wage hovered around $4 an hour, lots of folks weren’t going to spend half-a-week’s pay to go down there that weekend. Looking at the comings and goings of these festivals, many had died off by the 2000s.
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