Ink and dirt rise to the surface at Heavy Rebel Weekend

by Brian Clarey

I shot a man in Reno. Just to watch him die. Well, not really. But if anything could give me a case of the Folsom Prison blues it’s this Heavy Rebel Weekender out here in Winston-Salem. It’s a tribute to the rebellious spirit of American rock, country, rockabilly, boogie-woogie and just about anything else that’s played with a twang and a sneer, and the streets are filled with hot rods and tattooed festival-goers. I’ve never seen so many pompadours, stand-up basses, PBRs, patches with names on them, halter tops, torn fishnets, knee-high lace-up boots, Buddy Holly glasses, Zippo lighters, porkpie hats, mohawks, cropped bangs, wallet chains, sideburns, cowboy hats, cuffed Levis, raccoon tails, corsets and platform shoes in one place before. I’ve also never seen so many people who regard a pair of overalls as a complete outfit. And I’ve never in all my years seen festival organizers so calm. Mike Martin and Dave Quick have been running this thing for seven years now, and they do it without clipboards, earpieces, color-coded laminate systems or frantic, last-minute cell phone rantings. In fact, to see them chilling out on the site, hanging with friends or enjoying shows, you might think they were just another couple of fans out for the greatest weekend of the year. They’ve transformed the space at the Millennium Center into a concert hall, with posters hanging from the ceiling of the main room celebrating the heaviest rebels of all time: Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Ronnie Van Zant, Bruce Springsteen. Together they describe an esthetic that is at once far-reaching and very specific – what these guys have in common is pure badassery and a commitment to both a style and a substance that the faithful come out to celebrate every year. I’ve met ’em from Virginia Beach, St. Louis, Florida, New York, South Carolina, Las Vegas, Texas and Louisiana, a gathering of fringe elements come together to make a powerful presence in the Camel City. Down in the warrens below the Millennium Center the stages are so cozy the sound has nowhere to go but straight to your soul. You can feel the basslines in your ribcage and the snare drum shots in your knees. There are logos painted on car hoods and fenders, frenzied dancing in front of the stages, an ungodly amount of PBR consumption and sweat. Sweat is very much a part of the Heavy Rebel Weekender. That’s along with mud wrestling, banana pudding, wet wifebeaters, flame jobs, even more tattoos and a staggering array of hot rods dominating the downtown streets. It’s the kind of event that’s hard to pin down, impossible to sum up in a few words and resistant to pigeonholing. But… At 3 a.m. in the 14th floor of the Marriott, a man named Hick’ry Hawkins uncases his burled wood guitar. He’s wearing weathered cowboy boots, a belt buckle as big as a plate, a pristine white cowboy hat and a Captain America tattoo on his shoulder. And Hick’ry Hawkins begins to play his guitar for an audience of six, seated on beds and chairs in this hotel room. The tune: “I Want You to Want Me.” Yeah, that’s right – he’s pulling out some Cheap Trick, imbuing it with a touch of the trailer park with slow strums and a beautiful rasp to his voice that carries into the next number, “Surrender.” “Your mama’s all right/ your daddy’s all right/ they just seem a little weird/ surrender….” It goes on like this: “Dead Flowers,” “Born in the USA,” “Pink Houses,” “Every Rose Has its Thorn.” He plays an original, something more congruous with the hat and boots that makes reference to rattlesnake eyes, the devil’s right hand, the tree of original sin. Is it country? Rock? Folk? A blues-style boast? And why do I have to put a name to it anyway? And there in the hotel room as the morning sun starts to lighten the sky I have this epiphany. It’s about the music and the attitude and the style, how it’s all connected in the most fundamental of ways, how one man and one guitar can evoke feelings of pride, giddiness, sorrow and lust in a hotel room in the early morning just as a trio can rock a stage in a basement and turn the room on its ear. It’s all part of the same thing, or so it seems to me at dawn on the 14th floor of the Marriott. And then Hick’ry Hawkins tunes his guitar for one more number before we all turn it in. He plays the opening chords of “This Land is Your Land,” sings the first verse with his eyes closed and his soul laid bare. And the six of us sitting on beds and hotel-grade furniture snap from our reverie. We get it together, one by one, and by the time he hits the first chorus, we’re all singing along. To comment on this story e-mail Brian Clarey at