NC Music Fest aims to spread the Thanksgiving Jams

by Ryan Snyder

| | @YESRyan

Culture jamming the Black Friday experience isn’t exactly a new concept; Buy Nothing Day arose in the 1990s as a means to subvert the retail equivalent of stocking away acorns for the winter. There has been, however, a more visceral rebuke of the traditional consumer call to action that’s ratcheted up exponentially in this abbreviated holiday season.

On a recent “Saturday Night Live,” Keenan Thompson surgically and hilariously upbraided businesses putting up Christmas décor weeks before Thanksgiving, while workers at the largest retailers organize in protest of increased business hours. Chris Phelps, owner of Lexington’s High Rock Outfitters, is jamming Black Friday a little differently. He’s offering an alternative to camping outside of big box stores in the cold of November for a miserable experience in the name of savings: camping outside of a music venue for a weekend of homegrown talent.

Officially, it’s the second year of the NC Music & Arts Festival, the multi-day bluegrass and rock-and-roll shindig that Phelps and colleagues sprung on Lexington in the dead of winter last year. After examining feedback from the attendees of last year’s post-Christmas event, this weekend’s festival will be the first year that attendees will have the option of incorporating that time-honored music festival tradition of primitive living.

The idea of urban camping made sense to Phelps to try out. Urban festivals have become more en vogue for music fans seeking the same immersive experience in a more accommodating environment, but there’s also a natural synergy between the retail foot traffic that the holiday weekend brings and the curiosity of all-day live music intersecting with the shopping tradition.

“The idea was to offer tent camping regardless of the weather conditions. We got a lot of suggestions last year from people saying they were willing to come to the festival, but couldn’t afford the festival ticket and the hotel room,” Phelps said. “Those costs were definitely keeping a lot of people from attending.”

The primary challenge in his mind initially was to get the city of Lexington to agree to it. Phelps prepared a list of requests for City Manager J. Alan Carson to consider on behalf of the festival via e-mail, and said he was shocked when he finally sat down to go over them.

“I thought it was going to be very challenging to get [the city] to agree to some things,” Phelps said. “As soon as I sat down, the city manager slid the e-mail he had printed out back across the desk and said, ‘I’m good with all of this.’” The festival’s kickoff occurred on Tuesday with a jam by members of Big Daddy Love, the Deluge, Marvelous Funkshun and more, as Phelps rolled events he had already booked for the stage at his outdoor supply shop-turned-multi-tap brew RYAN SNYDER pub under the its banner. That act opened the door for him to finally fill out the week with shows every night in response to years of the same request.

“Historically, on Thanksgiving, High Rock Outfitters is closed, but last year we got beaucoup text messages asking if we were open,” Phelps said. “People were saying, ‘We’re tired of sitting around with our family, open up and let’s have a beer.’ “We’ve had a lot of people ask why the hell we’re having music on Thanksgiving night — well that’s why.”

Wednesday night’s four-hour slot by Boone alt-country favorites Possum Jenkins will precede a marathon performance Thursday night by a band that has found a home at High Rock Outfitters, and whose principal is one of the Lexington retailers who stands to benefit most from a buzzing downtown scene this holiday weekend. Kevin Scoggin Jr., the grunge-gospel-bellowing, fedora’d frontman of Rev. Scoggin’s Funkadelic Tent Revival, recently opened Crossroads, which Phelps calls “the best vinyl shop [he’s] ever been in.”

Indicative of his festival’s core values, Phelps and his venue have played a crucial role in nurturing artists like Scoggin’s in an area known far more for its barbecue than its music. As the festival aims to grow strictly by featuring North Carolina talent, Phelps acknowledges that booking challenges will eventually arise in the event, which is already planned several years out, but the mission will remain in place.

“This is strictly a North Carolina event,” Phelps said. “I’ve had booking agents tell me that I don’t have to box myself in. I don’t have to do that; I want to do that. There’s enough talent in North Carolina and it may get more challenging down the road, not to continue booking the same bands, but new bands will emerge.”

What may continue to evolve, however, is the concept of High Rock Outfitters. That’s been set in motion since Phelps and his collaborators (very successfully) spent their marketing budget to bring in Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers, David Childers, and the Overmountain Men for a holiday performance three months into the store’s existence. The store does the majority of its retail sales online, and a decision will be made in January how to proceed on that end. For now, the kitchen sink is getting thrown into Black Friday, just no merchandise.

“High Rock isn’t having any Black Friday sales,” Phelps said. “But we are selling music.”

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