Gears & Guitars, the multi-day music festival at Bailey Park that runs in conjunction with the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic, has brought lots of big names to the city over the years — Jason Isbell, the Gin Blossoms, Barenaked Ladies and Blues Traveler, to name a few.
This year’s festival, which begins today with a concert after the Winston-Salem Dash game at BB&T Ballpark, is primed to be the best in its four-year history with several big acts.
As in past festivals, each night of music has a different theme. May 24 is dedicated to progressive bluegrass (Songs from the Road Band, Infamous Stringdusters and Trampled by Turtles); May 25 is set aside for what Ray Boden calls “Southern Rock with a conscience” (Devon Gilfillian, North Mississippi Allstars, Drive-By Truckers) and May 26 is dominated by acts associated with the ’90s (Dishwalla and Stone Temple Pilots). Hannah Wicklund will open the set with classic rock.
“It’s a great balance with a lot of different things,” said Boden, the festival organizer.
This year’s festival will add features such as more food trucks, an enhanced VIP area and some art installations to reflect the city’s arts scene.
Attendance was down to 8,000 people last year due primarily to rain. Most years it’s around 10,000 people.
On May 25, the show will coincide with the Cycling Classic’s criterium, a fast-paced race consisting of many laps around a closed circuit. A pack of riders will whiz past Bailey Park several times in the course of the concerts.
Drive-By Truckers will headline that day’s show. The Truckers have been the standard-bearers of Southern Rock since forming in Athens, Ga., in the late 1990s, dwelling in that space once occupied by the Allman Brothers Band, a socially progressive group of long hairs whose music was rooted in the red dirt of the Deep South.
“Southern Rock Opera,” its 2001 masterpiece, examined the contradictory nature of growing up Southern in such songs as “Wallace,” where vocalist Patterson Hood sings: “Throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is coming to stay/When he met St. Peter at the pearly gates, I’d like to think that a black man stood in the way.”
The Truckers have endured several lineup changes since then, including the arrival and departure of Isbell, with Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley remaining the two constants. Their current lineup, together since 2013, marks the longest period of stability for the band.
Hood said he and Cooley have only become closer through the years. The two have been making music together since the 1980s.
“We’ve actually become much better friends as adults than when we were young,” Hood said. “We stayed together initially because there was such an obvious, good chemistry, and we had to learn to be friends. We’re extremely different but we’ve always played together real well, even though neither of us is very good yet.”
The Truckers’ discography includes 2006’s “A Blessing and A Curse,” recorded at Mitch Easter’s Fidielitorium Recordings in Kernersville. Often ranked among the best album in the band’s catalog, it proved to be the last for Isbell, who was fired the following year.
Hood recalled the making of the record was a painful time but had praise for the studio and Easter’s input.
“I’ve been a huge Let’s Active fan from way back, not to mention that those are probably my three favorite R.E.M. records,” Hood said of Easter’s most famous band and his production work for R.E.M. “I was a big fan of Mitch’s, and it was great getting to know him. We had a hard time making that record just from our own problems. The band was going through a rough time, and it wasn’t one of the more fun records to make. There was a lot of drama, and we don’t like a lot of drama.”
Despite the enormous loss of Isbell, the Truckers forged on, turning even more political, evident on its 2016 album, “American Band,” which tackled topics such as the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
The band has been working on a new album, the first in the Trump era, which should make for some interesting commentary, given Hood’s propensity to address social issues bluntly. A release date has not been announced.
“It’s such a surreal, crazy time. I look at the news, and it’s like, nothing is shocking any more. It’s all so screwed up,” Hood said. “And it’s hard to put that into words. I’d say that that was probably the biggest struggle making this record. So we put probably a little more personal slant on our songs. There’s maybe as much about living through this as the actual events themselves.”