Rising star folk singer and musician Abigail Washburn takes the stage 5 p.m. today kicking off the three-day Red Ants Pants Music Festival this weekend.
She’s among 15 star-studded acts performing on the main stage at the second annual festival in White Sulphur Springs.
Also on the program are headliner and multi-Grammy Award winner Emmylou Harris and her Red Dirt Band playing at 9 p.m. Saturday; five-time Grammy winner folk and country music singer Mary Chapin Carpenter at 4:30 p.m. Sunday; blues legend Taj Mahal, 2:30 p.m. Sunday; as well as “outlaw” country singer and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Washburn and Shaver couldn’t have come at music from more diverse points. But music’s simple, from-the-heart truths guide both of them in their songwriting.
In many ways, Washburn actually discovered her musical calling in China. While Shaver, a self-taught poet and songwriter, lived a hardscrabble life in Texas working on ranches, in a lumber mill and pumping septic tanks. He tried to scratch out a living while singing in honky tonks.
Washburn, while a student in China, discovered the power of folk music as a way to communicate with new friends, she said in a phone interview from Denver. Music spoke more powerfully than trying to talk about ideas such as democracy and freedom, which were unfamiliar concepts in China.
Later, ready to study law in China, she took a farewell trip down the East coast of the United States, taking with her a newly acquired banjo. Along the way, she stopped in at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia and the International Bluegrass Music Association convention, picking up banjo lessons on the way.
Suddenly doors opened, and she was on the path of being a musician, known now for her compelling voice and mastery of the clawhammer-style of banjo playing. A member of the all-girl string band Uncle Earl for several years and founder of the Sparrow Quartet, Washburn recorded a solo album, “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” with producer, renowned banjo player and husband, Bela Fleck.
“I realized I needed to have something to communicate, something meaningful, from heart to heart, person to person,” she said, “and the thing that really showed me that was music.”
Shaver and his band, Heart of Texas, take the stage Saturday, and will be playing songs from his popular new CD, “Billy Joe Shaver, Live @ Billy Bob’s Texas.”
Shaver is the man behind many a country western star, having written songs for Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.
Speaking from Brownsville, Texas, where he’s shooting a movie with Robert Duvall called, “A Night in Old Mexico,” Shaver talked about his role: “I play an old gasoline station man,” he said. “It’s not a big part – but it’s funny.”
He’s appeared in several other Duvall films and the TV film “Bait Shop.” Duvall also sang Shaver’s song “Live Forever” in the film “Crazy Heart.”
He was raised by his grandmother in Corsicana, Texas, after his father nearly beat his pregnant mother to death. He believes his brutal introduction to life is what turned him into a songwriter.
In and out of school, he always liked writing poetry and making up songs.
“My English teacher told me I was a good poet,” he said.
He worked on farms and ranches and sold newspapers as a kid, but at night he spent time playing music in a part of town heavily populated with African Americans.
“They’d be playing blues songs,” he said. “They took me in, they knew I was good. Country music is really close to being the blues,” he added, “and rock ‘n’ roll ain’t nothing but the blues with a beat.”
Shaver had learned to play the guitar at 11, and as a young man lost two fingers in a sawmill accident. He adapted and kept playing.
Determined to make it in the music world, Shaver hitchhiked to Nashville in 1965 after his marriage fell apart and found a job as a songwriter that paid $50 a week.
“I just write songs that are poetic,” he said. “I’ve written over 500 songs, and I have a mess of new songs to record. They’re really powerful. They’re real simple. I’ve been blessed with simplicity because I didn’t get much schooling.”
He’s led a hard life, fighting drugs and booze and losing his mother, wife and son in the span of a year. Life keeps handing him more material.
Take his song, “Wacko in Waco,” a musical account of when he shot a man in 2007 during a barroom brawl.
“I’m going to bop till I drop,” said Shaver, adding that he is looking forward to returning to Big Sky Country.