2018 Rooster Walk Music & Arts festival

The best things often begin small with no expectation of greatness beyond the initial act of ‘doing.’ Like acts of decency done with no expectation of compensation, or gifts given with no mention on social media in unspoken request for ‘like’ clicks, and music performed with passion, despite the size of the audience. And when one encounters such events or situations, it feels special. You can tell it’s different somehow. They are doing it for more than what meets the eye. And when you learn the full story of why the event happened to begin with, it becomes a transcendent tale of youthful friendship, tragic loss, a determination to commemorate, and a drive to give back. Thus describes the Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival, now in it’s 10th year, held just outside of Martinsville, Virginia.

Organizers of this festival explained that it began with a desire to make ‘the most of a tragic situation.’ They explained, “The Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival was created in memory of two of our best childhood friends who passed away while still in their 20s: Edwin “the Rooster” Penn and Walker Shank. This festival celebrates life and the notion that you shouldn’t waste a moment of it.” Rooster Walk, now a 501(c)(3) charity, was created with the idea that proceeds from the festival go toward a college scholarship fund at their alma mater, Martinsville High School. Shank and Penn, respectively, were members of the class of 2000 at Martinsville High School. As of last year, $150,000 for local and regional charities has been donated, with more than half of that going to the “Penn-Shank Memorial Scholarship Fund” at MHS.

And this multi-day festival couldn’t happen for a more deserving and economically needful region of Virginia. Martinsville has been a poster child for this country’s struggle with jobs going overseas and a shrinking middle class. The city has led Virginia in unemployment for more than decade, often with a jobless figure above 15 percent. But Martinsville is starting to bounce back, thanks in part to strong grassroots efforts from a wide range of devoted citizens. Rooster Walk is being embraced for its tourism and quality of life values, playing a small but growing role in the area’s social fabric. … And as the organizers say, “the folks organizing this shindig couldn’t be prouder.”

Rooster Walk Inc.’s newest charitable initiative, the Music Instrument Program, was created with donations made in memory of the late Todd Eure. Todd was also a member of Martinsville High School’s class of 2000 and close friends with classmates Penn, Shank and event organizers William Baptist and Johnny Buck. The Music Instrument Program collects old band instruments from the public, gets them repaired/refurbished, then donates them to entry level band programs in the Martinsville City and Henry County public school systems. Rooster Walk Inc. also donates money each year to these band programs that is specifically earmarked to repair these instruments.
The instruments are made available to first- and second-year band students who might not have the financial means to purchase or rent an instrument, or to students who prefer to try several different instruments before settling on one for the rest of their musical careers.

In addition, Rooster Walk awards “micro grants” to the band programs at Martinsville Middle, Martinsville High, Laurel Park Middle, Fieldale-Collinsville Middle, Magna Vista High and Bassett High schools. These grants can be used for any number of needs, ranging from buying sheet music, instrument repair kits, snare drum heads, etc.

As a resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia I’d indirectly heard of Rooster Walk, but never attended. I am happy to say that error in musical judgement has been corrected as of this most recent Memorial Day Weekend.

As a seasoned festivarian, I review and appreciate multi-day events like Rooster Walk with an deep awareness of how many successful and not so successful events can run. And Rooster Walk ranks right up there as one of the cleanest, best organized, and friendliest events I’ve had the pleasure of attending, in roughly twenty years of festival patronage. The site, referred to as Pop’s Farm is positively bucolic. The multiple stages hug the shoreline of a lovely lake with an abundance of trees for shade, and a well groomed lawn for dancing. The grade of the site was well suited to rain, as most multi-day events often face, with water running off the hillsides to feed the lake. I saw only scant areas of mud, and even they were minimal in inconvenience. Great food at reasonable prices. Clean campgrounds and sanitary facilities, and free rides on golf carts to get to and from various parking lots and stages. They appear to have thought of everything. And they clearly thought of everyone, too. As a parent of a now 12 year old, I gazed that their stellar kids area (almost) longing for another child young enough to enjoy it. They even had a staffed slip and slide ?!?!!! Straight up, had I not had thousands of dollars of camera gear hanging off my shoulders, I’d have pretended to be a kid and taken a ride myself.

Event organizers took just as much care with the artist lineups, as well as the logistics of the event experience. I asked multiple attendees who or what band they felt were the main reason for attending, and while many focused on the nightly headliners as their decision making choices, still more listed bands further down the lineup as their favorites. That to my eyes is the definition of a strong lineup, every band was wanted by the audience, in one way or another.

The decision-making bands for my ears surely included the headliners, The Wood Brothers, JJ Grey and MOFRO, and Robert Randolph and the Family Band. But a deep dive into the lineup offered still more to enjoy and be amazed by. I’ll choose a few to highlight. If there can be a current ‘it’ musician on the festival circuit, my money would be on two performers, Marcus King of the Marcus King Band, and Billy Strings. Marcus King, at the surprising young age of 21 has already released two albums of music he describes as, “soul-influenced psychedelic rock,” and Strings, a 2016 IBMA Momentum Awards Instrumentalist of the Year, plays like the love child of Doc Watson and sings with a deep resonant voice like a man easily 20 years older and 50 pounds larger. Their set together at Rooster Walk, dubbed “Strings and King,” was easily the most anticipated, and it delivered. According to the organizers, they’d never met before that afternoon, and only had a relatively short rehearsal before taking the stage. Numerous recordings were created of the set, I suggest you seek one out online and take a listen. It was exceptional.

Filing this under the category of the best group I had no idea existed would make The Commonheart my surprise love of the weekend. I am crushed that parental responsibilities kept me from arriving on Thursday night for their first of two performances at Rooster Walk. It’s all I heard about upon arrival the next afternoon. Their set of music honoring the late greats: Sharon Jones and Charles Barkley as one festival attendee described, ‘ripped the stage floors up,’ with emotion and skill at interpretation. I managed to catch their Friday afternoon set, and stood slack-jawed in musical surprise. I even stopped making photographs, stepped out of the media access photographer’s pit, and danced, cameras swaying in the sunshine. This ten piece ensemble hailing from Pittsburgh features Clinton Clegg on lead vocals with nine musicians behind him of equally-staggering ability. It’s not just soul. It’s not just rock. It’s not just broadway style musical arrangements. It was for my ears a sweaty, sexy soup of emotion with a horn section. I have since learned they will have a few more performances in the Virginia area. I spent a great deal of time telling friends in those cities to check them out. You should too.

In short, I’d wager that Rooster Walk has it all: smart organization, a beautiful location, kind people working and volunteering during it, professional staging, lighting and sound supporting a stellar musical lineup. Add to that the financial value it provides to a region that desperately needs it, and children in schools that need and deserve the instruments donated and maintained, and it’s worth your time and money to be sure. Edwin “the Rooster” Penn, Walker Shank, and Todd Eure are likely looking down on the legacy their friends created to honor their memory. Cheers to the organizers.. And I’ll see you next year!