At least that's where I found it. At a sprawling, isolated motel just off the Kansas Turnpike in Lawrence.
I came seeking refuge from the nightly riff-raff, from the sordid drunks, lewd men and loose women lurking in the shadows of smoky bars and seedy clubs in the wee hours.
Those were usually my people, my places and my time. But it was one of those days. I had been burrowed in the bosom of a darkened apartment, disgusted with humanity and with myself. Life held no purpose on a February night in Kansas.
OK, I was listening to Joy Division.
But thus fortified, I headed to the Holiday Inn to purge my impure thoughts. Which is why most people go to a Holiday Inn, though I was less concerned with Babylon for $59.99 plus tax than I was with watching the Free State Music Festival.
I needed a spiritual spit-shine, and the final night of this two-day soirée for bluegrass devotees was the answer. The motel's ballroom turned out to be the Lawrence annex of the Betty Ford Clinic, its signs scolding "No Smoking!" "No Alcohol!" and "No Drugs!" I checked my beer helmet and crack pipe at the door and turned my attention to the vendors in the back of the room just as Salty Dog finished its set.
My past experience with purchasing items at music festivals was either paying way too much for Bud Light or watching nervous teenagers pay way too much for sandwich bags filled with oregano. I didn't know what the street value of handmade butter toffee might be. The $1 fiddle raffle mystified me. I marveled at "A Proud Grandma Lives Here" lawn ornaments and "When I die, bury me at Wal-Mart so my kids will visit often" refrigerator magnets.
Then the Tichenor & Biggs quartet began twang-a-langing at the other end of the ballroom. There was no mosh pit. No crowd surfing. Tichenor wasn't spitting on the audience or smashing his guitar. Biggs wasn't chugging whiskey or cutting himself with broken glass. The group was smiling. Dressed like insurance salesman, they sat in front of a giant American flag and happily strummed and sang something about Tennessee and morning dew.
Maybe this was a bad idea.
I looked at the crowd of hundreds of Easter Island statues sitting politely and wondered if I belonged. Most people nodded and smiled as the band played something based on the Gospel of Somebody. Others tapped their feet quietly. A few people were reading. The outrageous hooted. The brazen hollered.
But a calm descended over me as I marinated in the scene. The thump of the upright bass, the sweet rattle and hum of the mandolin and the sing-song soliloquies about plowing began to thaw my soul.
Bluegrass and old-time country music generally remind people of three things: Deliverance, The Dukes of Hazzard or O Brother, Where Art Thou? But hazy recollections of old Hee-Haw episodes were what began clawing up the recesses of my mind when James Monroe and the Midnight Ramblers took the stage and sank knee-deep in Kentucky bluegrass.
Among the assembled geriatrics, several enclaves of young and younger fans looked perfectly content with their decision to drive past Massachusetts Street.
Perhaps that was because this event had something often absent from the concert culture on Mass or any other street: The music was what mattered. The atmosphere wasn't snobby. Nobody seemed to care about getting shit-canned or putting another notch in the bedpost. Nobody vomited on my shoes.
It was a sobering reminder that self-pollution need not be a prerequisite for a good show. That point was driven home by the Wilders, who proceeded to bring the Holiday Inn hootenanny to a raucous finale. The Kansas City quartet has become adept at dusting off tunes musty with age and giving them a welcome kick in the ass. I couldn't help cracking a smile at their wholesome enthusiasm. Hell, they could have made Hitler do-si-do. Huddled around one microphone, swinging their elbows and instruments, they were so congested that they could have been playing on a kitchen table. Fiddle player Betse Ellis shouted, "Get on it, boys!" Ike Sheldon, Phil Wade and Nate Gawron responded by whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
Which is to say the audience had a visible pulse. A couple of people shouted encouragement, and a few brave souls danced as the band stormed through standards by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe. Then they sailed through "King of Kansas City" and "Night Train to Memphis" before peaking with "Higher Power." As the band played on, people stomped and clapped and shouted along, "Amen! Amen! There's a higher power!"
And, for a moment at least, I thought there just might be.