Wyoming’s most eclectic music festival celebrated its 18th year this August.
Nowoodstock — named after the keg parties Jalan Crossland threw in the Nowood river valley in the 1990s — is described by attendees and musicians as “pretty much the same” as it’s ever been. They mean that as a compliment. “It’s like we’re salmon. We have to return to Nowoodstock every August,” said Shaun Kelley, the former bassist of the Jalan Crossland Band.
Indeed, the festival seems to be defined by a sense of community and ritual. A low-key vibe permeates the grounds and people alternate between blissful bobbing in the sun and dips in the river, from 9 a.m. to midnight.
The festival and the musicians who play it, particularly Jalan Crossland, enjoy a symbiotic relationship, says festival director Pat O’Brien. The two men are quick to credit the other with creating and maintaining the “chill vibe” that defines this celebration of Wyoming musicians. The festival is also seen as an important showcase for talented up-and-comers.
“Nowoodstock is a nice feather in your Wyoming music cap,” said Annie Claussen Scott, upright bass player for Lander-based Low Water String Band. “It’s a sign you are in the scene.”
“Nowoodstock approached us, which feels really nice,” said Holly Qualm of Prairie Wildfire, a young folk trio whose members are still in high school. An invitation to play Nowoodstock gives you a feeling of being in the Wyoming “web of musicians,” added Sage Palser, also of the band.
O’Brien’s creation keeps visitors and musicians coming back year after year and turns tourists driving between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone into “Nowoodstock salmon.” It even snags a few motorcyclists on their way to and from Sturgis.
While attending a jam session at the Perk Up Coffee shop in Ten Sleep 18 years ago, “the words just fell out of my mouth. We should do a little music festival,” said O’Brien.
“One day or two?“ was then owner Jana Hampton’s response.
“She didn’t even blink,” said O’Brien with a chuckle. They quickly decided Ten Sleep was more of a destination than Worland and if they got to work, they could even hold the first one that summer.
Mike Bayauck, then director of the Worland/Ten Sleep chamber of commerce, joined the team and they presented around 15 Wyoming musicians to 650 attendees in August 2001. Tickets were $7 for the entire weekend.
The decision to continue the event was rooted in the response from the community. “By the end of the second day I had heard ‘thank you Pat’ so many times, I was ready to slap the next person who said it,” O’Brien recounted. The festival is for the residents of the Bighorn Basin and the artists first, he said, the rest of the state next, and then everybody else. “It started out as a whim, and now it’s a challenge.” A challenge to keep it going, to keep finding new music, to keep the wide-ranging assortment of musical styles. “Primarily what I look for is artists, someone writing their own music. My love of music period is why I’m doing this,” he said.
Beyond O’Brien’s love of music, Nowoodstock is propelled by the enthusiasm and embrace of the musicians that commune in the Bighorn Basin. Jalan Crossland has played every year of the festival and draws attendees and musicians to the event.
First-time visitor Terry Vaughn came as a Crossland devotee. “The variety of good food and sound, it is kind of eye opening. I did not have this view of the Wyoming music scene before this. It’s been great and I will be back,” he said.
“We heard about it (the festival) because we are Jalan fans,” said Randy Gerard, a three-time festival attendee here with his wife Jody. This festival has become an annual part of their ride to Sturgis. “Jalan is the gateway drug,” added Jody.
Crossland lives a few short blocks from the festival grounds and maintains a welcoming family vibe at his house. “We got a place marked on this post from when he was just a little kid. That was 15 years ago,” said Shaun Kelley, pointing at his now six foot tall son. Many musicians camp in Crossland’s yard and the porch looks and smells like a family reunion, alive with laughter, banter about the previous night’s activities and well worn tales — a favorite being Jalan’s uncle Dan’s portrait of his father as “the greatest detective in all of Mexico.” Old friends serve food and new friends pick banjos.
“It might be foreign to adopt these policies in your own home, but at festivals we bring ear plugs and Sudafed,” said Joe Lefevre of the Low Water String Band in response to Crossland’s commentary that someone had enjoyed his hospitality into the wee hours of that morning. “A little Sudafed and an ear plug, you can sleep through a bomb dropping.”
Crosslands role in creating a “family” of musicians seems to be felt by everyone, a fact that’s not lost on O’Brien. “His career and the success of this festival are intertwined,” he said.
O’Brien celebrated his 70th birthday on July 25. His muse for the festival, Chicago singer-songwriter, Steve Goodman, would have also been 70 that same day.
Self-described “Chief cat-herder,” O’Brien hopes the festival will outlast him. He echoed the sentiments of others around the festival: “I’ve done this so long and I think it’s been a good enough thing for the community … it would be awful if it died when I do,” he said.
Many have expressed enthusiasm for running the event alongside O’Brien, but when he tries to get someone committed and “in my back pocket during a festival, they can’t stick with it.”
O’Brien is looking for an apprentice. His short list of necessary qualities include: Passion for good music, creative problem solving, solid interpersonal skills, initiative and autonomy. Until that candidate emerges, though, he’ll keep doing what he does so well.
“I am gonna be here for as long as I can. Even if I have to start runnin’ around on a Rascal,” he said.