“A Banjo Is Not A Flotation Device”: A Report From Billy Reid’s Florence, Alabama, Shindig
Last month, a reporter asked Billy Reid to name the best thing that had happened to him so far in 2012. Easy, he said: getting a new pontoon boat.
Never mind that whole CFDA Award for Menswear Designer of the Year honor back in June. That was great, for sure. But when you live in The Shoals—the name given to the group of quirky little towns near the Tennessee River in northern Alabama that includes legendary music haven Muscle Shoals and Florence, Reid’s adopted hometown and location of his flagship store—you’ve got to have your priorities straight.
Billy Reid’s priorities have always included giving back to the good folks in his neck of the woods, whom, for the last four years, have been integral to the success of Shindig, the annual music, fashion, and food festival that has become his signature event. “One of our favorite things about the weekend is the blending, having folks in from all over the country mixing with all of our local friends,” said Reid, whose wife, Jeanne, and kids took part in the weekend. “We love being able to play host for our community.”
Like any good host, Reid made absolutely sure that no one went away hungry. If anyone went away hungry, well, that was their problem: Food was everywhere.
Shindig kicked off on Friday night with a picnic in the backyard of one of Florence’s many stately homes, featuring Alabama seafood prepared by Chris Hastings of Birmingham’s Hot & Hot Fish Club. Hastings’ support staff included Reid’s fellow Florentine fashion designer Natalie Chanin’s son, Zach, who recently opened a catering company in town. “It was definitely one of my joys of the weekend to see Zach so happy with all these great chefs,” Chanin said. “I said to him, ‘There are some of the best chefs of the South here—no, make that some of the best chefs in America.’ He agreed.”
Later that night, the much (and deservedly) ballyhooed band Alabama Shakes headlined at the retro-cool Shoals Theater, where the stage featured a giant Alabama state flag backdrop and quirky hanging light fixtures fashioned by Chanin’s longtime beau, local folk artist Butch Anthony. Shakes leader Brittany Howard, a wild-haired, big-voiced native of Athens, a town just a few miles to the east, gave a stunning vocal performance, bringing the crowd to their feet multiple times. “I’ve been all over the world,” said Howard, whose band had a stint opening for Jack White earlier this year, “and I never feel more at home than I do back here in Alabama.”
After the show, Chanin and guests including Imogene + Willie designers Matt and Carrie Eddmenson filed into the narrow alley that separates Reid’s store from the theater for cold beer, snacks from local food trucks, and more music. The highlight: a late-night jam session in the Billy Reid store with members of Nashville’s Jonny Corndawg and none other than Reid on guitar.
Shindig wrapped up on Saturday with an outdoor party at the grand Tennessee River home of one of Reid’s friends, where the aforementioned pontoon boat made a notable appearance, along with a major spread by the Fatback Collective, a contingent of Southern chefs. Of course, there was more music, including an outstanding gig by The Pine Hill Haints, a bluesy musical extension of the Florence art collective Black Owl Trading Company (the graphic art arm contributed images for Shindig commemorative T-shirts).
Sounding a bit like the Cramps might if they grew up below the Mason Dixon line and were fronted by Tom Waits, the Haints made what was possibly the biggest splash of the weekend—literally—as front man Jamie Barrier (pictured, below) ended the show by taking a backwards Nestea plunge into the pool still strumming his banjo, which he then left floating in the water, much to the delight of the children that were bobbing along to the beat in the shallow end. When Barrier, sideburns and blue jeans dripping, finally made his way back to the mike to close the show, he issued them a teasing warning: “Remember that a banjo is not a flotation device.” Words of wisdom that Reid should take into account as he begins to kit out that new pontoon boat.
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