Why a tiny off-the-grid Kentucky music festival draws one of the hottest acts in music

By Matt Wickstrom, Kentucky.com

Tyler Childers (left) and Danville-based singer-songwriter Coby Langham take in a performance during last year’s Kickin’ It on the Creek. The festival, which began as a birthday party, has grown into an off-the-grid music gathering that draws fans from outside Kentucky to camp on the creek for three days of Appalachian-flavored music. Photo by Sarah Cahill | KY Cahill Photography

IRVINE, Ky. — The hills of Eastern Kentucky will be alive with the sound of rock ’n roll, country and bluegrass music for a largely grassroots and word-of-mouth gathering that is becoming one of the hottest music events on the calendar.

If you are one of the few who has a ticket — some lined up 42 hours in advance — consider yourself lucky. Only 1,000 were sold for this Irvine, Ky., festival that started with a birthday party five years ago and helped launch the career of Lawrence County’s Tyler Childers.

At the fifth annual Kickin’ It on the Creek, Childers, who released his breakthrough album, “Purgatory” in 2017, will lead over 35 other Appalachian-flavored acts over three days on the nearly 200-acre, off-the-grid holler paradise of Byron Roberts.

Many of the musicians will stay all weekend, jamming in the woods around Little Ross Creek where festivalgoers camp, most without electricity. There’s no cellphone service, so you won’t see fans Instagramming their outfits or posting selfies. Patrons are told not to rely on GPS to direct them to the site.

The roots of the music festival stem from a 21st birthday celebration for Roberts’ son, Kenton, and CD benefit for Childers in 2014.

In a short film on the gathering, “Let the Mountains Ring Forever: The Kickin’ It on the Creek Story,” Childers said, “He said he was only going to do it that one time. We built a small stage and afterwards we were sitting and talking about how well it went, and Byron was like, ‘Man, I think I want to do it one more time, do it again.’ I was like, ‘Heck man, you’ve already got the stage built.’ So he built a bigger stage.”

In 2015, the father and son began to discuss ways to recoup money spent on the event. Childers began dating Roberts family friend and local songbird Senora May. She suggested getting bands to play as a means of covering expenses, leading to the first annual Kickin’ It, an invite-only affair, that year.

Byron Roberts started the Kickin’ It on the Creek music festival on his nearly 200-acre property in 2015 after a successful birthday celebration for his son and a CD benefit for Tyler Childers in 2014. Photo by Alexis Faye

“Unlike most people who organize a music festival, he (Roberts) is not in it for the money, attention, popularity or good community regard for a political campaign later,” said May, who is now Childers’ wife. “It’s simple: He’s proud of where he’s from, he loves music, values human connection and appreciates when those things come together.”

Roberts knows the nearby hills, caves and crevices of the area like the back of his hand, having been a native of Estill County. A 1986 graduate of Estill County High School, Roberts recalls being around music from an early age with his mother and brothers singing at church, as well as a short stint in the high school band.

However, Roberts’ musical focus quickly shifted from playing to observing, leading to him becoming enamored with acts such as the Allman Brothers, Goose Creek Symphony and the Grateful Dead, the latter of which he followed around on tour for a short time. That love for music continues with a passion he shares with his family.

“Music has always been a healer for me,” said Roberts. “It’s always something I’ve been drawn to.”

In 2016, it was Roberts’ festival people were drawn to.

“Music lovers showed up and it was just magical,” said Roberts, who relies on hundreds of volunteers to produce the festival, including local EMTs and the Hargett Fire and Rescue volunteer fire department. “We quickly realized that this was something we may need to do again, not just for us, but for everything and everyone involved in making it happen.”

Relying mostly on word-of-mouth, the festival, which is only open to people 21 and older, quickly built up a base of devout local fans. The event has continued to grow, thanks to the rising stock of Childers, who has used his platform to bring other Kentucky artists into the spotlight, in addition to performing at the festival every year. Music fans from around the country and world have been eager to land a golden ticket; in 2019, they will be coming from over than 20 states and Canada.

The Roberts’ Family Farm, nestled across Estill and Lee Counties, is the home for those lucky enough to get one of the 1,000 tickets for the festival. Camping is included in the price of the ticket. Photo by Arthur Hancock

The fever has even hit a popular local brewery. Georgetown-based Country Boy Brewing has teamed with the music gathering to brew a special beer available only at the festival and official pre-parties. The batch is rightly called Kickin’ It on the Creek Ale and features hints of strawberries, mango, and coriander.

“Kickin’ It on the Creek is special to me because it showcases the best my home has to offer,” said May, who will also play. “Our culture and people are often misrepresented by outsiders. This festival gives voices to the people who not only write and sing about the ‘hillbilly’ culture, but those who live it.”

The music obviously strikes a chord with many.

In June, hundreds lined up in downtown Irvine to buy tickets in person. The remaining tickets went up for sale online in July, selling out in seconds.

Tyler Childers, left, performs at Kickin’ It on the Creek on Sept. 15, 2018. The music star has played at each festival on the Roberts’ land. Photo by Jarod Stephens

“Everybody’s here for the same reason — it’s just to listen to good music and hang out with like-minded individuals that are just ready to have a good time and share an experience together,” Childers said in the short documentary by Zach Curry and Joe Whalen. “I’ve seen people out in the crowds that I run into in Florida and North Carolina and all over the place. All my favorite people in all those places seem to be here right now.”

This year’s three-day event, Sept. 19-21, features a lineup spearheaded by Childers, who nearly stole the show at the inaugural Railbird festival at Keeneland in August.

Others joining Childers on the hand-built stage will be Monkey’s Eyebrow native Kelsey Waldon, Lexington-based southern jam rockers Magnolia Boulevard, and Bluegrass acts Town Mountain and The Larry Keel Experience.

“This whole area of the Appalachian Mountains is just a little rural heaven and the people here in the community are what make it that,” said Roberts.


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