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Give a hand to the Big Somethins’

I’m not sure about the rest of you but I don’t think I’m the only one in these parts who is tired of the Big Nothin’.

When this year began, the local economy was looking like the aftermath of a Florida driver on January Pagosa roads. The carnage was evident in record-high unemployment and sales tax revenues that had still not bottomed out from over two years of hard times. Folks I talked to were finding the word “recession” a glib understatement used by Obama officials, euphemistically describing conditions that more accurately resembled a depression. Bernanke, Geithner and the rest of that crew in bed with the banksters were too craven to admit that the policies they’d drafted — mostly on cocktail napkins taken from restaurants where they’d lunched with Wall Street vermin — had been ineffective, flaccid, unable to stop the freefall that had put millions of Americans out of their homes and millions more out of work. A job so well done that the parasites who created the mess rewarded themselves with tens of billions of dollars in compensation for creating the national Big Nothin’.

Before you liberals get up in arms about my ire with Obama, let me say that House and Senate Republicans were no less mealymouthed about what was really going on in the country and, considering it was largely their policies that created the mess in the first place, doubly deserved to be horsewhipped in the public square. The Big Nothin’ was, by and large, the product of giving the keys to the cash register to thieves; the rest was the result of cutting taxes for the rich and profligately funding two wars, all without feeling the need to pay for any of those strategic blunders.

Locally, the Big Nothin’ is symbolized by an empty shopping center that blights the downtown like a festering boil on the forehead It’s an announcement that the community couldn’t care less about its appearance, that the downtown area is rotting from west to east. Add the vacant store fronts to the east of the City Market center and we have almost three contiguous and continuous city blocks that flash a neon “closed for business” sign for any potential investor or entrepreneur passing through town.

Examining sales tax figures as we edge towards the end of the year, I see little to cheer: The numbers look as though they’ll be flat at best, relative to last year. Likewise, the numbers of unemployed in the county will most likely edge out last year’s average as the worst rate in 24 years. We all hope that a slight positive trend in sales tax revenues and unemployment numbers suggested during the last half of this year continues in 2012 but for the moment, I’m predicting that, if things get better, they’ll only get slightly better.

The Big Nothin’ seems to be with us for a bit longer, lingering and unwelcome as Irish relatives during the holidays.

Despite my dim view of the future, I’ve been encouraged by what might become a Big Somethin’ for this town: The Outlaw Snowdown festival next month.

I’ve put aside my skepticism of the logistics (heating a massive tent in Town Park during a Pagosa January) and say that the featured lineup looks hot enough to melt all the snow in town.

It’s not just that someone is taking a massive risk with producing a new event in town — and trying it during the coldest month of the year — but Melissa is bringing acts that haven’t really been tried out on a characteristically staid Pagosa audience.

I’ll confess here that my knowledge of alt-country is severely lacking, limited to stalwarts such as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Joe Ely; back in the day, Graham Parsons and Gene Clarke, or recently, the Old 97s. There have been other bands that I’ve heard on Pandora or NPR that I know can rock with a vengeance (the defining quality of alt-country) but since it’s not exactly my daily cup of brew, I’ve rarely taken note. That’s about to change, I think, the closer we get to show time in January.

Outlaw Snowdown is another Big Somethin’ that adds to the other two we already have going for us in this town. Although I’m not all that enamored with the June Folk n’ Bluegrass Festival (too much dinky-dinky doop-dee-doo music for me to endure), the end-of-summer Four Corners Folk Festival rocks every year, with last year’s lineup especially exceptional.

Jackie Greene blew me away with a style of blues rock that harkened back to the Boogie Bands of the early ’70s. Cousin Harley ripped the joint with his gritty and greasy brand of rockabilly while Caravan of Thieves had everyone in the meadow on their feet — I don’t think anyone was sitting during their blazing version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Headliners Los Lobos (certainly the highlight of the weekend) and Keb Mo’ showed the engineer cap and granny dress crowd that quality American can be amplified while Natalie McMaster proved that folk music, when not confined to rigid convention or protocol, could be an evolving, intelligent form.

In fact, last year’s Folk Festival felt pivotal, indicating Dan and Crista’s willingness to stretch out and bring new or different music to the area, suggesting Bigger and Better Somethins’ in years to come.

Although I don’t know who we’ll be seeing next year, it would be great if any of the big name Alt-country acts I previously mentioned were featured.

More than that, what about Wilco? They’ll be on tour promoting one of my favorite albums of this year and although they’re probably too far out for the Guilds-and-mandolins-only set, Jeff Tweedy’s earlier work (especially with Uncle Tupelo) should qualify Wilco for the late-summer stage. That they played The Bluebird in Denver a few years back suggests to me that Wilco would not be out-priced for this summer.

OK, maybe not. While arguably affordable, Wilco is probably a little too experimental for the hip-replaced crowd that tends to demand purity up on the hill.

But as long as I’m spit-balling within indie terrain, perhaps My Morning Jacket (with their decidedly early-’70s soft-rock/country-rock groove) would open some minds and tilt some ears. The Hold Steady is pretty rocked out in a rootsy way that reminds me of Springsteen or early Van Morrison.

As non-headliners, Sufjan Stephens or Bon Iver would be killer for young and old alike — plenty of folk stuff in their repertoire — Stephens and Bon Iver are two musicians who mix wholly acoustic music with amplifiers and electronics without giving that seeming incongruence a second thought. Also, John Doe definitely has a rootsy sound and I think he would be a great fit; Chris Isaak as well (he and Doe have a similar sound at times), both playing emotionally charged (though understated) tunes that mix of surf music, honky-tonk country and rockabilly with gutbucket grittiness.

Somewhat similar in style (yet also light years distant), topping off one of the nights with Cat Power would earn my eternal fealty to FolkWest. Shan (Cat Power) Marshall’s sparse arrangements, minimalist playing and sultry vocals would be an epiphany for the festival’s audience with her alternative turn on country, blues, soul and Americana. Considering that Marshall said in an interview this year that she will be releasing an album next summer (after a lengthy haitus), I’m positive she’ll be on the road to promote it.

Oh yes, there’s also Neko Case, Jenny Lewis and Rilo Kiley, more than a handful for the audiences up on the hill and my Christmas wish list (which grows with each passing moment). Indeed, there are many more acts I’d like to see grace the main stage, not just bigger name acts that have been around awhile like Drive-by Truckers or Deertick but lesser known artists such as The Goodbye Radio, Bosque Brown, Lynne Ferguson, Marissa Nadler, Deanna Johnston, Phosphorescent, Buffalo Diamond, William Elliott Whitmore — my list feels like it reaches from coast to coast.

It’s not that I’m trying to tell Crista and Dan (much less Melissa) what to do or how to run their festivals, I’m just expressing my own (admittedly biased) desires for what acts I think would add a little piquant flavor to already excellent events.

No, I’d never have the temerity to tell those folks how to run their business. Unfortunately, the powers that be have not been as gracious or humble. Hearing about the growing numbers of attendees at the festivals ( “hearing” being the operative term since I’ve yet to see any of those bureaucrats up on the hill), there has recently been a rush to micromanage those who had done quite well on their own, for almost two decades, thank you very much.

In a moment of monumental stupidity, one town council member commented during those discussions that there was a “mountain of money” being made at the festivals and that the town needed to cash in on that.

No, they don’t.

The additional sales tax revenues and lodgers tax revenues generated by the festivals is “cashing in” enough. Go ahead and charge a $1 ticket tax on wrist bands to fund park maintenance, improvements and cover required additional staff time (a proposal that event organizers were immediately on board with) but an attempt to manage how promoters control the distribution of those wrist bands is myopic at best, suicidal at worst.

Rather than getting in the business of people who obviously know how to run their business (especially when those events generate dollars for other businesses in town) and doing their level best to taint the well, the powers that be ought to be — and have been — solving the matter of the Big Nothin’.

By my calculations, we taxpayers have been paying close to $200,000 for the salaries of people who were hired for their supposed ability to turn a Big Nothin’ into at least something that doesn’t paint Main Street as the domain of big trucks and tumbleweeds. I seriously doubt that the majority of taxpayers would agree that results justify those salaries.

In the meantime, the Big Somethins’ in this town are simply a labor of love — and not costing a red cent of local tax dollars.

I’m not saying that music festivals will do much (if anything) towards solving the Big Nothin’ that blights our otherwise quaint downtown core. However, it seems to me that those festivals have done considerably more to pump life into our economy than the overpaid and ineffectual “experts” who ought to be spending every waking minute to solving the Big Nothin’ that seems to characterize our town with each passing day.

As a town, we ought to embrace each Big Somethin’ that enriches all of us with music and art (even if we’re not strictly fans, cough, cough, Folk n’ Bluegrass) while putting money in the pockets of local businesses. When it comes to those Big Somethins’, more is better.

As far as Big Nothins’, we all should be saying that enough is enough and we can’t take any more. Then hold those accountable who attempt to monkey-wrench a Big Somethin’ while throwing up their hands when it comes to fixing the Big Nothin’.

jim@pagosasun.com

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