A Country Punk Liberty: Discovering Pondstock Music Festival, rural Nebraska’s lawless family reunion

[The following story exists as part of the 2017 Good Living Tour Storytelling Project thanks to presenting sponsor Nebraska Department of Economic Development, with generous support from Peter Kiewit Foundation, Nebraska Community Foundation, Humanities Nebraska, Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Pinnacle Bank, Nebraska Loves Public Schools, Union Pacific Railroad, Center for Rural Affairs, and the Nebraska Arts Council.]

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An answered prayer is a bank of clouds, or, barring that, a cold beer. By 3 p.m. under a wide open sky, the better bet is a sweating Busch Light in a camouflage can.

Like most Nebraska land, which remains relatively unspoiled by human interference, there are no trees at the 12th annual Pondstock, 30 miles west of McCook. You bring your own shade — Coleman canopy tents, tarps slung from the tops of RVs, even an open car door might serve —or make due with the slow-growing shadows cast by the lone stage and its twin soundbooth.

The weather, topping out just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit the weekend of June 8-10, is the music festival’s primary conductor. Leave rigid schedules to the setting sun and the weekend’s full moon. As for everything else, including the musicians and friends applying sunscreen 50 times a day and watching the sun float sluggishly toward the horizon, things move as needed and not a moment sooner. Pondstock runs on pond-time. Schedules are just moving targets in a game with no reward anyway. Meanwhile, there’s a bottomless cooler of light beer to pass the hours.

Two Pondstock goers sit at a picnic table near their camper at Lake Hedke

People sit around a cooler on the Pondstock soundbooth

Otherwise, have at it

We catch Vic Giron mingling with some musicians at the soundbooth before the day’s first act takes the stage (an hour or so after the promised timeslot). He’s a towering man with a thick dark beard, wire-frame glasses and a mostly-bald head, usually in a pair of denim overalls and a black T-shirt. His soft-spokenness might pass for reservation, were he not the weekend’s glue.

Vic is largely responsible for this small, lawless music festival in the pasture. He’s the guy every music-minded person between Grand Island and Colorado seems to know. He’s booking the bands and he’s the reason Hear Nebraska is here, after telling us about Pondstock just over a year ago.

I ask him where he thinks we should set up camp for the weekend and he gestures around, arms open with a shrug and a small grin.

“Wherever,” he says. It’s not uncaring, it’s just true. Do your thing.

Lake Hedke, the generously named stock pond that Pondstock calls home, sits in a small depression on the very southernmost reaches of the Nebraska Sandhills. So the stage, about like any you might find in dozens of bar-music venues around the state, except made out of planks and timber and with a roof, sits in a sort of stretched-out natural amphitheater. There are obvious places not to pitch your camp — between the stage and soundbooth, for instance. Or in the lowest part of the small valley where a creek wanders freely enough that the ground is likely a thick glue-muck. But otherwise, have at it.

Vic Giron performs as El Jefe at Pondstock

The “Camp Fuckin Fuck Yeah” crew sits around the fire Saturday, June 10 at Pondstock

The high plateaus and hill tops are a ring of RVs, parties well-versed in the Pondstock experience. At one, we find a smoker trailer which has been working on a whole hog all day long. Another boasts a massive tiedye banner, boldly proclaiming the name Camp Fuckin Fuck Yeah. Between these, and scattered about, are myriad tents and vehicles made for sleeping — even a pickup truck, its bed sealed off and outfitted with a window air conditioner. With a short walk, you don’t have to be told that, most days, Lake Hedke hosts cows, not music festivals. The evidence, laid flat, brown and dry in the tall grass, is plain.

Around 5, Alliance’s Tyler Smith, performing as Mr. Smith, takes the stage for a set of lonesome, protracted folks songs —three cans of PBR lined up like a to-do list.

“Anyone else still hungover from last night?” he asks.

Hangovers be-damned. Later, when Vic gives the order of the day, he says the Ditchrunners will take stage around 11 p.m. and then “St. Christopher until the sun comes up.”

Welcome to the family

Musically, Pondstock is so many things that the common denominator is difficult to suss out. It’s not intentionally casting a wide net, either, like some city-sponsored one-day festival hosting the least-offensive acts in town.

There is some sense of cohesive genre. We’ll see about a dozen one- and two-person acts that could loosely and equally qualify as country, folk or bluegrass. Omaha’s stoner metal Super Moon, playing late on Saturday night, is the festival’s only fully electric band. But across 20-plus acts — and, notably, few or no women in them — the root is more likely a shared set of values that’s hard to pin to any preconceived notion of subculture.

Among the 70 or so people, many of them on the festival’s bill, who stick around for the whole weekend, there’s a common refrain: 100 miles from the nearest town with 10,000 people, Pondstock is a community outside the lines. The community’s somewhat outsider-status is inextricable from its existence, and that helps explain both Pondstock’s longevity and its far-reaching sphere of influence.

Some make the annual trek to Lake Hedke from as far away as Oklahoma and Wisconsin; nearly none of these people live in what you would call a big city. They’re drawn here by a sense of rural-brand libertarianism. To wit, the only rules at Pondstock are no dogs and no glass bottles. Anything else within the realm of mutual respect is fair game and it’s proven again and again, as on Friday night during St. Christopher’s set when a bandmate jumps about 12 feet off the roof of the stage to the bare ground.

“It’s a family reunion,” we hear again and again, both from the stage and in conversation.

Smokestack Relics performs at Pondstock

Wisconsin bluegrass band Dig Deep enjoys a pond-side beer at Pondstock

Super Moon performs at Pondstock

And for such a tight-knit community which first seems like a private, insiders-only party, it doesn’t take long to be welcomed into the family. Following Randall Conrad Olinger’s first-ever Pondstock set on Saturday — a romp through mud-stomping, road-weary country rock tunes — people are already talking plans with him for next year. You meet the standard, as long as you’re here and willing. You get the point.

Vic, performing on Friday as El Jefe, his rolling-thunder train hop blues solo project, thanks everyone for coming and waxes a little sentimental about Pondstock. “We just do our own thing,” he says. “No one tells us what to do,” to cheers from gathering crowd.

Jared Olson, who goes by J Rod and runs J Rod’s Rock Shop, a DIY venue in Kearney, puts it more frankly, comparing it to what he calls the more usual “corporatized” festivals with their VIP areas, $10 beers and heavily enforced regulations:

“There are no fuckin’ rules.”

Home by choice

If you’re savvy, Saturday kicks off with drinking enough water to get a head start on the inevitable dehydration at the hands of more beer and more sun.

Midway through the afternoon, a rambling and gravel-voiced Kiel Grove takes the stage. He plays the proverbial hits: There’s the festival’s sixth song about truck drivers, plenty of references to weed and acid, and some quality Toby Keith shit-talk followed up with a Toby Keith cover. There’s a popular disdain here for most contemporary radio-friendly country music — notably that of Florida Georgia Line and similar. “Fuck Tractor Rap” appears on both hats and koozies, merchandise pedaled by Utah-based Lorin Walker Madsen.

Somehow, things are running ahead of schedule, which really might just mean on-schedule. Behind the soundboard, Vic is pleased and on his way to bone-tired.

“I usually take about a week to recover from this,” he says.

Vic Giron smiles from behind the soundboard at Pondstock 

Dig Deep performs at Pondstock

WhiskeyDick performs at Pondstock

Things are quiet between first-timers Dig Deep, a bluegrass outfit out of Wisconsin, and WhiskeyDick. WhiskeyDick have been on nearly every Pondstock bill and as such are one of the festival’s most highly-anticipated acts. Vic gives the order to wait ’til the sun hits the horizon for the honky tonk-metal duo to go on.

And for the wait, Fritz and Reverend Johnson take the stage to Saturday’s first sizeable crowd. The two mean-looking Texans have been playing together for about 13 years. And while they chew up their guitars with wild abandon, there’s a deep and sensitive sincerity to Fritz’s brassy voice.

WhiskeyDick tours nearly perpetually. When Fritz says it’s good to be back at Pondstock, he says it having played so many other looked-over towns and venues around the country.

“Y’all are family,” he says. “I don’t use that term lightly.”

Everyone knows it, but he proves it anyway and calls to St. Chris, waiting in the wings. Referring to him as his son, he bids Chris to grab something from the back seat of WhiskeyDick’s truck. A few turns later, Fritz invites the landowners, Andrew and Michelle Hedke, on stage. They’ve recently celebrated their five-year anniversary, and Fritz has made a wood-burnt gift in commemoration and thanks. It’s a red heart in classic Americana tattoo style with five tally marks through it.

Later, St. Christopher joins the stage for a song: “These are my two fucking dads from Texas, make some noise!”

That WhiskeyDick resonates so strongly, year-after-year — that the band has found an annual home deep in southwest Nebraska — speaks to those shared values that make Pondstock. Like the self- and often-made connection between country singers and lonesome truck drivers, WhiskeyDick songs are about being on the outcast fringe.

“Momma asks me what would Jesus do,” Fritz sings with vitriol in his voice and fire in his eyes, “I don’t care he’d be the same as you.” It eschews the principles so often associated with the small towns and country roads that so many people here have made their home by choice or circumstance.

Rustic provinces

The sun sets over Lake Hedke, home of Pondstock Music Festival

Finding Pondstock is easy: a couple miles west of Trenton, the first pasture you see hosting a disarray of RVs, tents and pickups. Every driver on this part of US Highway 34 with a wandering eye must have noticed it.

Yet the bluegrass-blues-country-metal music festival feels like a secret to those of us unlearned enough to believe all the good stuff in Nebraska happens in a couple cities crowded to the eastern end. The answer isn’t that Pondstock and its revelers are trying to hide away from the broader arts communities, or keep people out. It’s that out here, it’s a different conversation — a different set of reasons for getting together, reasons that seem unanchored from the task of fostering a local scene.

It’s too far-flung for that, truly. Pondstock appeals to country people: There are lifted pickup trucks and fishing on Lake Hedke. There are camo hats and a few shirts featuring the Confederate battle flag slyly embedded in some tasteless band’s logo. It’s rural, superficially. Rural because the people there mostly happen to also be rural. More deeply, it appeals to those who, even while they’re hunting and driving around small towns, find their kindred spirits few and far-between. There’s a potent sense of fucking off beyond the reach of puritanical regulation.

So, no, Pondstock is no secret. It just might not be for you, and the festival is probably better for it.