Now in its eleventh year, the Maverick Festival is established as the premier festival in the UK for Americana and all the many and varied strands of music that come under this broad banner. I caught up with Paul Spencer the man behind the Maverick experience for a chat about the history of the festival and what to expect at Maverick 2018:
Hi Paul. Only a week till Maverick 2018, how’s it going? Pretty busy I’d guess.
No, I’ll be honest with you it’s pretty scarily under control at the moment which probably means I’ve forgotten something (laughs).
I guess it’d be best to start at the beginning and ask how did the festival come about?
Well, it was simple really. I’d always been in the music business from when I was seventeen, in bands and then in music video and film, I made music documentaries for TV so the music business was all I knew really. When I came back to the UK from America I got all excited about this festival The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which I’d been to every year for twelve years. The Festival is obviously much bigger than Maverick but it focuses on home-grown talent, as you know, New Orleans has a fantastic musical pedigree and I wanted to bring some of that vibe with local food and drink, some of that spirit home to England.
I didn’t know which genre to go for if I'm honest. I’d picked up a lot of music, which looking back now, I guess we’d call Americana, but in those days it was Alt-Country which wasn’t a term that went down well as some people just thought of rhinestones and big hats. Country and Western was the kiss of death at the time so we sort of had to bury the country word a little after a couple of years. But, back to your original question, I was back in the UK with a young family and a limited, but extensive in the music business, skill set which lent itself to this idea of a festival. Observing what was around, Cambridge and Shrewsbury made room for the American roots acts but more as an addition to the burgeoning folk scene that was taking off. I felt there was room for something that focused on American roots music, effectively American folk music and all its branches, which are the roots to everything we now know in rock and pop.
I had kids and we used to go to Easton Farm Park, which is a five-minute walk from my house and I’d got to know the owners, but I didn’t think for one minute they’d go for it. We live in a small and conservative, with a small c, English village where people don’t want anything to change. I met with a lot of resistance in the beginning but they came around slowly and I had a lot of support from Easton Farm Park who stuck their neck out for me. Things were prickly at the beginning but the community has realised what a lovely crowd we all are.
The Festival is obviously very family friendly?
I think so. It reflects where I was in my life. I wanted a festival that was safe and not too crowded where you could take young children. I didn’t want to penalise parents who wanted to take their kids, so under 9’s go free and 10-15s have a cheap ticket to make the weekend affordable for families. The farm park has lots of natural attractions for children to enjoy so we don’t do bouncy castles, face painting or clowns, we don’t do anything special for the children, but they have the run of the park and the animals are all still around. As I’m sure you’ve noticed Americana is attracting a younger audience now and we see that reflected at the festival which wasn’t the case a few years ago.
What are your thoughts on the Maverick line-up this year?
It’s interesting; I feel we have some real cutting edge acts this year. We don’t do big names, that’s not what the festival is about, I don’t have the more recognisable names like a Mary Gauthier, Justin Townes Earle, Holly Williams this year, I’ve gone more mid-range with people I feel are breaking through. We’ve sold more tickets than ever before, part of that is the weather, part of it is people know about the festival now but it’s great as we’ve lots of brand new acts.
What was very exciting was this morning I had a call from a friend and Gwenifer Raymond has a 5-star review in The Guardian. Gwenifer is from Wales and lives in Brighton and she got in touch a couple of months ago with a YouTube clip of her playing fingerstyle guitar and she was fantastic so I booked her immediately and today a review in The Guardian. That’s the sort of thing we take pride in. We’ve got good ears for what’s breaking and people like Gwenifer are looking for a platform they’re affordable, amenable and enthusiastic. At Maverick they’ll play a couple of shows, get exposure, sell a load of CDs and it’ll hopefully help their career. The other one I’m very excited about is Cordovas who are like a cross between The Grateful Dead and The Band but young and fresh. They’re my tip to be the talk of the festival this year. Were there any names that stood out to you?
I thought Southern Avenue were a really interesting addition.
I’m really glad you said that as they are my other tip. It was interesting how that came about as we don’t get things handed to us we have to sniff these acts out. A friend of mine from Mississippi met their manager and said they were coming over for, I think, the Cornbury Festival so we were able to pick them up. They’re signed to Stax records and I think their soul sound will go down well with our audience, they’re another young band. It shows another side of the music that fits into the Americana genre and I think they’ll be really exciting.
It really does show the diversity in the genre.
Oh god yes, that’s the exciting thing, from Gwenifer Raymond and her Appalachian influenced primitive guitar/banjo to Southern Avenue’s Memphis soul sound. You can’t say you don’t like Americana as surely there’s something for everyone. I think that’s one of the reasons people keep coming back but I don’t kid myself. We’re very lucky we have the most gorgeous atmosphere, the setting is fantastic, tailor-made for a boutique festival, and it’s experiential. You and I get excited about the music, which is a big part of it, but people come for the combination of the music, the setting and they’ll hear lots of new bands they’ve never heard before. It’s a great thrill and a privilege. It’s not been easy as the festival is reputation driven so you have to have a few years under your belt to build that reputation. It’s a totally different thing to a situation like Black Deer Festival where they can wield a big cheque and book Jason Isbell (who I’d love, and did try to book a few years ago) but it’s a different approach. We have to be more patient. As long as we keep delivering I feel we’re in a good place.
I doubt that such events as Black Deer and Long Road would be a possibility without Maverick which has raised the profile of Americana in the UK?
Well, that is very nice of you. I’d like to think we’ve helped to pioneer and given a stage to showcase… so I think that’s fair enough and it’s kind of you to say. We helped to set the tone I think. I’m not directly involved in the AMA now but that was always the idea to get the music front and centre and the festivals springing up hopefully show there is an appetite for these events. Maverick has been going since 2008 so I like to think we’re the Levi’s Jeans of the genre. We’re the original. These other events like Black Deer and The Long Road are great but they can’t really grab our territory now.
Do artists have to buy into the ethos of the festival? I’ve noticed that acts will play on more than one day and get involved in the tribute sessions.
Yes, I think that’s probably true, having been in bands way back when and worked on the creative side making music videos has given me a certain perspective I guess and building a good reputation, as I've said, has paid dividends over the years with the creative community. You still have to deal with agents etc. which can be a nuisance, a bit of a stumbling block but if the creative people are keen to get involved it really helps.
The tribute thing has just grown from the first one we did. I have a partnership with the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian, Mississippi and they support the Busker stage which is named after Jimmie. The first year we worked with them I thought it’d be cool to do a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers so I asked a few of the bands if they’d like to do a Jimmie Rodgers song before or after their sets and the response was amazing. Last year we did Hank Williams and we’re doing Johnny Cash this year. Everybody seems to have a Jimmie Rodgers, a Hank and a Johnny song and they’re all different, everyone seems to come up with some obscure song so it’s really cool. It’s become really popular, the musicians are there and they love to play.
Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes seem to be really keen as they’re playing all three days by the looks of it.
Well yes, but they’ve come a long way (laughs) from Australia so it seems only fair. We’ve sort of broke the unofficial rule of having band’s two years running but Terra Lightfoot was a sensation last year and she credited Maverick with breaking her in the UK so she’s back on Friday night. She’s a rising star and we wouldn’t want to miss the chance to have her back.
Will you get the chance over the weekend to see a band or two?
I’ve got a great team. You know you can’t really advertise to be involved in Maverick, these positions just evolve like James Partridge who runs the stages, Michael Berlin who does all the power, builds everything and does the lighting, Aaron Boon who handles the bars. When you get these guys involved it does mean I can get on my bike and have a little pedal around. There’s a lot I’d like to see this year. BJ Cole does his Hawaiian thing should be cool as it’s a good tribute to the roots of the music and very summery. BJ has become an important part of the festival over the years and he now acts as our house band if artists want musicians to back them. We get the CDs to him and he does the rest.
What are your plans for Maverick going forward?
Well, I have a few ideas brewing but I think it’s important to keep the essence the same but with a little tweak or two to keep it fresh. It’s a small thing but our film this year, the Professor Longhair documentary, will be outside on a big screen on the other side of the pond. Nobody wants to sit in a darkened room in this weather so it’s just a little fun thing. We don’t want to rest on our laurels and it keeps the team engaged which is fun for all of us.
While researching for this interview I stumbled upon footage of a very young Ed Sheeran from the very first Maverick?
Well yes, I put that up a few years ago as sort of an ironic thing really. We were trying to engage the local community for the first Maverick due to the feelings of suspicion with the locals thinking we were going to be the new Glastonbury. We reached out to local schools and Thomas Mills in Framlingham was the kid’s school. Ed was already getting a little bit of attention and the music teacher recommended Ed as we were looking for local talent. Ed played on the back of a truck to a man and a dog. We were lucky enough to shoot it for a documentary we were doing. It’s a total quirk, a funny thing. Who would have thought he’d go on to such big things, certainly not me?
The first Maverick was an I-was-there moment for many people with Devon Sproule. Sam Baker with a full band, Eilen Jewell for some people in the Americana community it’s our equivalent of seeing the Sex Pistols’ first show. I was so naive in those days; I paid the airfares and bought all these fantastic Texan musicians over to back Sam Baker as I thought it would blow people’s minds, but I didn’t allow for the challenges of getting people along to the festival. We had 400 people that first year, which was a disappointment but looking back it helped build the mythology and the Maverick reputation.
I’d really like to thank you for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We’re in our second decade now and we feel privileged to have got this far. It’s rewarding to see how the genre has come along and to have played a part in that by being an authentic event. We pride ourselves on the authenticity of the event and the music. It’s fresh every year as there’s so much new talent.
Interview by David Vousden