Words: Erika Rasmussen
Photos: Jerry Friend
This past weekend saw a Frodo Baggins version of Billy Strings and his merry band usher in Halloween with a "Lord of the Rings"-themed weekend titled "Away from the Shire" at Harrah's Cherokee Center in Asheville, NC. Billy was joined by Royal Masat on standup bass as Gandalf, Rushad Eggleston on cello as Gollum, Ahn Phung on flute as Eowyn, Billy Failing on banjo as Aragorn, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle as Legolas, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin as Samwise Gamgee. The commitment to their level of detail in their setlists and their costumes was as epic as the Tolkien tale itself. Each night followed the tale of one of the trilogy's three books: "Fellowship of the Ring", "The Two Towers", and "The Return of the King".
The first night was "Fellowship of the Ring" night and it kicked off with 'Concerning Hobbits' from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy movie soundtrack. Next was 'The Old Home Place', a Dillards' cover that was reminiscent of the start of the stories and the Shire. This Shire theme was also felt in the next song, 'Home', Strings original. For Bilbo Baggins' 111th birthday, the band then launched into 'Happy Birthday to You', followed by 'Flaming Red Hair' from the soundtrack and then the original, 'Secrets', perhaps because Frodo's journey is supposed to be secret. We then heard 'A Walking Song', which was actually a poem in The Lord of the Rings with the title "Three is Company". Though the film trilogy does not feature the poem, it does feature parts of it. The title of the weekend was taken from an altered version of the next song, 'Away From the Mire'. The traveling theme was further carried through with 'Travelin' Down this Lonesome Road', a Bill Monroe number. The next original song was 'Hide and Seek', which may have been a reference to the ever-hidden Gollum.
Set two led with the weekend original, 'Gollum's Nasty Nasty', and featured Rushad Eggleston on cello solo. Rushad perhaps got "into" his costume more than any other band member of the weekend, which is saying a lot. The crowd was then overjoyed with 'Midnight Rider' from The Allman Brothers Band, and it was reminiscent of Strider the Rider (a.k.a. Aragorn) who comes to the Hobbits' assistance, as was the following 'Wild Horses' by the Rolling Stones. The emotion of the Hobbits looking back at their simple lives with fondness was reflected in Strings' 'Heartbeat of America'. We then moved into the watchtower of Tolkien's Weathertop with Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower' in a seething and fiery version worthy of the Ring. Another clever lyric alteration then appeared in the form of the traditional 'Poor Ellen Smith' being changed to 'Poor Frodo Baggins'. Again, thinking of their simple Hobbit lives up North with fondness, we are presented with 'Whispers of the North' from Gordon Lightfoot and Strings' 'Love and Regret'. As the story's action moves through the icy pass of Caradhras, we hear Billy Failing on lead vocals during 'High on a Mountain' from Hot Rize and the original 'Ice Bridges'. A super interesting reference is seen in 'Dark as a Dungeon', originally by Merle Travis which says of coal mining: "It'll form as a habit and seep in your soul. Till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal." This is eerily like when the Black Riders stab Frodo with a blade whose shards would work their darkness through a victim's system to their heart. When Frodo was temporarily enchanted by the ring is portrayed by Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire' with Royal Masat on lead vocals. Just as Frodo slept for almost 3 weeks after getting stabbed, we move into the dark with Bill Monroe's 'In the Pines'. Frodo discovers that Bilbo, now grown very old, lives with the elves on the riverfront and has retired from adventuring. This is mirrored in the original 'Meet Me at the Creek'.
"The Fellowship of the Ring" ends with the actual formation of the fellowship, so the encore and the Saturday show end fittingly consisted a beautiful version of 'Will the Circle be Unbroken?' from William MacEwan.
Sunday night would be the "Two Towers" show, featuring Jon Stickley of the Jon Stickley Trio, and it began with the soundtrack's 'The Prophecy' and then moved into the original 'Watch it Fall' in a moving tribute to the great loss of Boromir's death at the beginning of this book. As Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli chase the orcs across the fields of Rohan they begin to lose hope. Strings' 'Long Forgotten Dream' asks if one would look for meaning and find that motivation when needed. After three days of running with little rest, they meet a troop who lend them horses to continue the pursuit but offer little hope. This relentless run from evil is reminiscent of the next original song, 'Running' and Strings' instrumental 'Running the Route'. While our fearless heroes have little hope that the hobbits are still alive, the original, 'This Old World' reminds us that "It goes from bad to worse sometimes, before it can get better." Just as in Gordon Lightfoot's 'Home from the Forest' when "For his castle was a hallway, And the bottle was his friend. And the old man stumbled in, From the forest" we see that the Ents (literally a forest of tree beings) have destroyed Isengard, and the evil old man, Saruman hides in his tower. The Black Mountain of Isengard is then seen in the traditional 'Black Mountain Rag'. The view of the Ents is portrayed in Pearl Jam's 'In My Tree'. The dismal vibe of the Dead Marshes is ironically translated into the lively instrumental, 'Down in the Swamp' of Bela Fleck fame. The next lyric alteration was that of the original 'Show Me the Door' into 'Show Me Mordor'. Gandalf's confrontation with the Balrog/death is interpreted by Doc Watson's 'You Must Come in at the Door'. When Eowyn falls in love with Aragorn, but he does not return her feelings because he is betrothed to Arwen, one can picture his loneliness in the face of chivalry in 'Tennessee Stud' by Jimmy Driftwood.
The second set kicked off with the traditional 'Rabbit in a Log' and its lines "How will I get him I know (I know) I'll get me a briar and I'll twist it in his hair. That's how I'll get him I know" can be seen as when Gandalf reveals Wormtongue's treachery. I was thoroughly confused by 'I Peed on a Bird' from the cello genius, Rushad Eggleston, until I learned that a 'peeing Gollum' was somehow photographed in Beijing mountains in 2014 and achieved viral fame. I'm guessing this inspired the weekend's original tune about Gollum relieving himself in nature. The tune was hilarious in person, regardless. Just as Gandalf miraculously re-appears in the "Two Towers", re-branded as Gandalf the White, Royal Masat appeared in a white Gandalf costume and a chrome standup bass that was truly a thing to behold. This appearance amidst a cloud of dry ice smoke went into 'Nights in White Satin' from the Moody Blues. In our story, as Faramir advises the travelers against the path they have chosen, the show transitions into 'So Many Miles' by Billy Failing. Wormtongue, possibly trying to hit Saruman, throws a crystal ball out the window. Later, Pippin cannot resist and he sneaks a look into the ball and beholds Sauron. As Widespread Panic reminds us in 'Fishing', "Narcissus is just too easy to see." Next, The Dillards are covered in 'There is a Time' as the hobbits discover a surprisingly pleasant countryside and pause for a stewed dinner. In John Hartford's 'All Fall Down', the hobbits find themselves in the middle of a battle between an army journeying to Mordor and a company of Gondorian men and the hobbits are captured. There is a retreat into the Glittering Caves, and this is reflected in the traditional 'Bonaparte's Retreat'. The Battle of Hornburg is seen in the original, 'Wargasm'. Galadriel's phial is a manifestation of hope and light as is the river in Johnny Cash's 'Big River' and again in the light of the original 'In the Morning Light'. Sam's despair at losing Frodo to Shelob is beautifully depicted in Strings' 'Taking Water'. The weary lone traveler, such as Sam, who's now taking on the journey on his own, is painted in 'Freeborn Man' from Keith Allison.
The third night was Monday night, a.k.a. Halloween, a.k.a. "The Return of the King", a.k.a. the night that Duane Trucks of Widespread Panic's percussion section stepped in. We started off with another amazing cello solo in the middle of Rushad Eggleston's 'Smeagol's Story'. Rock's original LOTR song (Led Zeppelin's 'Ramble On') was then translated by Billy on a Les Paul. If you know anything about Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, then you knew this song was bound to come up. As Gandalf and Pippin ride through the night, pausing only briefly to rest, we hear the original, 'Highway Hypnosis'. We can envision Gandalf and Denethor exchanging words and see Gandalf going to gather news and take part in councils of war during Black Sabbath's 'The Wizard'. The band sang Crystal Gayle's 'Ready for the Times to Get Better' in a moment of dying hope but Aragorn and his men come to shore and soon win the battle. The Hobbits are almost "next to" the fire of Mount Doom while Sauron is focused his "new fool", fighting Aragon and the armies of the West at the Black Gate to the tune of Jimi Hendrix's 'Fire', "You don't care for me, I don't-a care about that. You got a new fool, ha! I like to laugh at. I have only one a-burnin' desire, Let me stand next to your fire." 'Walk on Boy' by Doc Watson translates to Frodo and Sam beginning the final stage of the journey across Mordor. They move slowly and struggle and finally reach Mount Doom. Pippin finds Gandalf, who saves Faramir, but cannot save Faramir's father. The loss of a parent is poignantly echoed in Marty Robbins' 'When It's Lamplighting Time in the Valley'. Aragorn leads his armies to the Black Gate. An immense army strikes, and Aragorn's armies are gradually exhausted. "We're not the leaders anymore. All our believers washed ashore. We've got to find another door. We're not the leaders anymore" quotes Strings' 'Leaders'. When the time comes to sacrifice the Ring, Frodo cannot do it. Instead, he declares it for his own and puts it on. He has to live with the knowledge of that guilt and the shame is reflected first in Yonder Mountain String Band's 'Sorrow is a Highway' and in Widespread Panic's 'All Time Low'.
Set two began with Bill Monroe's 'Mother's Not Dead, She's Only Sleeping', except that it was changed to 'Frodo's Not Dead'. This may be a reference to when Sam learns from the Orcs' conversation that Frodo is only unconscious, not dead. Frodo's shame and regret of what he could not do haunts him in his later years and that is depicted in the original 'Know it All'. We next see this theme in the original 'Hellbender'. In addition to his regret, Frodo is saddened to return home with Sam to the Shire to find the country not the peaceful land they remember. "Well the folks around here don't get along anymore. Everybody's dealing despair" says Strings' 'Dealing Despair'. The traditional instrumental 'Soldiers Joy' befits the revolt that Merry, Pippin, and Sam led to reclaim the Shire. Another Zeppelin song that has long been associated with the Lord of the Rings is 'The Battle of Evermore' which possibly sees Galadriel as Queen of Light and the "Prince of Peace" as Aragorn. The song's most obvious link to Tolkien is the line: "The Ringwraiths ride in black". Sadly, the hobbits learn that the cause of this devastation is Saruman. Now released, the former wizard has taken his revenge by bringing the war to the hobbits, as heard in Black Sabbath's 'War Pigs', "Generals gathered in their masses. Just like witches at black masses. Evil minds that plot destruction. Sorcerer of death's construction." Joining Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Bilbo, Frodo sails to the Undying Lands (which only immortals and ring bearers can do so Frodo and Bilbo are among the very few mortal beings allowed passage to the Undying Lands). This is represented by 'Fearless' by Pink Floyd. Frodo has saved the Shire for others, but he is sadly unable to stay there himself and still has to keep running, as seen in the originals 'Fire Line' and 'The Fire on My Tongue'. Since the only love that Frodo found was his love of the ring, it was fitting to hear Mother Love Bone's line from 'Crown of Thorns', "And this is my kinda love. It's the kind that moves on. It's the kind that, it's the kind that, it leaves me alone, yeah. Like a crown of thorns." Frodo will be perpetually on a journey to whatever feels like "home" or his calling as described in the traditional 'Long Journey Home'.
Like bookends, night three ends as the weekend began, with the soundtrack's 'Concerning Hobbits' (featuring Billy on guitar synth) and 'A Walking Song', the Tolkien poem in The Lord of the Rings.
Just as Tolkien was applauded not JUST for the mind-blowing level of detail that he put into his works but also for his amazing skill in writing what continues to enthrall us, I cannot attest enough to the heat that the band put on these works. "Lord of the Rings" can be polarizing in its popularity, but I cannot imagine a fanbase that would not appreciate the epic odyssey that I got to behold this weekend.