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The Hillstompers in Madrid Photo credit: Jeannine Chavez

Dancing with Madroids

—Ty Belknap

Last month, on a perfect fall day, a carload of Placitonians attended an event billed as the first annual Joe West’s Psychedelic New Mexico Folk and Bluegrass Festival in Madrid. At the train yard, next door to the historic Mineshaft Tavern, Joe had two tent-covered stages with a great lineup of local musicians playing nonstop; one band would play its last couple of songs and encores while another started playing on the second stage.

Admission was $15 dollars at the gate—just ten dollars for Madroids. No use faking it—they knew who they were. We watched a couple of bands and marched around with the Hillstompers from Los Alamos—this included dozens of people in tie-dyes playing instruments left over from the high school band. Then we crossed the road to hang out with friends who had rented the B&B above the Coffee Junction—a very cool place. Even with the road crammed with tourists attending the art walk, we could still listen to the music from the back porch. Like most buildings in downtown Madrid, it was built during the last century, or maybe the one before that, during the coal rush that brought over 2,500 residents, a school, hospital, and bar. The mine closed in the 1950s and just about everybody left, creating a ghost town.

In the seventies, a few hardscrabble hippies started to repopulate the town. The 2000 census recorded 149 residents. From the porch, I looked out over the back streets and reminisced about my experiences working for the census bureau in 2009. My job was not to count, but to find out where people lived or conceivably could live, which in Madrid means just about anywhere. With the relentless nosiness that drew me to journalism, I snooped around old school buses, goat pens, and rickety wood-framed cabins that were long ago dismantled in Kansas and brought to Madrid by train.

The hills around town were dotted with abandoned communes, crumbling adobes, and free-form structures inhabited by hillbilly hippies, recluses, and artists. Many Madroids objected to a government agent like me trespassing upon their retreats, but I was protected by my bureau name tag. Some of the most menacing residents would wind up offering me beverages and talking my ear off. They would warn me about being shot by the neighbors who later sat me down and offered the same warning about the house I had just left.

Nobody seemed menacing at the Festival, and there seemed to be no police to enforce the peace. The odd collection of Madroids were there to party and dance with their friends and neighbors. There was no marijuana wafting through air and no warnings about bad acid, but the atmosphere felt psychedelic anyway. According to Wikipedia, a psychedelic experience is characterized by the striking perception of aspects of one’s mind previously unknown, or by the creative exuberance of the mind liberated from its ostensibly ordinary fetters. You’re never too old for that!

We returned from the B&B in time to hear Joe West’s Santa Fe Review playing a nice mix of “psychedelic country,” original tunes, along with old favorites of the Jefferson Airplane and Creedence. Joe was followed by the “second coming” of Family Lotus, a group of musicians that played every honkytonk in Northern New Mexico—including the Thunderbird in Placitas back in the seventies. The whole family hadn’t played together for twenty-five years. Aging band members traveled from all over the country for the reunion.

Guitar player Jerry Faires was quoted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “I came here in 1968 and shortly thereafter, I began my graduate work, which went something like this, ‘They were traders and trappers and talkers of trash, the creators and collectors of the infinite stash, off the books, off the grid, living on cash and dreams and love and Nepalese hash. They were making fine objects in metal and stone, living wild, living free, living close to the bone, out by themselves but never alone, in the rarified air of the creative zone.’“

Family Lotus had only a few days to practice at Faires’ Madrid silver shop in the old stone schoolhouse, but they sounded great to me and all the Madroids that danced freeform (no two-stepping or waltzes). Faires told me, “Family Lotus is the only rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass, jazz band in captivity with a flamenco guitar player. We’re missing part of our string section—violin and cello—but you won’t find anybody up there with a learner’s permit.”

Joe West grew up listening to Family Lotus. Their impact and the chance to bring the band back together inspired him to put on the festival. Faires said, “I’ve known Joe since he since he was a kid,” describing him as a considerable player—”the Impresario of Santa Fe County.”

Other bands included Pa Coal and the Clinkers, the Rio Grande Family Band, Hot Honey, Sage and Jerrett’s Happy Gland Band, Will and the Wonts, and Todd and the Fox.

Watch for Joe West’s second annual Psychedelic New Mexico Folk and Bluegrass Festival, maybe coming next year.
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