Hinterland 2019 from a kid’s perspective

The author with his 7-year-old son Michael at Hinterland 2019

Few things put a damper on the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle like parenting.

Rock shows usually go late, and toddlers always wake up early. Accordingly, I’ve passed up countless shows that I otherwise would have jumped at because they simply weren’t compatible with my responsibilities as a husband and father to two kids (ages 7 and 2).

Sometimes that reality frustrates me, but I try to share my passion for music with my family whenever possible. Hinterland, a three-day outdoor music festival earlier this month near St. Charles, Iowa, provides the most recent example of my struggle to balance those two sides of my life. The incredible lineup – including Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves, the War & Treaty, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Colter Wall and others – was simply too good to pass up. Taking my 2-year-old daughter along seemed out of the question, on account of her stubborn insistence on throwing epic tantrums without warning and for no discernible reason. But my nearly 8-year-old son Michael, a thoughtful and compassionate lad who has been to several big concerts, acted excited by the prospect of going. So we sent our toddler to spend the weekend with my wife’s parents and decided to initiate our son into the music festival experience.

The missus and I, along with my way-cool music-loving parents, have attended three Hinterland festivals now, and it’s been a highlight of our year each time. Our first exposure to Brandi Carlile’s live show took place at the first Hinterland in 2015. Carlile put on such an energetic, life-affirming performance that my wife and I swore we’d never miss another chance to see her. We’ve taken in all-timers like Willie Nelson at the Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater and newer favorites like the Turnpike Troubadours, who have perhaps burned out before their time and may never tour again.

But leaving the kids with the grandparents the two previous trips to Hinterland allowed us to pretend we were just a couple kids in love, living in the moment without worrying about whether our son had applied the proper amount of sunscreen or having to carry his snoring form through the darkened parking lot because the last set went way past his normal bedtime (Fun fact: my son is the only person I know who has dozed off in the middle of Bob Dylan AND Willie Nelson concerts). So I think it’s fair to say the decision to bring our son along caused us both some real anxiety. It pleases me greatly, however, to report he did really well – for the most part.

Saturday afternoon, as we dealt with withering early August heat, disaster struck when my son’s melting ice cream cone dripped all over his clothes. This set off some tears from Michael, and I worried that we’d made a mistake. Maybe he wasn’t ready for the rigors of a weekend-long music festival. As his mood nosedived, I felt certain that my worst festival nightmare was coming true, that we’d have to pack up and leave without seeing any of my favorite acts on the bill.

But it was Hinterkids to the rescue. Hinterland organizers anticipated just this sort of emergency and put together a slate of activities just for kids. Children and parents could retire to a tent in a quiet corner of the festival grounds for some shade, and Michael got his photo taken for a nametag that looked like a backstage pass for a 90s Nickelodeon cartoon. Kids could complete activities in a workbook specially designed to feature all of the musicians on the festival lineup. He also painted a picture of an alien that got added to a mural featuring artwork from all the kids who visited the tent.

Michael went into the tent on the verge of a breakdown and came out ready to rock for the rest of the day.

The sun set, and the boiling temperatures eased into a much more comfortable range. St. Paul and the Broken Bones took the stage and delivered an irresistibly funky set. My family and I sat on a blanket, close enough to see the stage but far enough away that we weren’t overwhelmed by dense crowds. Michael, without saying a word, climbed into my lap and watched St. Paul and the Broken Bones in hushed awe. Paul Janeway, the dynamic lead singer, pulled off the most thrilling moment of the entire festival by climbing down off the stage during the last song and making his way back to the VIP area, which was situated on top of the sound booth. Janeway climbed the stairs to the balcony and finished the song standing on top of a folding chair, a couple stories above the audience, conducting the band to an exquisite crescendo. And Michael and I were right there to share the moment together.

Paul Janeway of St. Paul & the Broken Bones delivers a riveting performance atop scaffolding at Hinterland 2019.

We ended up leaving about halfway through Jason Isbell’s headlining set because Michael was clearly running out of steam. Of course, I ended up carrying him through the pasture that served as the general admission parking lot as sleep overtook him. My arms ached by the time we got him in the car, but I honestly didn’t mind.

I’d learned a lesson that night. When it comes to finding that balance between parenting and experiencing all the great music I can, it’s okay to make some compromises if it means sharing a few unforgettable moments with my family. My son got too tired to hear Jason Isbell’s finale, but we’ll always remember Paul Janeway precariously balancing on that chair high over our heads.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a way of thinking as much as it is a musical form. It’s a rejection of the prevailing way of doing things in favor of thinking for yourself. Rock ‘n’ roll, at its purest, challenges the corporate and commercial priorities of our culture in favor of strengthening our ties with the humans around us. In that sense, introducing my son to his first music festival at a young age may have been a pretty rock ‘n’ roll thing to do after all.


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