Harry Crews is enjoying a bit of a moment right now, albeit posthumously. The boozing, brawling, menacing raconteur, who taught creative writing at the University of Florida for 40-plus years before dying in 2012, is the subject of a jaw-dropping new biography by Valdosta State University professor Ted Geltner, highlighting Crews’ brutal childhood and hell-raising adulthood.
But ’round these parts, Crews started enjoying his own renaissance in 2014, when Jon Reinersten and Mike Collins of revered Gainesville alt-country band Whiskey & Co. founded the Follow the Sun Fest. The concept was simple, but simply brilliant: Start in St. Augustine with a grip of good shows on a Friday, party down in Gainesville all day and night on Saturday, and end the long weekend with a Sunday blowout in Cedar Key. The inspiration? A quotation from Crews’ essay, “Why I Live Where I Live,” published in 1982 in the book Florida Frenzy and excerpted here:
“I can leave the place where I live a couple of hours before daylight and be on a deserted little strip of sand called Crescent Beach in time to throw a piece of meat on a fire and then, in a few minutes, lie back sucking on a vodka bottle and chewing on a hunk of bloody beef while the sun lifts out of the Atlantic … If all that starts to pall – and what doesn’t start to pall? – I can leave the beach and in three hours be out on the end of a dock, sitting in the Captain’s Table [in Cedar Key] eating hearts-of-palm salad and hot boiled shrimp and sipping on a tall, icy glass of beer while the sun I saw lift out of the Atlantic that morning sinks into the warm, waveless Gulf of Mexico. It makes for a hell of a day.”
Collins tells Folio Weekly Magazine that he just wanted to find a new way to do a music festival based on the feeling they got from reading those words. “And Harry Crews inspired it.” For Reinersten, who’s been driving over from Gainesville to St. Augustine for years to soak up the saltwater vibe and jam with local luminary Jacob Hamilton, Follow the Sun is all about embracing the singular North Florida life that he and his many friends feel blessed to lead. “It all starts with the beautiful drive,” Reinersten says. “I’ve never done it and said, ‘Oh, God!’ It’s always easy to feel so connected to the region when you’re driving between St. Augustine, Gainesville, and Cedar Key. And the people in those places are all awesome.”
After two years of bootstrap DIY vibes, this year Follow the Sun Fest gets a new injection of energy on Memorial Day weekend. First, Friday shows in the Oldest City kick off on St. Augustine Amphitheatre’s Backyard Stage, as cultish Arizona slop-rockers Supersuckers headline, with support from Colorado alt-country favorites Drag the River, Baltimore indie rockers Outer Spaces, Charlotte crooners Saints & Sinners, and Gainesville’s Ann Pragg. The party then moves to old standby Shanghai Nobby’s, where local heroes Rivernecks, Kenny & The Jets, Sunshine State, and Mental Boy cut loose.
On the docket in Gainesville for Saturday are two sets of shows: a matinee at Boca Fiesta featuring two G-Vegas favorites, The Enablers and Endless Pools, then the main event at The Atlantic with repeat performances by several top bands. And then we land in weird, wonderful Cedar Key, with a full day of performances by more bands than we can list here, at Black Dog and the newly renovated 83 West.
“Cedar Key rules,” Reinersten says. “It almost takes you back to a different time. We’ve got 20 bands playing throughout the day – acoustic stuff at Black Dog and harder rock at 83 West – and in addition to all the friends we bring, the locals there are starting to catch on. They’re so used to Jimmy Buffett and Toby Keith and Top 40 covers, but Follow the Sun is becoming a big deal for them and they’re itching for original rock.” Collins adds, “A lot of bands that play the festival are, like, ‘We’re going where? Cedar Key?’ And we’re, like, ‘Trust us on this one – you’re going to have a blast.’”
Ticket prices for Follow the Sun are ridiculously low: $40 for a three-day pass, with most venues offering single-day admission for $5. Reinersten and Collins both say that’s possible only because of the collective efforts of their like-minded friends and volunteers, all of whom have chipped in to organically build Follow the Sun from the ground up. And rumor has it there may be an even bigger treat in store. Supposedly, Ted Geltner himself might even show up to read from his Harry Crews biography, Blood, Bone, & Marrow, bringing the whole thing to a satisfying full circle.
“It’s so nice to see people understand what we’re doing,” Reinersten says. “It’s all about taking pride in North Florida and embracing what we have here. That and just having a good time.”