The twisted road that brought Louisville’s favorite festival and Kentucky’s favorite band together at last.
Growing up a music geek in the Louisville music scene during the 1990s could tenuously be described as strange, if only for lack of a better term. Thanks to grunge, Seattle flannel was smeared across the cultural landscape, and Louisville was no exception. The only homegrown rock icons we had to look up to were scattered and inconsistent. There were The Monarchs, who had a brief stint on the Billboard charts in the early 1960s. An underground band named Slint never reached anything remotely resembling commercial success in the late ’80s, but two critically lauded albums launched the career of uber-producer Steve Albini and influenced alt-rock icons like Kurt Cobain and Thurston Moore, who regularly name-dropped them in interviews. Then there was Joan Osborne, whose sickeningly poppy “One of Us” had overtaken the nation, and Days of the New, who imploded and disappeared before their album had time to drop off the charts. The only thing anyone knew for sure was alternative rock had suddenly become cool, and Louisville was looking for its place in the cool. But the often-tumultuous scene ultimately proved to be fertile soil for present-day, Louisville-bred music industry powerhouses My Morning Jacket and J.K. McKnight.
“I remember there were shows every weekend—every Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” My Morning Jacket bassist Tom Blankenship recalls. “Music in general was blowing up, grunge was happening, and I started to see cheerleaders and football players from my high school going to the same shows I was going to. It was wild times.”
The My Morning Jacket story begins in 1994, when 16-year-old Jim Olliges formed his first real band, Month of Sundays, with childhood friend Aaron Todoavich on guitar—along with Ben Blanford and Dave Givan on bass and drums, respectively. The band quickly picked up traction locally due in part to Olliges’ unique voice and deeply personal lyrics.
During the next four years, the band garnered a reputation as being one of the area’s most exciting live acts–but managed to put out only one album and one 7-inch single. By 1998, Olliges (who had taken to calling himself Jim James because he thought the more concise the surname, the better) was getting frustrated by Month of Sundays’ productivity, or lack thereof. That discontent led to James playing solo open-mics, using them as outlets for the plethora of new material he was writing. And instead of being billed simply as Jim James for those early acoustic performances, he adopted the stage moniker of My Morning Jacket.
That same year, while performing in Lexington, James met another Louisville band, Winter Death Club, a three-piece that featured Blankenship on bass, Johnny Quaid on guitar, and J. Glenn on drums. “The first time I met, or even saw, Jim,” Blankenship recalls, “we were opening for Month of Sundays. He was sound checking to ‘Whole Lotta’ Shakin’ Goin’ On,’ and he didn’t know the lyrics, so he just kept saying: ‘whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on’ for a good 10 or 15 minutes. That was their whole sound check.” James and Winter Death Club struck an instant musical connection. When it came time to document the solo material he had been performing around town, he knew he wanted a full band behind him so he approached Winter Death Club to do the sessions.
The early rehearsals seemingly were uneventful, considering the band was familiar with one another’s playing—they just needed to adjust to the new singer/songwriter/creative force in James, who would be driving this project. Originally, the demo session was a favor to James—they had no intentions of thwarting their own career for what amounted to James’ side project. But soon, Month of Sundays would go by the wayside—and Winter Death Club was playing full-time as My Morning Jacket.
By 1999, just as James’ new band was in its infancy, across town John Kelly “J.K.” McKnight was kicking around the hallways of St. Xavier High School, the same ones James had walked only three years earlier, biding his time until graduation. McKnight knew he wasn’t going to be a musician, but there was a longing in him that made him want to share music in a way he couldn’t quite pinpoint yet. He wanted to combine a deep-rooted love for music with his budding interest in activism and environmental causes.
That same year, My Morning Jacket got around to laying down songs for its first album, The Tennessee Fire. They recorded at guitarist Quaid’s family farm in Shelbyville—a unique backdrop that proved to be creatively lucrative for everyone in the band. “It was such a makeshift studio,” Blankenship says of the Quaid farm. “It was literally a three-car garage we used to track drums in, and a lot of the natural reverb you hear was just from the bathroom there. All of that stuff was kind of dictated by the limitations we had. To us it was fun; we had to figure out a way to make everything work.”
Soon they were rolling and filling out their sound with the addition of Danny Cash on keyboards. They wasted no time reconvening at the Quaid family farm in the autumn of 2000, to record their follow-up album, At Dawn. Released on April 6, the album was hailed by numerous sources as one of the best independent releases of 2001. This kicked off a steady stream of touring that wouldn’t calm down for another five years. And by May 2002, a new drummer and James’ oldest friend, Patrick Hallahan, would be added to the lineup.
“Jim and I had seen some of our friends’ bands break up and sever some relationships. It resembled a divorce, really,” Hallahan says. “We were sitting up one night talking about how bad it was and vowed to never be in a band together. A few months later, I was throwing a party for one of his sisters—she was turning 21—when he asked me to join. My initial thought was, ‘Didn’t we just talk about this?’ It took me a couple of days to come back with a yes.”
As the band juggled lineup changes and varying degrees of underground success, the 22-year-old McKnight was preparing to launch a modest show in a neighborhood park. The first Forecastle Festival took off July 20, 2002, in Louisville’s Tyler Park. “It’s the technical term that refers to part of a ship, the crew’s quarters,” McKnight says of naming the festival Forecastle. “The place where people go to kick back and relax after a hard day of labor above deck. In my nautical Aquarius brain, the ship was my metaphor for music and art, and the Forecastle was the place where people came together over those things.”
The festival was a single-day affair with local acts. Costing less than $500 to produce, it was a grassroots effort—the infrastructure was almost entirely donated, the bands played for free, and social-minded causes were given an opportunity to be heard alongside some of Louisville’s favorite bands.
At the end of 2002, My Morning Jacket returned to the Quaid family farm for the third and final time to record what would prove to be its break-out album, It Still Moves. Being Hallahan’s first time recording in such an environment, he was blown away. “There’s a certain air to that farm,” he says. “Just the fact that you’re in such a vast space creates a certain mindset. A mindset without limitation … a mindset that’s both calm and crazy.”
It Still Moves was released in September 2003 on A.T.O. Records, an RCA subsidiary owned by one of the biggest recording artists in the world, Dave Matthews. This time, major publications like Spin Magazine and Rolling Stone were raving about the young band from Kentucky, the latter of which even deemed their song “Run Thru” as one of the “Top 100 Guitar Songs of All Time”—placing them in the company of artists like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
But as soon as things were looking up for the band, everything seemed to fall apart. While on tour in Europe shortly following the album’s release, guitarist Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash announced they would be leaving the band once they returned home. But most jarring, they received word from home that Todavich, James’ childhood friend and former guitarist, had committed suicide.
“We were all friends with Aaron—Jim and Pat had grown up with him, obviously—but it affected us all,” Blankenship says. “It’s just sad; that’s the same story that’s played out so many times with a lot of our friends. Personally, in my family, on a larger scale, it was a wake-up call …” Blankenship pauses, taking a swallow to maintain composure. “It’s difficult to talk about.”
Although still mourning, it didn’t take the band long to fill in the gaps—by January 2004, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster joined, finishing the current My Morning Jacket lineup.
In the winter and spring of 2005, the band recorded its fourth album, Z. “[Quaid] chose to leave the band because the amount of touring we were doing was really getting to him. So when he left, the farm went with him,” Hallahan says. “After making three albums there, it was kind of a sad moment—we were a band without a country. And rather than trying to replicate another farm studio, we found a studio in upstate New York, which was also secluded, but in a much different way.”
Allaire Studios in the Catskills was where they finally landed. They hired legendary producer John Leckey, who had worked with Stone Roses and Radiohead, to oversee the sessions. During this period, the band’s, and perhaps more specifically James’, grief over Todavich’s death would ultimately inspire two songs, “Dondante” and “What a Wonderful Man.”
In 2006, Forecastle expanded from a single-day event to a two-day spectacle. McKnight also forged a partnership with national booking agency Nederlander Entertainment. The legendary alternative rock band Sleater Kinney was booked on the show that year and inadvertently gave the festival a shot in the arm when it announced, a month before, that the Forecastle performance would be its last show ever. Thousands of additional tickets sold overnight.
The next few years were the payoff years for the band and McKnight. For My Morning Jacket, it brought more critically acclaimed and highly anticipated albums, countless television appearances, and headlining shows at major arenas such as Madison Square Garden.
“All the touring we had done behind At Dawn and It Still Moves—we were pushing ourselves, maybe a little bit too hard, but I think all the work that we had put in was starting to come back.” Blankenship agrees. “You go from being a group of friends who are just doing this to have fun, to it becoming your career,” he says, “In a weird way, you’re still doing it for the same reasons, but at the same time it’s paying the bills, so you have to invest yourself in ways you never thought you would.”
Those years would prove fruitful for McKnight, as well. The partnership with Nederlander continued to bring bigger acts to the Forecastle stage, and annual attendance ballooned to around 20,000, consequently requiring a move to the Louisville waterfront to accommodate the swelling crowds.
By 2009, the festival’s eighth year, Forecastle had grown to a three-day tour de force of music, art, culture and activism. And it could book the hottest touring acts in the country. The Black Keys, Avett Brothers, Widespread Panic and The Black Crowes all performed over the course of the weekend.
But in 2010, McKnight’s festival took a hit when Churchill Downs, backed by the city of Louisville, announced it was going to put on a competing festival, only two weeks after Forecastle, and call it HullabaLOU. A massive amount of money was thrown behind the extravaganza, and it landed headliners that far exceeded Forecastle’s reach. Artists like Bon Jovi, Dave Matthews Band, and Kenny Chesney all showed up to play that weekend. But even with much more recognizable performers, HullabaLOU failed miserably and Churchill Downs has since put a moratorium on large-scale concerts.
By 2011, Forecastle’s contract with Nederlander had expired, and McKnight went looking for a new booking agency. He signed with A/C Entertainment, known for its role in putting together the annual mega-festival Bonnaroo. Negotiations and contracts being what they are, paperwork was signed too late to make a 2011 Forecastle a reality, so they took the year off … sort of. McKnight and A/C Entertainment took the extra time to bring Forecastle back bigger and better. And this July, Forecastle will partner for the first time with Louisville’s favorite band, My Morning Jacket, which will act as headliner.
“I think we just felt really blessed to have an opportunity like that,” Blankenship says of the partnership. “It’s a celebration of where Forecastle is, where J.K. is, and all of the work he’s done to bring it to this point.”
The lineup is a meticulously planned roster that harkens back to the origins of the festival while embracing its newfound prestige. National headlining acts like Wilco, Neko Case and Clutch will play alongside My Morning Jacket. But they also returned to booking many of the local bands that seemed to be missing in recent years.
“We knew there were going to be a lot of national acts,” Blankenship says of the band’s role in assembling a lineup. “I think this year especially there are a lot of bands who wouldn’t normally be coming to Louisville and are having this chance. But we’re still trying everything we can to spotlight all the great things that are happening in Kentucky right now.”
“We want to make an emphasis on Kentucky’s culture,” Hallahan says. “And not just the bourbon and the horse racing, but also the nonprofits, the local farmers, and the business owners that make us proud to be where we’re from.”