Don't Mess with Kansas

North vs. South festival organizers Mike McCoy and "Baby" Grant Johnson demand that you pick a side
Darin Back

"Out there" is how Truman Capote recalled urban Kansans describing Holcomb, the little prairie town where he famously rooted down to research what became his most popular book, In Cold Blood. "Surprised" is how I reacted to Capote's assertion that there was such a thing as an "urban Kansan." I'd always felt an uninvestigated affinity for Kansas, as I am from North Dakota, where there are no urban people. But having traveled to Kansas recently for the annual North vs. South Music Festival, I'm still not sure Truman wasn't making the whole thing up.

If, like a good journalist, he was indeed reporting the facts, Capote was probably referring to the inhabitants of a town like Lawrence, which hosted the festival two weekends ago. A college town of about 80,000 people, Lawrence is the state's third-largest city. Sometimes called "the Madison of Kansas" (in our van, anyway), it's a pocket of liberalism in an otherwise blood-red state, and by the look of Massachusetts Street, the town's main drag, the folks here are plenty cultured. But I'm not sure I'd call them "urban." After all, Holcomb is to Lawrence as Lawrence is to Minneapolis, and whenever the state of Minnesota occasions to turn its proboscis-shaped landmass down at anyone, the target is usually a place like Kansas. Whether that's because of geographical necessity or—like two neglected children fighting for the love of an absent parent—the deep-seated need of one slighted Midwestern state to feel superior over another, the fact remains that a Minneapolitan in Lawrence feels uneasy. You could say it's the opposite of Dorothy's anxiety upon arriving in the splendor of Oz.

All of which is why it's especially strange that a vanload of Lawrence-bound Minnesotans should feel immediately at home at the end of their eight-hour journey down I-35. And yet, here we are, pulling up to the Replay Lounge—so-named for the five pinball machines next to the bar—our necks craned to read the street signs, legs cramped from being crammed nine people deep (plus guitars) into a single cargo van, when we're blessedly greeted by the unholy hollers of Mike Gunther and a couple of his Restless Souls, drummer Suzanne Scholten and sax player Martin Devaney. Gunther's throaty voice and hellfire slide guitar are instantly recognizable as we unload in the alley behind the bar's patio, where the bluesman is playing to a modest 5:00 p.m. crowd of festival-goers. I arrive with two more Minneapolis bands, Fort Wilson Riot and XOXO Judy, Gunther fans all, and the nine of us settle down to enjoy the rest of a set filled with songs we'd all heard a hundred times over at hometown gigs.

Except now, in this foreign landscape, where the people speak with a drawl and the local college sports team is the most important thing in the world, Gunther's songs take on a renewed sheen. It's like when a quarter drops out of your pocket, and for a moment, as you bend over to pick it up, you can't help admire the look of the thing. In your palm, the perfect symmetry and careful artistry of a quarter is expected. On the dusty ground, it is something to behold.

For a non-Kansan, that's the great thing about the North vs. South Music Festival, which yearly gathers dozens of bands from Minneapolis and Austin, Texas, and dumps them on the unsuspecting residents of Lawrence for one wild weekend in August. During any given week in the Twin Cities, you can see great local bands like Superhopper, Fort Wilson Riot, XOXO Judy, Mike Gunther, Martin Devaney, or the Koalas; but how often do you get to see them all in one weekend? In dusty Kansas, no less? And that's without mention of the Austin bands, several of which are, you know, also very good.

North vs. South began in 2004 as a way for a couple of old friends—Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter "Baby" Grant Johnson and Mike McCoy of Lawrence's own Cher U.K.—to get the bands back together. McCoy and Johnson were both touring the same Midwest circuit in the '90s, and they often talked about the similarities between the music scenes in Minneapolis and Austin, where McCoy had relocated.

"Both cities have contributed significantly to the thread of American music with very independent-thinking bands," says McCoy. "And there are certain elements to each city which will not let those vital scenes slip into a past history. Those elements come in the form of people mostly who see no point in relocating to either coast and are perfectly happy finishing what they started in their own scene."

After his stint in Austin, McCoy eventually returned to his hometown of Lawrence, where he had grown up hearing countless Civil War stories. Central to those stories was the Lawrence Massacre of 1863, the defining moment in Kansas's long history as in-betweener territory.

A Union state with the rebel Missouri right next door, Kansas was in considerable disarray after the outbreak of the Civil War (you'd be confused, too, if you suddenly found yourself just west of the South). Raiding bands from both sides of the Missouri River kept tensions high, and on the hot night of August 21, 1863, the proverbial dam burst as the guerrilla leader and Confederate sympathizer William Quantrill rode into Lawrence with his rogue mercenary group, "Quantrill's Raiders." Four hours later, Lawrence was on fire, and nearly 200 of its unarmed men were dead. Today, "Remember Quantrill" remains the rallying cry of the University of Missouri Tigers, the hated rivals of the University of Kansas's Jayhawks.

As if to confirm that there are no hard feelings, McCoy decided that Lawrence would be the ideal place to stage a meeting between northern and southern bands, and that the anniversary of Quantrill's raid would be the perfect day to do it. He and Johnson had plenty of contacts in Texas and Minnesota, and the fact that Lawrence is equidistant to both cities made it easy to convince the bands to come. "We wanted to get the unknown bands that we think are great some exposure, and help them get connected with each other so they can consider more extensive touring," says Johnson. Plus, he adds, he and McCoy wanted to reconnect with the "indie rock spirit that is super rare today." The festival has grown considerably since, from 21 bands at two venues in 2004 to 50 bands in six venues this year.

Of course, the festival's north-versus-south theme means that things aren't always chummy between the bands, who often can't help but ignite a little friendly rivalry. On the last night of the fest, for example, as we gather into a little brick-walled basement bar just off the main drag, we notice the members of the Midnight Towers, an Austin rock band, wearing Confederate army hats. "A nice touch, but it won't help you," I say to the bassist, as Superhopper launches into the best set I'd see all weekend. After the first song, the group's already-sweaty guitarist, Kermit Carter, confirms what we're all thinking.

"This is great," he says. "I love these Austin bands, but seriously, they've got nothing on the Twin Cities. I mean, come on."

Take that, Texas.

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