Rookie of the Year

Folk Yea, Twitter!

A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath, who adds any typos or factual errors that might appear within.

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This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #94. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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This year at the Newport Folk Festival, I didn’t talk about my favorite new artist while she performed on stage – she talked about me.

How? Why? First, the setup:

I returned last night from my fifth semi-annual trip to the Newport Folk Festival, which is three days of musical heaven on a harbor. Each year something special, perhaps even magical, happens. My first year, I discovered – and met – an artist who later wrote and recorded the song The Wife of the Year and I chose as the first dance at our wedding. I’ve covered the Fest for Unwinnable and last year, I wrote right here about taking The Son of the Year to his first Fest and dancing barefoot with him to Patti Smith [Issue 82 – Editor]. This year, though, the star attraction . . . was my Twitter feed.

While there’s a certain repugnant and indefensible manchild who uses Twitter to spread lies and hate, I found a softer side of social media at Fort Adams State Park. In a bit of foreshadowing a few weeks before, I caught a mistake on the official Festival iPhone app the minute it launched and tweeted it at the organizers. I got a thanks; everyone else got an update.

Once I got to the Fest itself, my journalistic juices flowing, I began live-tweeting photos and commentary. Soon enough, the performers started retweeting or even responding to me. And with every acknowledgement, a running theme of the weekend began to emerge: Now that all these musicians were essentially my new best friends, when, my traveling companions would ask, would they be joining us for dinner? For my part, I started calling Billy Bragg “Bill” – ya know, like his buddies do –and claiming I’d be cutting out early to hang with Regina Spektor after she quoted one of my tweets to share this bit of Russian trivia:

Among my many Twitter highlights – besides Regina and my new bestie “Bill” – I was retweeted or liked by John Prine, Sharon Van Etten, Margo Price, Shakey Graves, CW Stoneking, Mt. Joy, Choir! Choir! Choir! and the Newport Folk Festival itself. But there was one Twitter interaction that blew my mind in particular – when it spilled out into the real world.

Olivia Chaney is the lead singer of Offa Rex, a band made up of Chaney, a British folk singer, and a Portland band you’ve likely heard of called The Decemberists.

I’m a fan of The Decemberists, and I’d been digging the Offa Rex record, so I was looking forward to their Saturday afternoon set. It didn’t disappoint. The world melted away as Chaney sang “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” – a 1950s British ballad before it was a Roberta Flack radio hit – as she softly pulled and pressed her harmonium. Just one hiccup: Chaney accidentally skipped some key lines in the centuries-old “Willie o’Winsbury” – the part, so integral to the tale, where the king develops a man crush on Willie and, instead of hanging him for deflowering his daughter, decides he can marry her instead. So of course I teased Chaney about it on Twitter –

Which, to my delight, later elicited this response:

As a fan, I was stoked, even by this small connection. But what happened the next day was pure bonkers.

On Sunday, Chaney played a solo set on the Museum stage, a thin brick building with folding chairs, and I decided not to miss it, leaving The Wife of the Year (and our prized front-row seats) at the Harbor stage. Despite a long line, I lucked out; her set started late, so I got inside in plenty of time, snuck up to the front before she took the stage and snapped a few pictures and some video from point-blank range as she played. That, by itself. would have been enough for me right there.

But then.

But then Chaney apologized for having to cut her set short – the late start, plus some technical difficulties at the beginning that didn’t help – telling us that, had she had the time, she’d planned to give “Willie o’Winsbury” another go. Why? Because, she said, someone had tweeted yesterday that she’d flubbed the lyrics.

My heart skipped a beat.

“That was me!” I called out. She smiled, my chest started pounding again and Chris Funk (one of the Festival organizers and The Decemberists’ lead guitarist) began laughing a few feet from the stage. She then explained, looking first at me and then at the crowd, how important the verse was – how the song made no sense without it. I was one percent embarrassed, and 99 percent thrilled.

After she finished her final song, we chatted in front of the stage. I apologized for being a lyric Nazi. She laughed. She told me she and Colin Meloy – lead singer of The Decemberists, Folk Festival board member and a personal favorite – had marveled backstage about how someone had been sharp enough to notice the mistake.

At this point, I was walking on air.

“For a geek like me,” I told The Wife of the Year when we reunited later, “this is as good as it gets.”

I headed over to the artist merch tent and bought Olivia Chaney’s record. We talked some more at the table, and then she took the record and wrote this on it with a sharpie:

And that was that.

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With an expanding group, and a couple of bad hotel experiences of late, we’re already talking about renting a house in 2018. So see you next year, Newport. Like I say every summer, it’ll be tough to top this one.

Postscript: A few days after writing this, I saw Olivia Chaney play a solo show at Joe’s Pub in the village with a couple friends. When I first arrived, I was immediately identified by a fellow fan as “the guy from Newport.” And when Chaney played “Willie o’Winsbury,” she told the story of Newport and mentioned that I was in the audience. When she finished, she turned to me to make sure she’d gotten it right. Here is my response, which I later posted and she and her producer, Tucker Martine (another hero of mine), retweeted that night – after we’d spoken again following the show and had our photo taken together:

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Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.

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