If you’re ever unfamiliar with those musicians playing in the Artist-at-Large spot on a lineup, it’s usually some of the most adaptive artists on the bill. The 11th annual Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival saw no decline in music this year, with sets of Galactic, Sam Bush, Shovels & Rope, The Marcus King Band, Billy Strings, Turkuaz, Ghost Light, and more at Martinsville, Virginia’s Pop’s Farm on May 23rd-26th. Charleston-based guitarist Wallace Mullinax has been a staple Rooster Walk Artist-At-Large the past two years, showcasing his diverse musicianship skills on stage with collaborative music sit-ins. Wallace has been a fixture in the Southeast for nearly a decade, building up credentials playing with The Marcus King Band, Yarn, Ed Toth, John Cowan, Jeff Sipe, Runaway Gin, and more.
Now that festival season is in full swing, Live For Live Music contributor Zach Ubaldini caught up with Mullinax about the process, the art of sit-ins, and who he might want to sit in with past or present if he had chance.
Zach Ubaldini: How was Rooster Walk?
Wallace Mullinax: It’s pretty incredible, Johnny and Jessica being here, you get more Charleston musicians up there. I mean it just feels like more and more of a family thing and not just like I’m a Charleston guy in a Virginia festival.
ZU: So how could you define the essence of Rooster Walk?
WM: It’s kind of hard to separate it into things other than just a collective awesome vibe. It’s everything from the people that work, all the stage managers, and the guys with artists moving them around. I’ve only been there two years and all those guys remembered me by name like as soon as I pulled up, and I remembered most of them even though I didn’t spend much time with them in past years. You just kind of notice how happy they all are, they seem to all interact quickly but with no anxiety.
ZU: How does the Artist-At-Large process work? From the beginning of the festival, how do you know who you’re going to sit in with?
WM: Most of it, I set up myself. Johnny puts me on things. They have an Artist-At-Large set each day. It was two or three the first day, John Cowan and Ed Toth. The second day, it was Roosevelt Collier Band, then the third day it was like a “guitar-maggedon” with me and this 16-year-old named Isaac Hadden. It is more like when someone sets someone up in volleyball, you’re popping it around and when you see a spot, you go ahead and push this thing home because you definitely want it to sound great. We’re all on stage, if it doesn’t sound good, we sound bad too.
ZU: How do you know Roosevelt Collier?
WM: He and I just have crossed paths a number of times over the years, I’ve played with them probably the past five or six years various times, probably once or twice a year. I always try to go up and see him, I just love his style so much. Everytime I play with him, his vibrato is just so musical. I love to play slide, I just don’t even want to play slide when I’m with him because it just sounds so good. And sometimes we will play together and that’s fun and unique but I feel like I’m just learning when I play with him.
ZU: It keeps you on your toes too, right?
WM: I love it. It’s what I grew up doing really. I was always one of those dudes that people always asked me to sit in. Number one because I never want to step on somebody’s toes. It’s not in my best interest to get up there and be like “Look at me, here I am, forget about the band”. The guys that get to do it the most and you immediately think, “Wow that made that band sound better” and that’s what you’re looking for. And luckily if you do it right, you really shouldn’t have a lot of heavy lifting. It should be more about paying attention to what’s already there.
ZU: Do you think being in a city like Charleston where it is so inclusive and integrative helps?
WM: Yeah, I really started getting out there probably about 10 years ago. Once I got in the scene, it was very much come up for tune. You get really used to doing that.
ZU: You have this playing style where once you turn it on you can make your puzzle piece fit wherever it needs.
WM: You know I always thought about it, you hear that and it’s probably a little cliche because it’s so often referenced, but the Bruce Lee quote, “Be water” to just be able to fill whatever you’re poured into. I really think that is how you become good at sitting in. You just pay attention and don’t push at all and just literally become what you’re getting poured into.
Runaway Gin – A Tribute To Phish, Ft. Artist-At-Large Wallace Mullinax – “Ghost” – Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival 2019
[Video: Jam World Trivia]
ZU: That’s pretty awesome. So last year, you played with Jeff Sipe. What was your big moment this year? Did you have a bucket list moment?
WM: I always get a few of them on this one, because I get to play with so many people. I mean playing with John Cowan, Ed Toth, they have huge resumes, they both currently play in the Doobie Brothers. When you think about who John has played with, like Sam Bush, and Bela Fleck, it’s kind of scary the caliber of playing that he is used to hearing. It’s something you have to think about the whole time. You can’t be scared at all, to throw something in.
ZU: Do you feel intimidated at all or you’re just wide open and ready to play?
WM: I think for me it’s more of a recognition of being totally focused and initiative to this thing. Don’t let your eye off the ball for one second, because it can move that quickly. Don’t be scared to throw something out there, be very aware. Of course getting to play with Marcus is so awesome, I’ve been able to do that for the past two years. He’s the man, back in the day, we did tours together in 2015 or so when they were starting to break and he has always been so easy. We played a Marshall Tucker Band song, “Take the Highway”. You got two South Carolina guys playing a South Carolina band song. That’s fun.
ZU: Did you have any off-the-wall, spontaneous sit-ins? What was the most spontaneous thing to happen at Rooster Walk?
WM: Yeah, Kendall Street Company grabbed me for one. I just happened to hear them as I was walking across the big long stage. They saw me playing with Roosevelt that last Artist-at-Large day and the keyboardist, Andrew King was like, “Hey, what exactly do you do here? I’ve noticed that you just end up on stage with everybody” and I told him how they just kind of move me around and jump up and do all this stuff. And he asked if I wanted to come up onstage with them, and of course did, it’s exactly what I do here. So I went to set up for Trongone Band and then came back and jumped up, had an amp dropped off to me at VIP so I could do Kendall Street Company, sat in with them, ran off, got carted to Trongone, got in with them and then ran down to figure the Marcus sit in. That Saturday was fun. They are all pretty spontaneous, nobody with the exception of John Cowan and Ed Toth, talked about what we were doing beforehand.
ZU: How was it playing with different gear?
WM: You know, it’s funny because I’ve played a bunch of rigs and have seen a bunch of people play rigs but the thing that has become apparent and cool and inspiring is seeing how much of somebody’s sound really is just by their touch. Their hands, especially on guitar, because everything directly translates. I’d love to see somebody do something like with a bunch of different guitar players where, nobody ever talks about this, but show me your touch. Where do you pick? Show me exactly how you decide what vibrato you want to use. Do you strike the string hard, do you strike it easy, do you even think about that? You see guys like, take Trey Anastasio for instance, you could put him on any guitar and he is going to sound like Trey. It’s that touch.
The Marcus King Band, Ft. Wallace Mullinax – “Take The Highway” – Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival 2019
ZU: If you could choose one musician, one song or even a whole album to sit in with, who would it be, one past and one living?
WM: It is really hard to argue being able to play with Tedeschi Trucks Band right now, being able to have a band that big, with that many players, that has this level of flexibility. As you add members to a band, the band stops operating like a speed boat and starts to operate like a big oil tanker. To get it to turn, you have to push it real hard, it doesn’t flip around quickly anymore. But they have been able to take this big thing and still keep it responsive. And I’d love to understand how that’s happening.
ZU: Is that something that you would want one day is a big band like that?
WM: Of course! I’d say the only reason not to have a band that has access to all those textures is that you want the flexibility. But if you can get both, why wouldn’t you have both. Their album Revelator was one of the big albums in the past 10 years that just blew me away.