Like the swallows that return every year to San Juan Capistrano, David Wilcox’s most devoted followers — it’s an insult to refer to them as mere fans — return every spring to Kanuga Lake, outside Hendersonville.
Wilcox Weekend, as it’s known, is an annual ritual drawing a couple dozen people from around the country, along with some of their children and several of their dogs. The eighth Wilcox Weekend was May 4-6.
People come to hear Wilcox and his friends perform, swap stories about what their favorite Wilcox songs mean to them and share their own music with one of Asheville’s most venerated folk music artists. Everyone also received an early copy of Wilcox’s new studio album, his 16th, called “The View From the Edge.”
“Last year, we were joking amongst ourselves, going ‘Are we a bunch of weirdos?’” said Colleen Laliberte, of Chattanooga, who has attended all eight Wilcox Weekends. “So the back of our t-shirt last year said ‘#TotallyNotACult.’ We’re not the David Wilcox cult.”
Everyone here will tell you the Wilcox Weekend is more than about David Wilcox.
“The connection people feel with David’s music is also the connection they feel with each other,” said Dave Atherton, who drove to Hendersonville from his home in Northern Virginia. “Even if David were to take a year off, I don’t think we would. I think we would gather just for this community.”
While this is the eighth official Wilcox Weekend, the first was unofficial. Several members of an online forum of Wilcox fans convened in 2001 at a member’s home in Highland Park, Ill.
“They kind of thought ‘Well, we should maybe tell Dave we’re doing this. Maybe he’ll come,’ and I did come and it was a lovely time,” Wilcox said. “I had that wonderful feeling this this community had a life of its own and they were going to do this whether I was there or not.”
Wilcox’s staff helped organize the first formal Weekend a few years later, but Wilcox himself is an introvert, and he was wary about the depth of his own involvement. To this day, he talks about the festival as if he’s a curious observer, and he talks about the people as a tribe, and his music as a connector.
“It’s not like a fan thing. It’s not like they want to be around this personality,” Wilcox said. “They’re wanting more contact with their own heart’s guidance. The way I talk about music is empowering for them. The way I look at music is a way of knowing our hearts, so we can understand what our hearts are tugging at us about. That is very reassuring to me. It makes it very relaxed and easy for me to be with these people.”
Wilcox might be in just a bit of denial about the motives some people have for coming here.
One attendee caught Wilcox alone in the line for Saturday breakfast.
“I’ve been still listening to ‘Underneath’ over and over,” he said. Wilcox worked to paste a smile on his face, his gaze off to the side as he nodded through his discomfort.
“Yeah, I was totally starstruck, and now we’re just very old friends,” said Janet Griffin, of Baltimore. She discovered Wilcox’s music 20 years ago, when she bought five of his albums and spun them as a soundtrack to paint her house, and has since attended all eight Wilcox Weekends.
“Wilcox Weekend changed my life on so many levels. Not to be dramatic, but it did,” she said. “I’ve learned to bring my heart everywhere.”
Jennifer Knight has been to every Wilcox Weekend since the second and is now one of the so-called volunteer minions handling all the logistics.
“I got here and I really felt at home. I felt in touch with a piece of myself that I hadn’t been in touch with in a long time,” she said through tears. “Dave’s music put me in touch with my inner self, and the presence of others who’ve also felt this in his music then created this — you know, it’s a tribe.”
There are a number of Wilcox-themed activities and workshops in the afternoons, conceived and run by people who attend. One offered on this day was an introduction to square-dancing, where steppers tried out new moves to the Wilcox song “Please Don’t Call.”
At night, people sit for intimate performances by Wilcox and guests like the Grammy Award-winning Al Petteway. Just as popular are the fireside song circles. People bring their own guitars — some have purchased David Wilcox signature limited-edition black Rainsong carbon-body guitars — and perform their own music. Over the past few years, Wilcox himself has attended these song circles for an hour or so and offered feedback.
“It’s a way of celebrating and encouraging creativity longterm, and what we’re after is how to stay inspired and keep your creative process going,” Wilcox said.
The business model around music has shifted away from album sales to selling concert tickets, merchandise and fan experiences. Many musical artists with even modest followings are marketing everything from VIP access at concerts to multi-day cruises and intimate weekends like this — as a way to connect with their most loyal customers.
Wilcox Weekend isn’t exactly cheap — $750 and up for adults, including meals and lodging. But here's where this community differs: Some regulars have started up a scholarship fund of sorts, contributing their own money to help defray costs for others.
“You know you’ll have something in common with everybody, which is this music,” Atherton said. “Beyond that, you figure it out for yourself, and it’s been beyond what I’ve expected community-wise, and that’s why I’ve come back for eight years.”
“The thing that I wanted from the start was to have this vulnerable, brave openness to life,” Wilcox said. “That’s what I sing about, so it’s fun to see people who have this music in common have that interest, and when they get together, that’s what they’re after.”