On Aug. 28 of 2009, I—along with what felt like nine million of my peers—made the pilgrimage to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco for the 2nd annual Outside Lands music festival. It was a torrid, three-day affair where I often found myself pressed flush against an industrial-sized speaker, trying to stem the blood flowing from my ruptured eardrums. People passed around spliffs, flasks, tabs of acid, water bottles with alcohol of varying potency and reliability. Occasionally a guy (usually clad in a ketchup-stained tank top) would lift up his girlfriend so she could flash the lead singer of whatever band happened to be on the stage. The park smelled of Heineken and youth and for a fleeting moment I was in the midst of the best adult, hipster Disneyland ever created.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MAD HATTER : Wendy Hughes helped (wo)man the crafts area of Cantinas and talked about the plans for the Cantinas Ranch Foundation. The camp will be geared towards families, and participants will get to enjoy nature while learning how to ground their talents in a Christian-based theology.
Fast-forward almost three years to the day and I am still sitting next to an industrial-sized speaker, surrounded by people, except this time instead of hopelessly trying to salvage what remains of my sobriety and my hearing, I’m admiring the detail of the bloodied, crucified Jesus the man next to me has tattooed on his arm.
It’s been a surreal Saturday for a philosophically-Buddhist, functionally-agnostic like myself. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t come to the first annual Cantinas Music Festival, an all-day gathering of Christian music and message, looking for something. As a life-long outsider to the Christian faith, I have always viewed evangelism as a sort of mystic, secret society like the Freemasons or those kids who play Dungeons and Dragons at Peet’s Coffee & Tea on Saturdays. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of my Christian friends and acquaintances that I did not become born again. It seemed like every week of my prepubescent life I was being invited to some Bible study or a round of Nazarene laser tag at the church youth center. I was somewhere between a charity case and a challenge for most of my religious classmates, and I was almost always totally OK with it, because really, who doesn’t love laser tag?
But I have never been able to find a universal answer to the question of what it means to be a Christian. Maybe there isn’t one, but for example, whenever I am asked to describe what it is like to be a Caucasian female (and if you have ever attended a liberal college in San Francisco you would know that this social litmus test gets played out in a vegan coffee shop at least once an hour), I always respond with my solid, stock answer of: “Well, it affords me some privileges that are sadly denied to many marginalized groups, but as a woman I struggle for equal rights in this country every day.” Then I wink at myself in the mirror.
Christianity is still an enigma for me. Maybe a lot of Christians would say the answer is simple: you love Jesus and hope to emulate his spirit and efforts towards the betterment of humanity in your own life. But I have never come across a social, ethical, or moral lifestyle choice with a greater variance in practice and theory than Christianity. Some Christians take the Bible as the literal word of God. Some Christians believe that we are meant to take the Bible as allegory rather than law. Some Christians believe that the earth formed 5,000-years-ago and some Christians are Catholics.
So Cantinas Music Festival was my opportunity to see how the other half lives, and I couldn’t help but be a little more than curious to hear how Jesus and a guitar would mix.
This is a hammer, this is a hymn
One of the first interviews I did in the weeks prior to the event was with performer Kylie Hughes, an up-and-coming musician of what she has coined as the “Calipopacana” genre. (It took me a few shots at guessing what genres actually make up this portmanteau. It’s California-Pop-Americana.)
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- IF YOU BUILD IT : There was lots to see and do at the festival. With an abundance of faith-based eateries, merchandise booths and a crafting section for the kiddos and kid-like adults, there wasn’t a dull moment to be found all day.
Kylie had just gotten back from Europe when we chatted and despite having just been sucked out of one time zone and into another, she extended more courtesy and patience in our conversation than my own grandparents do when they call on my birthday.
In other words, she’s ridiculously and genuinely nice and if I wanted to see anyone usurp Katy Perry’s position on the Billboard Top 100, it’s Kylie Hughes.
Hughes has an effortless, Malibu-mellow style that most Hollywood actresses only achieve after bankrolling a stylist and acting coach for 12 years. A recent Pepperdine grad, Hughes picked up a guitar after being influenced by artists like Michelle Branch and Sheryl Crow. She says the genre name Calipopacana embraces the individuality she hopes to portray through her music.
“A lot of people can be quick to pigeonhole you into a certain genre of music, you know; they’ll ask, ‘So are you pop or rock?’ And to me, I’m neither, I’m Calipopacana, I live in a beautiful little beach town, right on the beach and that’s where my music comes from,” she explained.
But if there is anything Hughes is capable of avoiding, it’s being pigeonholed. I was pretty quick to ask what role faith plays in her music. Partly out of curiosity and partly for the sake of brevity because, even though she showed no hint of weariness, I imagine there is nothing worse than talking to a stranger on the phone when you’re trying to beat down the effects of spending 15 hours in a flying tin can full of other people’s sneezes.
Once again, Hughes surprised me. She doesn’t consider, or brand herself, as a Christian artist.
“I’m a Christian. I believe you are a Christian in your life, but I don’t consider myself a Christian artist,” she explained.
It was a bit of a baffling concept, but then again I’m probably just a little thick. After all, Madonna doesn’t sing on Kabbalah radio stations and I actually had to Google whether or not David Bowie is Jewish—he is.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- BORN TO RIDE : The men of the Refuge Seekers, a Christian men’s ministry, stop to chat about hot rods, family, and Jesus. The Refuge Seekers have a big heart for family and philanthropy in and around the local community.
Still, her answered begged another line of questioning.
“If you don’t consider yourself a Christian artist, what does being a Christian mean to you?” I asked, as I drew a big circle around the words, “Order a copy of Christianity for Dummies,” on my notepad.
“Being a Christian is such a free way to live,” she explained. “It’s a lot about love and loving people and pursuing after God; I feel like God is continuously opening doors. I say to myself, ‘Okay, you’ve been given a spotlight, how are you going to use it?’ And I think it’s important to always be asking yourself: ‘Is the first person in your audience God?’”
I took notes, and nodded into the phone receiver. It was an answer that needed time to digest and distill in my brain, and I still had more questions to get to, like what a rebellious, college-aged Kylie Hughes would look like.
“Honestly?” She said with a chuckle, “I didn’t really have a rebellious stage. I got a cartilage piercing, which I wanted, but my mom told me not to get, so I went out and got it anyways.”
With that I spit coffee all over my tattoo sleeve as a hazy college memory involving a beach cruiser, a banana suit, and a bottle of vodka washed over my under-caffeinated brain.
But Hughes isn’t holier-than-thou and spoke of her time in college as fulfilling and adventurous even in the absence of sordid, substance-fueled late nights. In fact, a week before her graduation, Hughes was offered a role in a film, which she took, and has since that time gotten her SAG card. It’s been a lot of navigating since then, but Hughes doesn’t seem too worried about falling into the traps of fame and celebrity.
“Honestly, I have enough people in my life who care, that would stop me from going off track.”
And, as it turns out, that is actually an attitude that the Cantinas Music Festival hopes to help nurture for other budding artists.
- HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME : Members of the Embassador skateboarding team flaunt their boarding prowess and bring some white-knuckle moments to the first ever Cantinas Music Festival. They are a group of skateboarders who are as passionate about landing new believers as they are about landing tricks.
With My Own Two Hands
I didn’t learn until part-way through my interview with Hughes that Cantinas Music Festival is actually the work of her parents, Wendy and Wayne Hughes.
The Festival was planned and built as a fundraiser for a new camp called Christian Family Camp at Lake Nacimiento. At the floorboards, the camp is designed to help perfect the talents of young: dancers, actors, singers, musicians, and even those interested in media, but according to Wendy, it will be a camp that offers a lot more than artistic direction.
When we spoke at Cantinas, Wendy said the picturesque lakeside property could have been turned into a high-end housing development years ago, but divine intervention sealed the fates of the Hughes and the land together.
“God has kept it for now. He kept it from the ordinary so that it could be turned into the extraordinary,” she said. “What this camp is going to do is really amplify the value of the gifts these kids have. It’s going to help them build on that while grounding them in what is really important.”
The camp isn’t set to open its doors until 2014, which is eons of time compared to how soon the music festival came together—in less than a year, which, for an event with a projected attendance of 3,500 people, is almost unheard of.
Again, Wendy believes it was all part of a grander design (and I started to believe her when the temperature in Paso Robles stayed in the 70s most of the day).
“We were very surprised at how many people came out to support us; people just came out of the woodwork. We feel very blessed,” she said.
Even the rock line-up seemed to have been getting help from someone upstairs.
“They [MercyMe, Newsboys, Building 429, Kylie Hughes and The Groovaloos Dance Company] all happened to only be available this Saturday,” she said.
I waited for a bolt of lightening to strike or a clap of thunder, but nothing happened.
Then, deep in my afternoon energy suck and starved of my weekend nap, I saw the comfy, white chairs and a giant, hypnotic lava lamp beckoning me from the VIP lounge. It was like Moses and the burning bush, except people were eating gourmet cookies and Kathy Lee Gifford was there.
As I made my way over to the VIP lounge, word began circulating that the first (and what they hope will be annual) Cantinas Music Festival concert had sold out.
It was then that it dawned on me: for all its idiosyncrasies, The Cantinas Music Festival was more akin to secular music events, than different.
Ask anyone who’s ever seen Eric Clapton live or Pink Floyd in concert: you attend music festivals for the simple reminder that there are people out there like you. People who enjoy the same things you do; people who think like you; people who want a release from the alternating doldrums and tensions that roll through life so quickly.
You can find this perfect combination of music and harmony at a Pearl Jam concert, or a Jonas Brothers concert, or at Cantinas Music Festival.
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll
The day of the concert arrived and I was at a loss as to what I should wear. If I could get away with wearing a burlap sack and a pair of converse in public, I totally would. Throw on a little mascara and I am downright dolled up. However this was billed as a Christian rock concert, and there are certain things in life (like funerals and mosh pits) that one must dress up for. But I was running late and the only clean shirt I could find was a roller derby t-shirt. It would have to do and besides, the Bible says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). I’m pretty sure that directly translates to: “Working on a Saturday? Relax and wear a t-shirt.”
As I drove past the event center, I was so engrossed in my attempts to find the will-call booth that I missed the parking lot. I was forced to make a hasty, and let’s just be honest here, totally illegal U-turn in front of two motorcycle cops.
I was off to a great start.
When I finally pulled into the lot, a cheerful man in a blue volunteer shirt greeted me. We exchanged pleasantries and I paid him for the parking.
“Have a blessed day!” he said with a cheerful wave goodbye.
I parked between two seemingly inconspicuous cars. It was only when I took a second glance that I realized I had unintentionally pinned myself in between a “Jesus Freak” and a “His pain, your gain” sticker. I swear I saw my car attempt to wipe the “Yes we did!” endorsement right off my back windshield.
Once inside, I stood around and waited for celebrity judges Kathy Lee Gifford and Candace Cameron Bure (you know, DJ from Full House) to clear the media check-in tent so I could get my badge. As an aside: is it just a rule of thumb that all celebrities are shorter in life than they appear on television?
After I had been checked in I was ushered directly over to the Worship Song Competition that featured three young musicians vying for $2,000 and the right to claim the title of Paso Robles’ Best Acoustic Worshipper. Of the two contestants I heard, one had the voice of a young John Mayer and the other had the sandals of Jack Johnson. For the record, the young John Mayer nailed it and later gave a passionate encore before the main concert event.
I was eager to wander and find out exactly what type of person attends a Christian Music Festival so I took to the long and narrow streets of the Paso Robles Event Center.
Standing in a tight little semi-circle near the caffeine cart were several burley, leather-clad men covered in tattoos.
My first thought was, “Did these guys get lost on their way to a Molock convention?”
My second thought was, “That leather looks really nice, and I wonder where one could buy some of that?”
As it turns out, the buff and tatted men of the Refuge Seekers are some of the most approachable people on the planet. They’re not what you expect, but that probably has something to do with all that business about not judging a book by its cover.
“We consider ourselves a sort of an umbrella [of several men’s ministry efforts],” explained member R.E. Smith, “It’s all men involved, but our wives and families participate too.”
Smith feels a strong connection between his identity as a man and a Christian. He also hopes that the Refuge Seekers can point other men to the Biblical importance of their gender.
“To be honest, the world has really diminished the role of man,” he explained. “On television and movies the father is always playing the goofball, but in the Bible man is supposed to be the head of his family; he is supposed to be the provider and the protector.”
To that end, Smith says he could never be in a group like The Refuge Seekers if he couldn’t walk the walk.
“We’re going out as Christian men, but we’re representing our families while we’re out there doing what we’re passionate about,” he said. “We are living like the Bible tells us to. I mean, we’re all sinners but we want to get out there and spread the message that Jesus has offered a refuge.”
Smith says that events like Cantinas Music Festival help solidify the message that Jesus’ people can be found everywhere, even on a hot rod or a chopper.
“There are a lot of good people out there, but this [Cantinas] just proves that there are a lot of good Christians out there ready to do God’s work … God’s workin’ everywhere,” he said.
I enjoyed my time with the The Refuge Seekers, but all good things must pass, and I had more rock and Jesus fans to schmooze. The closer I got to the VIP tent at Cantinas, the more rock ‘n’ roll the Christianity got.
What caught my attention next were the sounds of wood grinding against rails and the gentle swoop-swoosh of a young Embassador skateboarder shaking out his Justin Bieber haircut at the top of a makeshift quarter ramp.
Embassador Skateboards is a Christian-based skateboarding company and riding team that hits the big tricks as often as they hit the Bible. Centered out of Vacaville, California, the team has traveled all over the state and country and now has ambitions to share the gospel and the grinds with China. They just have to raise enough travel funds (over $2,000 per rider) to send a fair-sized team to China, where they will share their Christian faith in the privacy of the homes they are invited into.
“We don’t toot our own horns or bang our own drum,” explains Embassador owner Frank Chavez. “We share the Gospel; we say, ‘Look, God changed my life and he can change yours too.’ We just want people to understand that we aren’t perfect but the cross is.”
His brand of faith seems to jive with the type of Christianity many young folks are beginning to embrace which basically says, “Look, do the best you can, do what you’re good at, tell people about God … but don’t get pushy.”
I talk to Chavez for a while about skateboarding and how much effort goes into keeping a group of young men accountable in such a rough and tumble sport (All of Chavez’s riders are and have to remain drug and alcohol free). He is a caring guy who seems more than content with the road his faith has taken him on.
The remainder of my time in the Cantina’s Village Festival has gone by fast and before I have time to talk to any of the Christian-themed food carts owners, I have to start making my way to the Frontier Stage for Kylie Hughes’ performance.
It hits me when I see all the people I’ve been passing and bumping into and interviewing settled into their fold-down chairs and polishing off what’s left of their ice cream cones, that I have been visiting a foreign country all day.
And as the band begins to warm up and the sun starts setting behind the speakers, I realize that it’s good to visit places you’ve never been before. You don’t have to run out to the consulate to beg for citizenship, you can just close your mouth, blend into the fold, and enjoy the ride.
So I sit by myself, enjoying the sounds of my own silence for the first time all day. Hughes plays her way through a rendition of Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up The Sun” and a little girl in the front row begins to bob her head to the beat while ribbing her brother in the seat next to her until he does the same.
Maybe I’ve found the answer to my question after all: it’s a stupid question. I probably won’t ever become a Christian in my lifetime, and I’m okay with that. But more importantly I learned that I am happy with my own weird brand of Budatheishipsterism. Really, none of us wants to be pigeonholed into anything. Not the skateboarders, not the bikers, not the Malibu moms or the talented musicians with cartilage piercings, and not the reporter who happens to be agnostic, but can belt out the lyrics to any MercyMe song you ask her to.
Maeva Considine is the calendar editor of New Times and grew up with a couple of recovering Catholics. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org