Instead of jumping on the tour bus and heading to his band Midland’s headlining gig at the Dreamy Draw music festival, Mark Wystrach hopped into his vehicle and took the scenic route from his home in Tucson, Arizona, to the event site two hours away in Scottsdale.
“I drove up this back road — the original old highway — through the beautiful Sonoran desert,” Wystrach tells Rolling Stone backstage. “Growing up around a bunch of remarkable music here and at my parents’ [restaurant] the Steak Out in Sonoita — there were always incredible bands playing. And it all has influenced everything I’ve done.”
Held at the Scottsdale Civic Center on the edge of the Old Town district, the inaugural Dreamy Draw hosted Margo Price, Luke Grimes, Watchhouse, Hailey Whitters, Jamestown Revival, American Aquarium, Lord Huron, and more, making for one of the more eclectic lineups of the festival year.
For Wystrach, Dreamy Draw was a culmination of many closely held emotions and endless miles traveled — that literal and figurative road from small town aspirations to seeing your name in marquee lights.
“[As a kid], I thought it was unachievable to break in. Who am I to be able to do that?” Wystrach says. “But everyone comes from somewhere and that seed of wanderlust was planted early on. To be honest with you, that gratitude is something carried with me every night.”
Standing on the Bronco Stage during opening one of Dreamy Draw, in front of a fevered crowd of thousands, Midland cruised through a whirlwind set of its hits with some key covers sprinkled in (Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down”). A highlight was “Cheatin’ Songs,” which Wystrach prefaced with a prediction that future iterations of the intimate Dreamy Draw will cost $1500 a ticket.
Wystrach ruminated on his own band’s future too: Remarkably, Midland mark 10 years together as a band next year. “To me, it’s proof of concept,” he says. “I don’t care if you’re in music or thinking of starting a business, if you have that intuition, that kind of burning voice in your head to go for it, just go and see it through — because you never know until you do it.”
Dreamy Draw was launched to help establish the Phoenix suburb as a destination for music. While the arts are already well established in Scottsdale, the western town was in need of a music gathering to help show off the Scottsdale Civic Center complex, which reopened this year after an extensive renovation of the property.
The high desert landscape, with the backdrop of Camelback Mountain in the distance, was the ideal setting for Dreamy Draw, a festival that leaned hard into outdoorsy and envelope-pushing vibes. “We’re a young city, and it’s got kind of this maverick mentality, where we’re figuring out who we want to be,” says Laura McMurchie, of Experience Scottsdale. “But we’re not restricted by any specific definitions.”
That was a common theme of the inaugural lineup. The likes of Margo Price, Stephen Wilson Jr., Watchhouse, and Trampled by Turtles are each impossible to pigeon-hole.
Price sparkled under the lights in her sequin attire, her soaring voice radiating through the complex and out into the surrounding Salt River Valley. “[As I’ve gotten older], I have less Fs to give,” Price says. “I feel way more confident in my own skin and who I am, what I want to say. I’ve been lucky to do what I love for a living somehow, and I’m just trying to be content with that.”
Backed by one of the most bitchin’ bands on the planet, Price & Co. poured through a raucous “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” which included teases of “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Whiskey River” — the latter made more celebratory with Willie Nelson’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that same day.
The Willie tributes continued with a rousing take on “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away” by newcomer Will Worden. The 25-year-old Texan singer-songwriter caught the attention of more than a few passerby music freaks during his midnight appearance on the Poncho Stage.
Worden has a vocal style situated somewhere at the intersection of Elvis Presley and Gordon Lightfoot. Sonically, it’s as if those singers were backed by the Flying Burrito Brothers. Now calling L.A. home, Worden’s debut album is due out February; his tune “Rainy Weather Blues” captivated the crowd at Dreamy Draw.
“Nowadays, people are trying to sound alien in a way, where, back then, people were so human that they sounded alien,” Worden says. “I think of people that inspire me like Elvis, the Beatles or Brian Wilson — how could you make that noise, how can someone sound like that?”
It’s those exact hauntingly beautiful and sorrowful tones that are at the core of Wilson Jr., an Indiana singer-songwriter and former boxer who looks at each performance as a fight with the microphone to excise his personal demons and hardships — including the unexpected passing of his father in 2018.
“I died too with him, the identity I had being Stephen Wilson Jr. With that death, came a rebirth without him around, but at the same time, making him the centerpiece [of my music],” Wilson says. “[Performing] is a very spiritual experience. And the closest thing I’ve had to bringing my dad back is singing onstage — it’s like a drug and I’ve been chasing it ever since.”
That notion of channeling a more intrinsic, ethereal mood amid the live setting also resides at the foundation of Americana/indie juggernaut Watchhouse. The North Carolina husband/wife duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz held court at the Stampede Stage, all while taking inventory of their soon-to-be 15th anniversary as a touring act.
“Thing are always in constant motion,” Marlin says backstage in Scottsdale. “I think one of the best things we’ve learned is that you kind of have to let it evolve as we grew. New ideas would come in and we never felt like we needed to keep doing the same thing.”
To borrow the name of the festival, they just keep following the Dream.