For the past decade, Beck Rustic has been the “Gal in Charge” at the New England Shake-Up. It’s an annual gathering to celebrate all things ’50s: cuffed jeans and two-tone shoes, poodle skirts and sock hops.
Most importantly, this three-day shindig has always been about the music. It’s rockabilly through and through.
Taking over the Sturbridge Host Hotel and Conference Center again this weekend following a pandemic pause, the New England Shake-Up will feature a vintage fair, an art show, picnics, a pool party, a late-night jamboree, and much more. Bands and musicians are flying in from Texas, California, England, and beyond. For the first time, Rustic will present the Bay State Barn Dance, a re-creation of the old-style “hillbilly” variety programs such as the “Louisiana Hayride” and the “Ozark Jubilee.”
As usual, she’s pulling out all the stops for the music and the subculture she loves. This year, however, could be bittersweet. After the last late-night DJ spins his final 45 early Monday morning, she’s pulling the plug on the Shake-Up.
“The cost of everything has increased so much, it can’t afford itself anymore,” Rustic says of her rock ‘n’ roll rave-up. “I don’t want to cut so many corners that it feels like a shell of itself. I’d rather go out on this high note.”
She hasn’t gone out of her way to market this as the Shake-Up’s last year. That’s characteristic, says Kevin Patey, the Boston-area musician better known as Jittery Jack.
“One thing Beck hates is having the attention on her,” he says. “She’ll say, ‘It’s all about the musicians, not me.’”
This year’s lineup features a mix of perennial Shake-Up favorites and newcomers, including Rockabilly Hall of Famers Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Nashville soul upstart McKinley James, and the Dave & Deke Combo.
“Beck does a great job taking care of the bands,” says Patey, who operates Jack’s Barber Shack in Manchester-by-the-Sea and Beverly. “Silly things, but there are towels, drinks, and snacks backstage. Most of the festivals don’t go to those ends to take care of everyone. She’s very attentive. It’s not just willy-nilly.
“I play these festivals all around the world, and this one is one of my favorites, and not just because it’s so close for me.”
It’s a family affair. Rustic’s mother, Liz, who has worked the ticket booth every year since the beginning, has become a favorite of fans and performers alike. “She’s like their mom, too,” Rustic says.
In April, Rustic got hitched to Shaun Young, a founding member of the rockabilly revival band High Noon alongside Sean Mencher and Kevin Smith, who now plays bass in Willie Nelson’s band. Young is performing on Sunday night and also manning a few DJ sets over the weekend.
Mencher, meanwhile, is hosting a “Rockin’ Afternoon” on Saturday with an appearance by the music historian Peter Guralnick.
In its best years, the Shake-Up has drawn around 1,200 attendees, Rustic says. (In 2018 her event won the Festival of the Year honor from Dale Watson’s Memphis-based Ameripolitan Music Awards, which salutes “music with prominent roots influence.) This year the promoter is capping attendance at 1,000 to make the experience “a little more comfortable,” she says.
While Patey has thoroughly enjoyed every minute of each Shake-Up, he still gets excited talking about the year when Rustic managed to convince Gene Maltais to get back onstage one last time. Patey, who was then managing TT the Bear’s Place in Cambridge in its final years, served in the backing band.
Maltais, a native of Concord, N.H., had a brief moment more than 60 years ago when he released a handful of songs, including “Gangwar” and “The Raging Sea,” that are still considered rockabilly classics.
“He always said he’d never do it again, but she coaxed him out of retirement,” Patey says.
Rustic grew up in Ludlow, some miles to the west of Sturbridge.
“When I was a little kid, my grandparents used to listen to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline,” she says. That’s when she fell for that mid-century brand of showmanship.
“Before the Internet, I didn’t know that people were still making that kind of music,” she says. When she was old enough to drive, she began traveling to record stores, where she’d seek out “stuff that looked cool — anyone that looked kind of Elvis-y.”
She also fell for the Grand Ole Opry and Buck Owens and Roy Clark’s TV show “Hee Haw.” On Saturday, the Bay State Barn Dance will replicate those revue-style shows.
“We’ll go out with a bang,” Patey says.
“In my head,” Rustic adds, “it’s going to be amazing.”
THE NEW ENGLAND SHAKE-UP
At the Sturbridge Host Hotel and Conference Center, Sturbridge. Sept. 23-25. Full weekend pass $120, single-day pass $45. newenglandshakeup.com
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.