John Ferguson is living the good life. A 69-year-old retiree, Ferguson has spent the last eight years of his life traveling the United States. He hikes. He camps. But most interesting is the dedication with which he pursues his greatest passion of all, music.
Ferguson began regularly attending national music festivals in 2005 when he first attended the Oklahoma Blues Festival in Tulsa. He followed that trip quickly with visits to Bonnaroo in Tennessee and, later, to Vegoose in Las Vegas. He's also a Jam Cruise veteran, a Wakarusa frequenter and, last year alone, he raged at no less than eight separate festivals, where given his age he tends to stick out like a sore thumb.
But for that same reason, he's also become something of an embraced figure. Ferguson has become a staple in the underground Dallas music community, serving as both loyal fan and, from time to time, as concert promoter for his favorite electronic and jam-band touring acts.
Last month, while sitting in the thick of the Sherwood Forest at the first-ever, electronic-heavy Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, Michigan — his 33rd music festival in the last six years — he admitted it outright: He's very much living the dream.
"I had a great job and could still be working today," says the retired librarian and former preacher from Garland. "The reason I retired is because my job just didn't allow me enough time to do all the things I wanted to do."
While most his age are at home asleep or watching television, Ferguson spends his Friday and Saturday nights hitting up venues such as Trees and the Granada Theater, listening to and sometimes even hanging out with bands he believes are the movers and shakers of the younger generation.
His favorite band of all? The Chicago-based jam band Umphree's McGee, which he's seen the most out of any other group, a whopping 15 times. He drives to all the shows he attends — local or distant — and often by himself, mostly because he will do anything to avoid flying, but also because distance won't keep him from dancing like a madman to his latest genre obsessions, dubstep and glitch-hop.
Needless to say, John Ferguson is a rare breed.
Ferguson first developed his love and appreciation for music at a young age. In the fourth grade, he began playing clarinet and listening to records on his mother's 78-rpm record player. Later, he sang bass tenor for his school choir and eventually switched to bass clarinet while in high school, though he didn't pursue music thereafter except as an enthusiast.
The evolution of music he's seen has been astounding, he says. From 45s to mp3s, from Bo Diddley to The Beatles, Ferguson — or J-Ferg, as he is commonly known in the certain circles of the area music scene — describes it all as "a wild ride." Elvis Presley broke as a star when Ferguson reached his teenage years, and the advent of rock 'n' roll subsequently governed his adolescence. But, Ferguson is quick to admit, he was far more of a classical music buff than anything else back then.
"[Modest] Mussorgsky, [Edvard] Grieg, [Antonin] Dvorak, [Johann] Bach, [Ludwig van] Beethoven — that's what I was really diggin' on more than rock 'n' roll," he says. Despite the gravitas of those names he praises, not a single one of the resting, hammock-lounging hippies camped out around him at Electric Forest stirs.
The first rock concert he attended — Cream at Dallas' long-gone Memorial Auditorium in the fall of 1968 — changed everything for the then-26-year-old. The following summer — the summer of love, you'll note — Ferguson attended the Texas International Pop Festival, further cementing his rock fandom as he and more than 150,000 others gathered at a former motor speedway in Lewisville to watch the likes of Janis Joplin, Santana, The Chicago Transit Authority, Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad perform sets just two weeks after the legendary first Woodstock.
"There were no problems," Ferguson recounts. "Just the idea of 150,000 people out at a festival in this small town really unsettled parents and lawmakers."
Indeed: The Texas International Pop Festival's greatest local legacy may be the laws that were passed thereafter to prevent such happenings in the future. Still, social stigma could hardly hinder Ferguson's passion for live music. In 1973, he began a T-shirt collection to commemorate all the shows that he ever attended. The first sported a Ritz Pub logo, another deceased music venue formerly in Uptown Dallas. These days, Ferguson rocks Pretty Lights, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bear Creek Music Festival tees on a regular basis. Four decades' worth of band and concert T-shirts reside in his closet, he says. He has no idea how many shirts his collection boasts.
But his memory is hardly fading. A staunch advocate of standing front-and-center for performances — where the artists can see you, you can see them and you can clearly see the magic happening, he explains — his eyes beam as he recounts the back-to-back sets he watched from Sound Tribe Sector 9 and My Morning Jacket at Wakarusa earlier this year.
His eyes light up once again as he whips out his personalized Electric Forest schedule, deciding what to see next. Beside the name of the Wisconsin-based band Steez is a hand-written scribble that reads, in all caps, "NEW," so the next time someone asks he'll be able to recall exactly when he first heard their music. A similar annotation is scribbled next to Brooklyn-based producer Eliot Lipp.
Dallas DJ and producer Mike McDonald, who performs under the w I Z a r d moniker, sees J. Ferg as not only a bastion of awesomeness, but also a communal inspiration. He raves when describing the support that Ferguson offers to local musicians as unparalleled.
"Not only has he been at every one of my shows since I started playing, but he's always the first one there, ready to rock," McDonald boasts.
Ferguson is used to that kind of gushing at this point.
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"I have a very positive response from kids," he says fondly. "They always look at me wide-eyed like, 'You like our music?' In their experience, people my age don't like their music. It somewhat affirms to them this is actually good music."
With the sun climbing higher through the trees of the Sherwood Forest above him, Ferguson gets out his pre-printed festival schedule to see who's playing next. A performer named Zach Deputy kicks off the Sunday lineup, the concert veteran notes. He saw this one-man reggae master once before, and he left the set impressed. Now, per protocol, he hopes to arrive at the performance early enough to secure a prime spot.
As he rises from the tie-dye sheet upon which he was seated, Ferguson perhaps best explains the thing that motivates him to keep going, to keep seeing all these shows, and to keep remaining such a vocal supporter of the artists he enjoys.
"Music changes over time and in that sense is not timeless," he says. "Music is ageless. Great music is always great music. It doesn't matter if you're 13 or 70. Great music is going to last."