Party Tips from Billy Reid's Shindig

This past weekend in Florence, Alabama, Southern designer and media darling Billy Reid hosted the be-all, end-all affair of the summer: The Billy Reid Shindig No. 4. We were there. And we can attest, lawdamercy, that man can throw a party! So as you plan your Labor Day festivities this weekend, take a few cues from what we learned at Shindig.

1. Invite People Who Can Rock a Conversation Wordsmiths, people with endless anecdotes, and folks with contagious laughs (or snorts) are just more fun to talk to. They keep things interesting for everyone. Our pal John T. Edge (shown here), director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of the new Food Truck Cookbook, is one such gentleman. Also on hand at Shindig, fashion maven Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin, the ever-quotable chef Sean Brock, Will Harris (the John Wayne of the South) of White Oak Pastures, and John Paul White of the Civil Wars.

2. Make Sure You've Got Someone Who Knows Their Way Around a Kitchen Chris Hastings, chef at Hot and Hot Fish Club and this year's James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: South, whipped up a helluva feast for Billy's guests with seafood from the Alabama Gulf. Of course, we don't all have rock star chefs on speed dial. But having an extra set of capable hands can make all the difference between bash and bust.

3. Lay Out One Heck of a Spread It's the South. It's the end of summer. And, by gawd, we like to eat. Need a little inspiration? Man the grill or try a fish fry.

4. Set a Casual, But Gracious Table It doesn't have to be precious to be special. Billy's tablescape echoed his overall casual chic aesthetic: mismatched chairs, patterned cushions, wild grass centerpieces, and low candles for ambient light.

5. Have a Killer Soundtrack With performances over the weekend by the Alabama Shakes (hometown standouts extraordinaire), Jonny Corndawg, Wild Cub, the Pine Hill Haints, and Roman Candle, the mood was pretty much set by full-throttle, toe-tapping awesomeness. As Brittany Howard of the Shakes said onstage at the Shoals Theatre, "I just had a spiritual moment!" Me too, girl. Me too.

6. Raise a Glass with Friends Make sure the bar is stocked and you've got plenty of cups on hand. To keep the mixologist fuss to a minimum, Billy had the fine folks from Birmingham's Little Donkey whip up some large-batch punches from their cocktail menu, like the Donkey's Daddy, a bourbon and tequila hibiscus elixir (it's Kentucky in a sombrero). For make-at-home recipes, these 12 punches will get you started. Party bonus: invite a friend with a Pappy Van Winkle stash who's willing to share. We're looking at you, John Currence.

7. Be the Life of the Party There's no need to let those witty conversationalists (see #1) hog the spotlight. As host of your own shindig, it's quite alright to take center stage. Rock on, Billy Reid, with your guitar-playing self.

8. Make it a Pool Party If you've got access to water (pool, lake, pond, "crick"), go for it. Jamie Barrier, front man of the Pine Hill Haints, took the plunge, banjo and all. As my mama has since pointed out, "That's pretty much the opposite of skinny dipping."

9. Provide a Late Night Snack If it's a really good party, chances are guests will stick around for a while. And they're going to get hungry. Avoid the midnight pantry raid and have some vittles ready. Billy had food trucks on hand, slinging burgers in the wee hours. But even your basic pimiento cheese and boiled peanuts will keep 'em happy.

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