The Moonshiner’s Ball: Your New Favorite Festival
“I’m out on the porch — it’s pushing 70 today and the dogwoods are in bloom.”
Travis Young, the creative and organizational force behind Moonshiner’s Ball, is calling me from his home base in Lexington, Kentucky. I can hear a dog gamboling about the yard, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.
The flowering trees that Travis referenced seem an apt metaphor for the festival itself — now in its fourth year, and flourishing. From May 19-21, Appalachian hills will play host to rising stars like Margaret Glaspy, an NPR Music darling; country-punk Lydia Loveless, dubbed a must-know artist by Rolling Stone, and the genre-bending Aaron Lee Tasjan, who, after more than two decades in bands and now as a solo artist, continues to surprise and inspire. Then there’s the 20-year-old phenom Marcus King — this is probably the last year you’ll be able to see him at homegrown venues — and Ben Sollee, whose set at Newport Folk Festival from 2010 is still on my playlist, seven years later.
And those are just the headliners. Dozens of other bands, from as close as Lexington and as far as Austin and San Francisco — round out the 2017 bill. The weekend of music includes host band Blind Corn Liquor Pickers; Vandaveer, a Moonshiner’s veteran; and Justin Wells, formerly of Fifth on the Floor.
So how does a festival — the brainchild of a bluegrass musician — balance nationally-touring bands with its grassroots ethos? That question — where Moonshiner’s fits in a world of corporate mega-fests and a DIY culture of house shows — prompted me to reach out to Travis.
No Depression: I’d love to hear the origin story of Moonshiner’s Ball. You’re in a band — The Blind Corn Liquor Pickers — so you’re very much a part of the Kentucky music family. What motivated you to add “festival organizer” to your CV?
Young: Blind Corn has toured and played for over fifteen years and recorded four albums. The band started back during the string band revolution, around the time the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou came out. That film — its tone, sense of satire, the string band soundtrack — formed the background for us. It was the rebirth of an old-time sound that was worming its way into popular music. And it wasn’t long before you started hearing banjos in pop music, and then one day Mumford & Sons play on the channel that your eight-year-old requests on road trips.
Through a decade-plus of touring, we got to see bands coming up. We shared the bill with Trampled By Turtles, then an unknown band out of Duluth. We played support for the Avett Brothers here in Kentucky — we brought the crowd as the local opener — at the time, folks didn’t know them. We played a lot of festivals and got a sense of what we liked and what we didn’t like. And with all this time on the road, we became part of a community of artists, of friends.
After spending years touring, I realized I wasn’t going to quit my day job and do music for a living. And there was a bout of writer’s block. I started to think about what I love about music — how it brings friends together, and makes collaborators out of strangers. I wanted to bring friends together not just for a few hours at a show, but for an entire weekend.
ND: What is the ethos, the philosophy of the festival?
Young: A big part of what we seek to do is support the local music scene, to shine a spotlight on the great artists we know. We bring in national acts, the recognized names — the idea is to put Kentucky bands side-by-side with them and help lift up these amazing local bands.
Kentucky has long been an underdog in the music industry. Some states believe in themselves — you see Texas pride, for instance, and that belief becomes self-fulfilling prophesy. Artists migrate to places like Austin, and there are a lot of music venues, a lot of opportunities for bands to be heard. Here, Lexington bands often aren’t even known in Louisville, and vice versa. There are those that have broken out like My Morning Jacket, but it’s hard to survive as a local Kentucky musician because there isn’t an infrastructure that supports it. And festivals in the region treat local bands as unpayed filler and pay only the out-of-towners.
This is starting to change — Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson are both Kentucky guys — but there’s much more room for this community to grow. Moonshiner’s gives folks an opportunity to collaborate, to jam together, to be part of a bigger collective.
A homegrown festival can create this community in a way that a corporate festival cannot. We won’t throw 100 artists on a bill and run multiple stages at the same time. We have three stages, but only one artist is on at any given time, so the whole festival crowd experiences the same music at the same time.
ND: What do you look for in assembling the lineup?
Young: As a festival organizer, it’s about the joy of discovery. This is a year-round thing — we’re constantly searching, going to shows, reading blogs, listening to podcasts for new releases, going to other festivals. As a small festival with a comparatively small budget, it’s essential for us to find these exciting bands that aren’t household names yet. We’re looking for the diamonds in the rough. That’s the super obsessive component of all this. There are so many artists to be found, who deserve so much more attention than they get. It is a joy to do this for artists, and to help listeners find their new favorite band.
Moonshiner’s combines the Americana/folk festival feel with the free-wheeling atmosphere of jam band festivals. Most festivals are one or the other, unless they’re EDM-focused or corporate festivals. For me, during the day, I want to sit and bask in beautiful melodies and get lost in insightful lyrics. But once it’s 9pm, it’s time to party! We want it to be folk by day and funk by night. Most people who come to Moonshiner’s won’t know the entirety of the lineup, becaues folks tend to be drawn to one or the other [folk v. jam band]. And that’s part of the joy for the people who come, is the discovery.
ND: The festival features more than just music. There are poetry readings, yoga sessions, and kid-friendly activities. How do you manage to do all this — do you ever sleep?
Young: It’s about little communities within the big community, and it all grows organically outward — like ripples in the water. This organic growth is key to the coherency of the festival. There’s all these unexpected collaborations — in year two, Ben Sollee [who returns this year] provided backing music for a spoken word artist.
And we do push to make this family friendly. Yes, people bring moonshine, and some people get rowdy — but we also keep the kids’ calendar full. Last year, we hosted art education workshops for kids based off Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keefe. A nature preserve director took kids on a hike through the woods to look at local flora and fauna. This year, we will have older kids DJ a dance party for the kids.
ND: You’re in new digs this year — the Jenkins Farm in Irvine, Kentucky. What prompted the shift?
Young: Our first location — Homegrown Hideaways — was great. It was super secluded, homey, beautiful. But we were maxed out on space last year, and so this year we moved up the same valley into a new county. This new location is bigger. There’s also more flat land, which allows us to lay out the festival grounds in a way that’s more orderly — in the past, the stages were on an uneven grade, and that gets challenging.
The new site is in Estill County, which is fitting because one of the original Blind Corn players is an Estill County boy — we’ve played around here for many years. It’s an interesting town — it’s very much Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, but with a bohemian streak. There’s also a lot of great moonshine that comes from here. So it’s a great fit, and we’re excited about it.
ND: Can you give us a preview of the food options that festival-goers and artists will get to enjoy?
Young: From the beginning, this was a major focus for us — we always want the best food trucks. One vendor has a gloriously converted truck with a wood-fired pizza oven inside it. We have a crepe vendor that’s always really popular. There are a couple of food trucks that serve American small plates, and a place that does gourmet burgers with an emphasis on locally sourced, organic ingredients. And there’s a coffee vendor — that’s important!
And of course there’s moonshine. We don’t sell because most counties in Kentucky are dry — but there are jars that make their way around the crowd. There’s clear moonshine and also char, which is like a homemade bourbon. There are different moonshine cocktails. Apple pie is a popular one, where you cut the moonshine with cider and put a cinnamon stick in it. Some people just add fruit to the jar to infuse the moonshine.
ND: I’m sure it’s difficult to pick favorites out of a stellar lineup, but are there bands you’re particularly excited to welcome to
Moonshiner’s — or to welcome back? Does your band play or are you too busy running the festival?
Young: Blind Corn plays Saturday night, and we always use our set to feature again many of the great artists of the weekend, as special guests sitting in. Vandaveer has played every year and they’re really beloved by our crowd. Ben Sollee is back again. When he played year two, he sat in on seven or eight other sets — with River Whyless, with Vandaveer — he even ran sound at one point for us when we had a bit of a stage mishap.
A lot of artists this year will be well known to No Depression readers: Lydia Loveless, Aaron Lee Tasjan. And have great up-and-coming Kentucky acts — this is Justin Wells’s first appearance at Moonshiner’s. And Tyler Childers is poised for a breakout. If you’re looking for the next Sturgill or Stapleton, those are two artists to remember. And we have some unbelievable pickers – the Lil’ Smokies out of Montana, the Jon Stickley Trio, and hometown bluegrass heroes, The Wooks.
ND: And finally, what’s on your Spotify playlist and/or turntable right now?
Young: My vinyl collection is old records. I have a wind-up [for 78s] in the living room and a standard turntable. I listen to old scratchy records at night. For new music, I’m a Spotify guy. The new Sinkane record is great. Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway is amazing. When I was writing bluegrass it’s what I always wanted to do — take the old themes of folk music, the tried and true themes of bluegrass, and make them applicable to life today. Her album is tied into Black Lives Matter but also reaches back. It’s the history of race relations in a song cycle. I also like Nikki Lane‘s new record — fierce female honky-tonk stuff. And I’m still listening to my favorites from last year — Lydia Loveless’s Real, Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Silver Tears, Glaspy’s Emotions & Math.
For music fans who are looking for an experience that combines your favorite known national names with the promise of discovery — a weekend curated with fierce love and pride of the local, the homegrown — Moonshiner’s Ball is where you want to be this spring.
The Moonshiner’s Ball takes place May 19-21 in Irvine, Kentucky. Camping is included in the price of admission. For those who wish to stay offsite, Lexington, KY, is a short drive away. Tickets available here.