Like Bluegrass? Here’s How to Do It Right — At a Festival
With Daylight Saving Time upon us and spring just a week or so ahead, festival season in the bluegrass world lies just over the horizon. Bluegrass tends to follow warm weather, and bluegrass season for my wife and I has been a nearly year-round enterprise for almost two decades. Bluegrass, like most music, is best consumed live. Because they emphasize the music and simple traditional values, bluegrass festivals don’t need, and most adherents don’t want, hyper-loud music, elaborate light shows, or extensive production. While there are fine indoor festivals, the best events tend to be held outdoors, in large fields with few amenities, and in warm weather. The music has deep rural roots. Although rural America has largely moved toward the cities and suburbs, festivals tend to find their best responses in semi-rural settings not too far from major population centers. Let’s look at how to find festivals, some good ones to consider, and how to enjoy them.
How can you find a bluegrass festival? As the internet became a resource, a number of pioneers sought to establish comprehensive lists of where and when festivals are scheduled to occur. The Bluegrass Festival Guide has emerged as perhaps the most useful. You can sort it by date, state, or by ZIP code, making it relatively easy to spot an event near you. Almost every festival has a flyer table where promoters place single-page flyers describing the lineup, dates, and costs. You can get valuable information at the table. Another useful source, once you’ve heard a few bands you like a lot, is a band’s online tour schedule. Several bands we know and like are enough bait to get us to a festival we have not attended before. Word of mouth is still a powerful tool to help you find more events after you’ve found your first.
Major outdoor events featuring bluegrass: MerleFest, Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival, Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival. Norman Adams, a Georgian who has been promoting bluegrass for nearly half a century, currently has nine festivals in the South, from Florida to West Virginia. They lean strongly to the traditional with lots of gospel music included. His events are popular, well-attended, and well-organized. The Bean Blossom Festival, located in Indiana and founded by Bill Monroe, is a five-day extravaganza featuring most of the most prominent traditional bands with lots of headliners as well as more varied fare. Here’s a representitive list: MACC, a benefit for St. Jude; ROMP, sponsored by the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky; the Fathers Day Festival in California; DelFest (founded by Del McCoury) in Maryland; RockyGrass and Telluride in Colorado; FreshGrass, a newer festival in Massachusetts sponsored by the owners of this site; and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the huge urban festival in San Francisco. Each September, the International Bluegrass Music Association and the City of Raleigh sponsor a huge urban extravaganza, The World of Bluegrass, that includes the IBMA awards show, a business conference, a street fair with free music, and a ticketed main stage in an amphitheater.
Smaller regional festivals: Smaller national, regional, and local bluegrass festivals can be found in most areas of the country, although there are not as many west of the Mississippi or east of the Rockies. Here’s where Dr. Google, Wikipedia, and word of mouth can be of use to you, as can the Bluegrass Festival Guide. For instance, I googled “bluegrass festivals in Michigan” and searched by state on Bluegrass Festival Guide and got plenty of results to choose from. There’s plenty of help, if you look. In New England alone, you can go to a festival of some size every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The mid-South likewise is filled with bluegrass.
Indoor festivals: Jekyll Island, a Norman Adams festival, starts off the year. SPBGMA in Nashville, Joe Val in Boston, Bluegrass First Class in Asheville, North Carolina, and Wintergrass in Bellevue, Washington, are all well-known indoor events. Joe Mullins hosts an indoor festival in Wilmington, Ohio. For people starved for live bluegrass, these winter festivals fill local hotels, provide for all-night jamming, and offer strong lineups. A problem that sometimes emerges is the concentration of germs, often leading to “festival crud” for the next week or two.
Many people bemoan, or even announce, the imminent death of the bluegrass festival. Festivals do seem to be changing, but hardly dying. Larger festivals across the country draw huge crowds. The bluegrass audience is considerably grayer than the typical audience you might find at, say, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, or others. They prefer to sit rather than stand, and alcohol is discouraged, though not usually prohibited — but restraint is required. Nevertheless, while many festivals seem to fail, there are always new ones popping up. Typically, tickets for three- or four-day bluegrass festivals can still be purchased in the $100 range.
Size counts … in many ways. Large festivals can be counted on the provide high-demand bands, lots of choices, younger crowds, and, often, people who like to dance (in front of the stage) or stand and wave. While there’s less smoking than even a couple of years ago, there’s still smoke in the air (except at MerleFest) and it ain’t all tobacco. Smaller festivals have a more family-oriented atmosphere, fewer bands, more local and regional bands, and less diversity in musical style or audience. Many of them have a cozy, family feel where parents feel free to allow their kids free range; there are rarely any obvious drunks or bad behavers, and there’s often a country fair atmosphere many enjoy.
People who attend bluegrass festivals tend to place seats in front of the stage and use them when a favorite band or new band they’ve heard of appears, returning to their camper or tent to jam, read, visit, and even party between sets of interest. This means that, especially during the daytime, there are often empty seats available near the stage. It’s the “bluegrass way” to sit in an open seat until asked to surrender it to its owner. Veteran festival attenders consider it bad form to “save” your seat by leaving clothing, a gear bag, or your knitting in your seat while absent from it.
Right now is the time to be planning to attend a festival near you. Look around, give a listen, don’t rely on your favorite streaming platform or YouTube, let alone CDs or satellite radio to give you an accurate picture of what bluegrass is all about. Spend a day or a long weekend at a festival. Join the fun and luxuriate in the welcoming culture. You’ll never regret it!