Sustaining Small Festivals
Merlefest – which is taking place this weekend in Wilkesboro, NC – was the first music festival we attended, and is still the largest one. It was dedicated to the memory of Eddy Merle Watson. But, as memory of Merle now fades, it has developed into a celebration of Doc Watson and his mantra of “Bluegrass +.”
Merlefest annually brings between 10,000 and 20,000 fans per day to the campus of Wilkes Community College, where 15 stages scattered over this spacious, attractive campus enjoy music ranging from the primitive shape-note singing still practiced in Appalachia’s deepest hollers through bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz, and old country, to some of today’s top electrified country bands. It’s a massive, all-consuming, joyful week. For some, however, the crowds, mobility requirements, and number of choices are overwhelming, leading them to make other choices. So, this week I’m looking at the benefits of small (lesser-known) festivals.
The first multi-day bluegrass festival on record was promoted by Carlton Haney on Labor Day weekend of 1965, at Cantrell’s Horse Farm in Fincastle, VA. It brought, among others, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Don Reno, Red Smiley, and Doc Watson together to perform. The highlight of the weekend was Haney’s creation and Monroe’s narration of “The Story of Bluegrass.” For that, all these performers played together and separately on stage as Monroe told of the genre’s invention, growth, and development. But another of the great surprises, and a pleasure remembered and spoken about often by those who were there, was the mixture of urban folkies, college students, rednecks, hippies, and serious collectors of Appalachian music and culture, along with local rural farmers and church-going people. These folks came together to celebrate an essentially rural, Appalachian variation of “the ancient tones” Bill Monroe talked about, to make music together in the campground and the parking lot, to listen to some of the finest musical practitioners of the day. Four years before Woodstock, they made a festival and originated an original and organic way of coming together in the celebration of a people’s music performed by professionals and amateurs alike.
In the 50 years that have passed since, bluegrass festivals have come and gone. The ones that continue beyond the vision and drive of their founders are relatively few, and many have managed to become institutionalized in some way by becoming non-profits, associating with causes, or operating in campgrounds or parks owned or leased at attractive rates. While we attend some pretty good-sized events these days, we seem to be gravitating toward smaller and quieter festivals. During the winter months, these events are dominated by older folks, mostly retired, who have the leisure time to be where outdoor festivals can happen. For us, that means spending a few months in Florida, then migrating slowly northward toward the larger and better-established events held during the summer in New England. As summer comes, so does a younger crowd, but traditional bands playing plenty of familiar bluegrass music still seem to dominate.
The word “family” also often dominates both in the titles and the vibes of these festivals. The term “family festival,” according to some of my sources, grew out of the conflicts that emerged at festivals where there was a good deal of obstreperous behavior, fueled by excessive alcohol use and substance abuse.
At Denton Farm Park, in Denton, NC, the promoters, including park owner Brown Loflin and promoter Milton Harkey, decided to make “bikers and hippies” unwelcome, seeking to promote a more “family-oriented” environment. They even provided activities for children, until this festival, and others like it, became places where young parents could bring their children and give them the run of the festival grounds while they lounged in front of the stage unobtrusively sucking a beer or enjoying a glass of wine. This promoted a more wholesome environment for music and families to come together.
Woe betide the contemporary band that doesn’t make a healthy dose of music from the early days of bluegrass available within its set list. Audiences at these smaller, more traditional, festivals will accept very inventive, progressive music, if the band makes sure to recognize its origins, the music that Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers brought from the mountains, mines, fields, and factories to the bluegrass music stage. On the other hand, the shadows of memory are littered with uncompromising bands, insistent on maintaining their “artistic integrity” without recognizing and continuing to memorialize the founders. Phil Zimmerman, author of the fine bluegrass photo book Bluegrass Time, once reminded me that, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” Unlike some other genres, bluegrass music continues to honor those who went before, while forging into new creative territory.
However, the bluegrass audience at small festivals is declining as fans who actually saw and knew the founders are increasingly succumbing to health issues or dying off. Perhaps more important, however, is the problem raised by the entrepreneurial spirit of many promoters, insisting on maintaining both their purity and their control of the product they offer. Today, we have the Internet, social media, and the rise of increasingly vivid and immediately available means of enjoying entertainment. The development of mutually beneficial partnerships between festivals and other entities in their region is crucial to sustain festivals and increase their market penetration in their areas. Working effectively with local and regional partners is a skill that promoters need to learn in order to increase the size of their audience and the effectiveness of their presentation. Developing and creating partners is not the native disposition of many bluegrass promoters. But, learning to be a partner as well as having partners is crucial, and often difficult. Moving into being an organization that relates more effectively with agencies and businesses to develop partners will help build a sustainable festival which can last, grow with the times, and present bluegrass music to new and increasingly more diverse audiences.