What Happens at Bluegrass Festivals?
This afternoon we started our trek north from Florida, heading into the blooming outdoor bluegrass season, which runs from April through October in most of the country. I’ve been writing this column for a year now, writing about all the festivals I’ve attended, without ever commenting about what goes on at a bluegrass festival.
You may have experienced bluegrass by going to indoor concerts sponsored by the local arts council in your town or promoted by a music shop or festival promoter. You may have watched Bluegrass Underground on PBS, where some of the best bluegrass bands in the nation perform 333 feet underground in beautiful Cumberland Caverns, between Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the bluegrass programs on RFD-TV, if your cable system still carries it. Perhaps you’ve gone to a local bar or restaurant on bluegrass night to see either a touring band on its way through town or one of the many local, non-touring bluegrass bands. You might tune to Sirius/XM radio’s Bluegrass Junction channel.
But you haven’t really experienced bluegrass unless you’ve attended a bluegrass festival. It’s not hard to find one — they take place in almost every state in the union … and in Europe, too.
Bluegrass festivals generally last for three or four days. They can be held in elaborate commercial campgrounds, local fairgrounds, private music parks whose owners promote music events, or even on busy city streets. They can attract anywhere from a few hundred people to tens of thousands. The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, California, annually hosts an estimated three-quarters of a million people over a three-day, free festival. MerleFest, held on the last full weekend of April in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, usually entertains about 80,000 people with 13 stages of music, spread across the grounds of the Wilkes Community College.
But for those of us who regularly attend festivals, big events like those may be bucket list shows or they may not even be in consideration. More typically, a festival attracts 750 – 5,000 people who come together to create a small, intense musical community for a few days. They listen to music, jam together, party some, cook and eat together, and don’t get a whole lot of sleep. They luxuriate in a music they love for its raw power, the skill it requires, and its deep and appreciated history, which reaches back to 1945, when it became a recognized genre. Bluegrass festival-goers celebrate the old traditional songs, and wonder at new interpretations of them as well as new ways to present the music.
Many people arrive when the gate opens on the Sunday or Monday before the event begins. Volunteers work with the festival organizer to put up large shade tents and lay out streets along which rigs and tents will be placed. At a four-day festival, music often begins around noon on Thursday and continues until 10 or 11 p.m, with a light schedule on Sunday as folks head home. Bands typically play two sets of 50 minutes each and then go to their merchandise tables, where they sell CDs, T-shirts, hats, and other items. I’m not aware of any other genre whose performers remain so available to their fans, to talk music and sell their merchandise, often treating their fans like long-lost friends they haven’t seen since last year. For various reasons, bands no longer stay for days at a festival, but there are still bands who go out into the field to jam with their fans over beer and good cheer.
During the day, promoters schedule bands or band members to present workshops in which performers talk about their careers, share ways of approaching their instrument, teach a few tricks of the trade, or answer questions about how they got into the music. The Gibson Brothers, highly valued as skilled workshoppers, often introduce new songs at their workshops before they try them out in their sets.
In the last few years, many festivals have started featuring a “slow jam” tent, where beginning pickers can learn to jam in a controlled class settings, the teachers emphasizing a speed novices can attain, and strong support for their efforts.
Bluegrass festivals often build to marvelous climax performances on Friday and Saturday evenings. You can see some of the top bands in the nation. Often, performers from other bands are invited to join for a song or two, even a jam. There are unexpected moments of rare excitement.
Little Roy Lewis, in drag, may pop onto the stage, to bring a touch of early bluegrass history. Rhonda Vincent may welcome the promoter to the stage to sing a song with her. A performer may be surprised by a moth landing on his or her microphone. Once, I was lucky enough to catch on video a bird landing on Josh Williams’ guitar at a festival.
Bluegrass festivals during the summer are held outdoors, rain or shine. While many promoters provide a shade tent, most people will sit out in the sun during the day or laze in their campsite, visiting, picking, and sleeping in after the previous night’s jam session while they wait for the cooler evening.
If you decide to come out to a festival, bring light clothes, some warm gear, and a rain covering. Don’t forget some bug dope. Most traditional bluegrass festivals don’t have beer sales on site, but many are tolerant of bringing coolers to the stage area, so long as containers are held in coozies. Many festivals are family friendly, with kids often given the run of the site by their tolerant parents. Children’s activities are often provided to keep kids busy, allowing their parents to enjoy the music while the kids play safely.
As a festival winds down on Sunday morning — often featuring a gospel jam — there’s a lazy, laidback feeling accompanied by folks packing their rigs and tents to return to real life. The community, which was built only a few days earlier in an empty field, dissolves as each person heads home to work, to assume the obligations of living a productive life. The fantasy is over for another weekend. But, not to worry. Next weekend, somewhere, the bluegrass community comes together again, like a huge, movable amoeba, to gather for music, eating, and drinking together, sharing stories and memories, and becoming involved in a musical experience that can be treasured for years.