What’s Your Favorite Bluegrass Festival?
As I write this, my wife and I are attending a wonderful bluegrass event in the hills of east Tennessee, called the Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival. When I walked up the hill above Dumplin Valley Farm, I could see the Smoky Mountains rising to their heights in the distant haze. Below me lay a converted milking parlor that’s been turned into a stage for the bluegrass festival. On Sunday, people will begin coming in – early birds with the time to be here as the grounds fill up. We visit, but some shop, and just about all day long there’s an open jam with a range of skills and songs under the light-handed leadership of Johnnie Adams. Adams is a builder of both fine mandolins and wonderful musical experiences.
Last week we went to the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, one of the oldest continuing festivals in the country, which takes place at the Salem County Fairground in southern New Jersey. Only a few 20-amp electric hookups are available for people to get power, and the grounds contain a number of open-sided sheds suitable for showing animals, holding pie contests, and providing shade. The license plates in the parking lot suggested who was there, and New Jersey dominated. But there were also plenty from nearby Delaware, Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania, as well as the District of Columbia. Generally speaking, most people who attend bluegrass festivals drive from fairly nearby to spend an idyllic weekend listening to professional bands, making music within small, fluid jam groups, socializing, and relaxing. A bluegrass festival may have plenty of structure, but each person turns the weekend into their own joy.
Next week we’ll head across the Smokies to Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital city, for the annual trade show, award show, and celebration put on by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and Wide Open Bluegrass. All told, about 180,000 people will attend that gathering in one form or another, to build their businesses, network, jam, seek out and hire bands for their events spread all over the world, or just to have fun listening to great music in showcases, bars and clubs, convention meeting rooms, private suites, and the large Red Hat Amphitheater across the street from the convention center.
Last night, at a jam, a (new) friend asked me, “What’s your favorite festival?” It’s a question I won’t answer because I can’t. Each festival is unique. Each event provides a temporary home for bluegrass music.
Phil Zimmerman, author of Bluegrass Time, a wonderful photo book which chronicled many of the first generation of bluegrass players, once said to me, “Remember, we stand on the shoulders of giants.” To me, Zimmerman means that no matter what direction bluegrass pickers choose, they need to remember and acknowledge their debt to Bill Monroe and the other founders of the music. But Monroe, more than any other person in bluegrass, insisted that musicians seek their own interpretations of the genre.
The festivals, and the jams at them, are the repository of the history, the old songs, the drive of bluegrass, as well as its changes. As I’ve become a more active jammer, the strength of Monroe and others of the first generation of bluegrassers has become more attractive. Their songs are a part of my being. And despite my novice ability and contribution, I feel welcome in the jams I enter and am able to become a part of the community.
Our travels through bluegrass festivals have taken us to places that have become familiar to us, that bring us back together with those we’ve come to value and care for. They’ve opened new vistas of music and possibility to us. We’ve found common ground with not a single community, but the communities that combine and grow from an assortment of people with diverse backgrounds and interests, who have one thing upon which they can agree: bluegrass.
For all practical purposes, bluegrass does (and should) remain largely undefined. We’re lucky enough to attend many festivals, though there are still many that, for practical and logistical reasons, we can’t get to. The three events I mentioned, over the next couple of weeks — in New Jersey, Tennessee, and North Carolina — bring together people from personal, professional, musical, and cultural backgrounds that fade into insignificance when they play, sing, and listen to the music. Bluegrass music has the ability to incorporate strains of American life in ways that may have been unforeseen to the founders, though their music also exemplified it. Using six acoustic stringed instruments (banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and Dobro) the music has incorporated not just the easily recognized elements of mountain music, gospel, blues, and country. It has also found expression through other niche musical forms like Western swing, R&B, jazz, rock and roll, klezmer, polka, and more.
So don’t ask me what my favorite festival is, because I shouldn’t be asked to choose. My favorite festival is the reunion, each weekend, of people who know each other through music they share in common, even when some of its manifestations aren’t quite to their taste – or mine. Bluegrass will continue to contribute musicians to other genres that are related to but are not bluegrass – at least from the perspective of a good many people.
People hear and are captured by bluegrass, even when they don’t recognize it as such, in advertisements, background music, and in the very fabric of American life. Some people are intrigued enough by that quirky sound to come to a festival. Then they’re caught, hooked on the sound and environment that brings us together in spirit week after week.