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Bluegrass festivals: a summertime staple

For more than fifty years, bluegrass musicians and fans from around the world have gathered in shady bowers and open fields to trade songs in parking lot picking sessions; hear top local, regional, and national bluegrass bands as they present onstage performances; and buy instruments, books, recordings, and memorabilia from vendors. These bluegrass festivals serve as vital meeting spaces for members of the bluegrass community, and they play a key role in the music’s ongoing economic vitality. (Bluegrass Unlimited, the leading publication in the field, even devotes an entire issue each year to festival listings.) With this blog post, I’d like to introduce you to a few great bluegrass festivals in the United States with the hope that you might seek out a festival in your own community.

Bill Monroe, who is frequently cited as “the father of bluegrass,” started his Bean Blossom Bluegrass Music Festival in Brown County, Indiana in 1967. Although it is not the oldest bluegrass festival in the U.S. (that honor goes to a short-lived festival held in Fincastle, Virginia), it is perhaps one of the most significant, holding a special place in bluegrass mythology. Monroe and his various band members built the facilities and frequently roamed the campgrounds in search of fellowship with parking lot pickers, so traces of Monroe can be felt throughout the festival grounds. In this video clip, we can see Monroe—along with his long-time fiddler Kenny Baker—not only playing the music that he helped to develop but also encouraging the formation of community among his participants.

Ralph Stanley, a long-time competitor of Monroe’s, hosted the McClure, Virginia Hills of Home Bluegrass Festival on Memorial Day weekend from 1971 until his death in 2016; it was also held in 2017. Stanley’s music has been widely celebrated for its efforts to capture the sound of Primitive Baptist singing and other forms of traditional Anglo-Appalachian music in his brand of bluegrass. In this clip, we see Frank Newsome—an elder in the Old Regular Baptist Church and a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow—singing “Gone Away with a Friend.”

In Colorado, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has featured an expansive variety of bluegrass and bluegrass-related styles, focusing especially on those acts that push the genre’s boundaries. The Colorado-based group Hot Rize as well as progressive pickers such as mandolinist Sam Bush and guitarist Tony Rice have frequently graced the Telluride stage. In this video, we will see a 2008 Telluride performance by the Yonder Mountain String Band, featuring Sam Bush on fiddle.

A more recent addition to the festival lineup is Grey Fox, which is held in the Catskill Mountains of New York every June. Hosted by the bluegrass band Dry Branch Fire Squad, Grey Fox also maintains a fairly broad definition of bluegrass music, often programming some of the more progressive acts in the field today. Additionally, like many festivals, Grey Fox also offers bluegrass instruction to help amateur pickers develop their skills and to help guarantee the genre’s continued growth. In this clip, we will see Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet (Bela Fleck, Ben Sollee, and Casey Driessen) performing “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” a song that reflects Washburn’s continued interest in Chinese culture, performing at the 2007 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival.

Bluegrass festivals have played a significant role in the dissemination, preservation, and expansion of bluegrass music for more than a half-century. In addition to the handful of major festivals discussed here, smaller festivals—often drawing heavily from regional and local talent, as well as some national touring groups—can be found throughout North America, as well as in such bluegrass hotspots as the Czech Republic. They are great places for amateur pickers, bluegrass enthusiasts, and fans of local culture to spend a weekend, and they frequently boast a “family-friendly” environment, making them ideal events for people with children. So if you’re looking for a great way to take in good music this summer, check out a bluegrass festival near you!

Featured image credit: “Guitar” by Coyot. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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