Every bluegrass festival has its own feel, its own setting, audience, traditions, and bands. These factors come together for a few days each year to create a magical environment in which a special small world is created. A community begins to develop during the week preceding the event as first event organizers and volunteers set up and then early bird campers begin arriving to create a small village, which will disappear by the following Monday. The event kicks off and then builds as each band presents the best it has under what can only be described as uncertain conditions. But weather, sound systems, and the interaction of crowd and musicians aside, something special seems to happen to transport attendees into a small and vibrant world for a few days before it ends until next year.
Each year, for the past five years, we have attended Merlefest, held on the last weekend of April on the campus of
Last year we attended two very large festivals. Merlefest has an average daily attendance in the neighborhood of 20,000 people, while Grey Fox, in
Grey Fox, now entering its 30th year, is located on rolling farmland in rural
Smaller festivals offer their own special ambience. Each is different, and I don’t want to categorize them all, but I’ll reflect a little on several that we have attended in recent years and try to generalize a little.
Jennings Chestnut owns the Chestnut Mandolin Shoppe in
Jenny Brook Family Festival, held in mid-June in
Pickin’ in the Pasture, held the last full weekend in August is located on a sheep farm overlooking
Pickin’ in the Pasture, located in the midst of rolling farmland, is perhaps the most rural of the festivals we attend, and, as such, is very much a campers’ affair. There are no nearby accommodations, the nearest motels located fifteen or twenty miles away in Watkins Glen and
Audiences at the smaller festivals tend to prefer traditional bluegrass to more progressive forms of the music. For people preferring progressive bands, larger festivals like the two mentioned here and others in the east including Strawberry Park, the two Gettysburg Festivals, and Thomas Point Beach can offer greater diversity as well as more big names. For people preferring a more intimate environment, easy access to band members, and more traditional bluegrass, smaller festivals might prove to be preferable. We attend both kinds and find that over time our tastes have been broadened and we’ve learned more about the music in both settings.