Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Large vs. Small Bluegrass Festivals

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 Wilkes Community College in North Wilkesboro, NC. Until this year, we have camped in a gravel parking lot at the top of the campus, where we pulled ourselves into the camping line before noon on Monday in order to be admitted when the gates open at twelve sharp. Merlefest begins around 3:00 PM on Thursday afternoon, and we have had the same reserved seats each year. We figure to spend around $1000 during the four days as we pay for good reserved seats, instrument raffles, performer CDs, hats, t-shirts, food, and miscellaneous fun. Merlefest represents a major part of our entertainment dollar and we budget for it. After three years of attending just Merlefest each year, we decided that mega-festivals provided us with a great experience, but we wanted to expand our horizons. We have continued to attend this wonderful tribute to Merle Watson and revel in the opportunity to see the best of bluegrass and Americana, and we’ve discovered that good alternatives also exist and that they are entirely satisfying. This year we figure to attend somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty festivals and other bluegrass and Americana events.

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 Ancramdale, NY has around somewhere between 7500 and 10000 a day. These festivals are characterized, at least partially, by the facilities they require. Merlefest is held on a spacious community college campus. It features twelve different performance venues, mostly outside, but some in college buildings. Until this year it has had several on-campus spots for RVers as well as a raw camping area nearby. Local organizations offer additional camping opportunities. The festival is seeking to find ways to continue its growth while leaving more green space available on campus. One solution has been to severely restrict the available RV spaces available to more than double the already high price. At the main stage Merlefest has about 3000 reserved seats, which attendees buy ahead of time and can renew from year to year. These seats are open until 5:00 PM to anyone with a day ticket unless the owner of the seat wishes to have it. After five, entrance to the reserved seat area is restricted. Because of its size, all other services are also large – food concessions and vendors are located at places convenient to the main stage. Access to performers is severely limited. The festival provides an area for autographs and some performers wander the grounds between appearances at various venues, but they are not readily available as they are at smaller events.

Grey Fox, now entering its 30th year, is located on rolling farmland in rural New York State, convenient to much of the population of the northeast. Beginning about a month before the festival, held the second weekend in July, people begin to form a line in a field outside the main gate to the festival. By the week of the festival there are, perhaps, 500 rigs in line waiting for admittance, which begins at noon on Wednesday. Volunteers and staff get early admission and begin staking out spaces on The Hill for seating and setting up their elaborate campsites on the top of The Hill. We rolled into line early on Wednesday afternoon, after the gates had opened, and were not able to even get to our campsite in the quiet area before 4:00 PM or so. We rushed to The Hill and were rewarded with seats in about the 30th row to the side. The Hill is so steep we had to dig in the rear legs of our chairs to make them nearly level. Grey Fox offers outstanding music, but the noise of the crowd and the constant movement make it less easy to sit and listen than at other festivals. Performers spend some time at the merchandise tents signing autographs and chatting with fans, but there is a significant crush to see them. Food vendors at Grey Fox are outstanding; perhaps the best we’ve encountered anywhere. Grey Fox is justly renowned for its field picking, and many people attend this festival to stay up on The Hill, drinkin’ and pickin’.

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 Conway, SC. He makes beautiful and resonant mandolins and is the organizing genius behind Bluegrass on the Waccamaw, a “free to the public” bluegrass festival held the second Saturday of May each year. Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is held at the Old Peanut Warehouse in Conway. Jennings books two or three national bands, several local and regional bands, and a couple of bands he has tabbed as “up and coming.” He is able to attract unexpectedly good bands to his festival because of his long time connections to the music, the high quality of food and hospitality made available to the bands, and good crowd he is able to attract. The bands set of their merchandise tents near the stage and are available for good long periods of time. The Waccamaw River flows in the background, and there’s a walkway on it where jammers congregate to play. Attendance during the day may reach a total of 2000 people, but it doesn’t feel crowded, the music is great, and Conway is a lovely small southern town that’s worth strolling through. This is a great small festival.

Jenny Brook Family Festival, held in mid-June in Weston, Vermont, is one of those small festivals that each year hopes it can do well enough to continue into the next year. Promoter Candi Sawyer, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, manages to keep this delightful festival going despite her disability, Much of spirit of Jenny Brook grows from the love and support fans feel for Candi as well as the high quality she manages to present each year. This four day festival features all dry camping. There’s lots of field picking and the bands are readily available to their fans. Sometimes band members can be found jamming with pickers around RVs because the stage is so close to the camping area. This festival, as well as Pickin’ in the Pasture in Lodi, NY, has a close-knit family atmosphere unlike larger festivals. Parents are confident to allow their children to roam around the grounds while they listen to the music.

Pickin’ in the Pasture, held the last full weekend in August is located on a sheep farm overlooking Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of central New York. Like Jenny Brook, this is a family festival with lots of kids roaming everywhere. Hosts Sandy and Susan Alexander and their eleven year old son Jesse, welcome around 400 RV rigs plus drive-ins for a four day festival with first class music from the stage and high quality pickin’ in the fields around. This festival advertises round the clock jamming, so attendees shouldn’t be surprise to hear bands playing at three or four in the morning. Nor should they be surprised to find Dan Paisley or some other band sitting in with the jammers.

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 Ithaca. Limited grocery shopping is available in Ovid, six miles away. Balancing these inadequacies are the fine organization of the festival staff, which makes sure that ice is always available, there are plenty of porta potties, and the grounds are well-organized. Food at Lodi was limited, but competent. A wider variety of vendors offering more healthy choices would certainly be appreciated, but many attendees were self contained, providing their own food as well as plenty of their own entertainment.

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.