Friday, November 7, 2008

Some Thoughts on Festivals - What Works

During 2008 we have attended nineteen festivals as well as seven other events with one of each coming between now and the end of the year. They’ve ranged geographically from New Hampshire to Florida and from the east coast to as far west as Nashville. The majority of events have occurred in New England and New York, North Carolina, and Florida with a few others spread out into Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. We’ve been to large, even mega-events as well as quite small ones. We’ve attended extremely successful events and others that hardly even got off the ground. We’ve seen some bands repeatedly and had only brief exposures to others. Attendees at events we took in have ranged from what appeared to be upper middle-class sophisticates to working class lovers of a good time, local bands, and regional culture.

We’ve entered into a period where a niche music like bluegrass is hanging on by its teeth because of the state of the economy. The music clearly emerged when Bill Monroe brought together a group of musicians and created an exciting new sound. He melded together the music he had grown up with in his rural home, black blues, rural white church music, radio-based popular music, and other influences into what soon became known as bluegrass music. Monroe was soon asked to join the Grand Old Opry, the home of Country music, where he became a fixture, even as country music itself was being battered by the influences of rock and roll as they entered the consciousness of American people. Almost since its beginning, what has become known as bluegrass has been devilled by a struggle between traditionalists wishing to keep it “pure” and innovators seeking to change its sound and content. Beginning in the late 1950’s with the emergence of The Country Gentlemen, new influences began coming into bluegrass. This move was accelerated when rock and roll, represented best by the New Grass Revival, began to influence the music. Since the very beginning, what we call “bluegrass” music has been riven by the competing influences of tradition, represented by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers and others and newer influences growing from young people’s exposure to rock, reggae, folk music, jazz, and more. My concern here is not to try to define what “bluegrass” is. Rather, I seek to explore what festival promoters, bands, and fans need to do to assure that acoustic music stay vital and alive in the festival scene, adding new fans while keeping the aging fan base happy. This is no mean trick, but successful festivals currently in existence suggest that it is possible.

The festival environment is more than just about the music. It’s in the name. As my friend Bob Cook likes to say, “People at bluegrass festivals are there having fun.” Their toes tap, there are smiles on their faces. People dance, they make music themselves, they listen, they talk. People come to bluegrass and music festivals to spend a long weekend away from the trials and tribulations of the real world in a festive environment. Many of the festivals we attend are located in a semi-rural setting on a piece of land large enough to serve as a campground as well as a venue for delivering music. People drive in for a three or four day event in campers and RVs of all sizes. Many arrive several days early, set up compounds surrounding a central area where they play music, socialize, and generally have a good time. From time to time these people stroll down to the main stage to take in a band or two before returning to pick some more, play cards and enjoy the “scene.” Unfortunately, the population that can afford the time and money to spend the better part of a week at festivals is an aging one devoted to traditional bluegrass. The future of bluegrass music, including roots, old-time, and aspects of what’s becoming known as Americana lies with attracting a younger, more middle-class, more highly educated population than the current festival scene includes. The signal characteristic of successful large festivals like Merlefest, Grey Fox, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (from what I can see from Mike Melnyk’s wonderful photographs), and others is the diversity of the kinds of music they offer. Better still, there’s diversity in the audience they attract.

Diversity in music can take many forms. In a bluegrass festival it can range from presenting music representing the most traditional bluegrass music, or even old time bluegrass precursors, to progressive bluegrass in the tradition of New Grass Revival and including contemporary groups like The Infamous Stringdusters, Cadillac Sky, or The Punch Brothers. For me, sitting for six or ten hours to hear nothing but Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs covers and style quickly becomes just too much. I prefer a range of styles and forms within my music festivals. The differences keep me interested and open me to new musical ideas. Others, apparently, are perfectly happy to either respond to preconceptions or walk away from the performance area with the comment, “That ain’t bluegrass” whenever a band doesn’t have the conformation and sound of the first generation of performers, especially Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. A look at the age and physical condition of those likely to walk should confirm the inadvisability of programming solely to the traditional audience.

There are at least two ways for bluegrass festivals and performers to preserve the traditional while seeking to make their own imprint on the music. I think I’ve told this story before in print, but it bears repeating. Years ago, in another life, I was chatting with a colleague about modern art. In discussing the work of Pablo Picasso, he commented, “I’d be much more willing to explore and accept cubism if Picasso would show me he knows how to draw a banana.” Even the most progressive bands can benefit from showing their audience they know how to draw a banana by paying tribute to the originators of bluegrass music. Think about how certain bands manage this. Sam Bush always plays “Uncle Pen” early in his sets. He starts it straight and then plays a variety of riffs on the theme. Cadillac Sky has a very good rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love” in their set. Unfortunately, they often wait to play it until after they’ve lost much of their audience. The Infamous Stringdusters use several traditional bluegrass songs in many of their sets. These gestures offer more than a mere nod to tradition; they acknowledge the huge debt contemporary performers owe to the founders. In a recent conversation, Ron Block emphasized the years he had spent studying Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, and Don Reno along the way to developing his own style. Chris Pandolfi, one of the young Turks in contemporary bluegrass music, started in the progressive vein, but says, in the October issue of Banjo News Letter that he’s been soaking up the genius of Earl Scruggs. Musicians playing bluegrass need to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of the founders. Meanwhile, fans need to recognize the revolution wrought by Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, Reno & Smiley and the others while admitting that without continual development, the music will become a museum piece or disappear.

Recently, several of the bluegrass events we’ve attended have included a wide variety of acoustic music under the rubric of bluegrass, although some of the festivals are now calling themselves “Music” festivals, advertising that they transcend narrow classifications. Some of these events are multi-day festivals, while others last for only a day. Many festivals include bands which play a proportion of “classic” country in bluegrass style or using bluegrass instruments. Songs by Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, and others are staple fare of bluegrass bands, as well as others by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and more. Since the emergence of The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, these additions have become more than welcome, even now being seen as traditional. At the Mountain Song Festival in Brevard, NC this fall, Sam Bush with drums and electric instruments galore played on the same bill as the Cherryholmes and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Later this month, in Lebanon, NH at the Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival, Rhonda Vincent and Jerry Douglas share Friday night. This kind of creative programming sold out in Brevard (2100 people) and will fill the Lebanon Opera House.

The bluegrass audience is essentially small-c conservative. Fans have accepted multiple microphones, limited use of electric basses, although still preferring the standup variety, and guitars with pickups. On the other hand, drums on stage and keyboards are still off limits. Except…gospel bands with keyboards seem acceptable even in quite traditional settings. Last winter I needled Norman Adams, whose festivals are models of traditional music, about the Isaacs appearing with a percussionist playing the cajon, an Afro-Peruvian percussion instrument. He grumbled something about its not being a drum, only a box. Nevertheless, the argument about “what is bluegrass” will continue, no matter how irrelevant it may be. Many successful festivals work around the problem by calling their music “Americana,” “World Music,” or simply “Music” festivals. By doing so, they label themselves as more diverse and inclusive, attracting a younger and more affluent audience.

Meanwhile, other festivals, often smaller or more marginal, seem to be making a series of mistakes that hurt rather than help. We’ve been to several festivals in the past year that appear to be betting the farm by using too large a portion of their budget to hire what they consider to be a top draw. Bands like Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, The Del McCoury Band, Dan Tyminski, and IIIrd Tyme Out are showcased, sometimes in weak positions, in order to try to draw a crowd. One festival made attendees sit through seven hours of local and regional bluegrass bands, several pretty mediocre, in order to get to four back to back sets by the Gibson Brothers and IIIrd Tyme Out. Another festival opened with Rhonda Vincent on Thursday and offered a money wasting fireworks festival on Saturday night. Still another just couldn’t meet its advertised obligations and ended up not attracting fans and presenting a mostly mediocre lineup. I’ll have more to say about using technology effectively to attract and hold an audience in a few weeks. Meanwhile, festivals programming for a balance between headliners, other national bands, a good selection of quality local and regional bands as well as showcases for unknowns provides good programming and seems to attract customers.

Festivals, in order to succeed, need to reach out to a wider and more diverse audience. Varying the kinds of music, even within the label bluegrass, will help to create a more welcoming and interesting environment. Reaching out to a younger and more culturally diverse audience will increase the size and enthusiasm of audiences. Establishing clear guidelines for audiences in terms of smoking, drinking, dancing, and other behaviors and then ENFORCING them will pay off big time. Much of the festival environment is still attractive and will continue to entertain a wide variety of visitors. Camping, field picking, visiting with old friends, a range of vendors, exciting music, and a festive atmosphere all yield a good time. Thoughtful promoters will find ways to continue the traditional elements making up successful festivals while attracting new audiences through creatively altering their programs and formats.


  1. Hi Ted,

    Your remarks are pretty much dead-on about the state of Bluegrass right now. One of the problems with attracting many of the young crowd to music events is that they seem not to have a good idea of where the line has to be drawn between having a good time and becoming problems to those around them. I realize that these are few in number, and are giving a bad name to the others. As educators we have seen the changes in young people take place over time. The present generation, while being the answer to the good health and stability of Bluegrass, is also the liability. As your colleague mused about the banana, it would be nice if the young population knew the roots of their music, and could enjoy traditional as well as other music. Almost, as I used to say, that I could respect the work of freeform artists if they were able to make two exact copies of the same piece. I feel that the measure of knowing what you are hearing is important so that you can know what you're not hearing. In how these diverse groups of people are going to be served well at the same Bluegrass festival, time will only tell. At the expense, I fear, of losing much of what we now revere.

  2. I don't consider myself no spring chicken at 55 years old, but i really appreciate the different types of music offered up to the listening audience at festivals these days. Promoters have to diversify somewhat to attract that large and varied group willing to pay the rising prices for festivals. From Merlefest to Grey Fox to Telluride you have to (as a promoter) market your entertainment to your base customers. I think if you book just traditional and old time acts you limit your paying audience which pays the bills.

  3. Ted,

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness you put into your blog and to music in general.

    Though I'm a West Coaster and most of these festivals are out east, I'm probably the kind of person a growing bluegrass festival would want as an attendee. I love music (probably have at least 300 straight bluegrass CDs among the thousands of records in my collection), I love acoustic instruments, I don't break laws, etc. Heck, I once bought a pair of Bill Monroe's shoes on ebay. So why have I only been to a couple bluegrass festivals?

    Sadly, I find myself thinking that many festivals at first glance seem boring (even to a guy who loves bluegrass and publishes a national magazine that often features bluegrass). Secondly, there are so many festivals today. I see ad after ad in the bluegrass rags of festival after festival... most boast similar line-ups and similar atmospheres. It's really draining to wade through them and none of them sound that interesting since they're all so interchangeable. It's like trying to debate which weekend Elks Club pancake breakfast to attend in your city (if you're not an Elks Club member). None stand out.

    I don't know how to avoid this entirely -- there are dozens of bands that seem dependent on the bluegrass festival circuit and must be staples at each one. Like some endless circus caravan.

    As a general music fan first and foremost (with a wife who would not tolerate a day of straight bluegrass), the festivals that do stand out -- the MerleFests, Hardly Strictly and Telluride -- do so because, beyond the stages/tunes, there's a lot going on. You can explore the town, eat good food, see some cool instruments for sale, meet interesting people, get your non-bluegrass fix, etc. The are true events and not just big recitals of bluegrass artists. They are destinations!

    But on even a smaller level, I think the good bluegrass festivals have a true visionary (or visionaries) behind them. They just aren't attempts to make money nor bring people into a particular community on a given weekend. This is a big deal--a selective leader who has good quality control over all facets (lineup, presentation, entertainment, etc) goes a long way. If you are throwing a festival and just want to appeal to a certain subset -- say, really conservative, religious, bluegrass lovers -- why not embrace that niche and celebrate the heck out of it, market it that way and accept the risk of turning off potential attendees who probably weren't going to show up anyhow? That's one way to stand out from the dozens of other festivals that just promote themselves as "bluegrass festivals." Conversely, if you want to appeal to stoners who want a drum circle along with their banjos, embrace that and have an all organic bluegrass festival with drums welcome, a raw food court, hydroponics displays and market it that way, but not as a generic "bluegrass festival." Or what about a bluegrass festival specifically focused around, say, mandolins. You could have other instruments but a focus on mandolin greats.. so many different facets.

    On that visionary subject, here's my last tip. Several non-bluegrass music festivals (especially one for independent rock music called All Tomorrow's Parties, recently features in the NY Times) have found success with a simple formula: ask a legendary musician to curate the festival and let then play booking agent. In the bluegrass (okay jamband / bluegrass / pothead) realm, the Yonder Mountain Stringband does this at their annual String Summit in Oregon. And they seem to do very well with it. The one time I went I think I was the only guy not stoned and not having the time of his life. But it was packed. And fans go year after year.

    A better example: To a guy like me, a generic bluegrass festival featuring two dozen acts and Tony Rice is semi-compelling. But I can also probably see Tony Rice at any of other venues in a given summer and I hate planning ahead and so chances are I'll skip all of them. But, as an example, what if a certain festival allowed Tony Rice to curate the festival? What if he brought out his friends and invited musicians he seldom plays with anymore. What if reunited one of his old lineups or gave a detailed show & tell on the Clarence White guitar off on a second stage, etc? Then the festival -- still strictly bluegrass for the most part, mind you -- suddenly becomes special. This is what more bluegrass festivals need to do. Become special.

    I'm sure some festivals want to be huge and the next Merlefest so they want to cover ever imaginable style/group/potential audience member and make a gazillion bucks for themselves and the community. I wish them luck. But to the rest I'd say embrace your niche and find your core audience and have fun with it. Find a way to stand out and be unique. It's actually the same advice I'd give a struggling musician, too. Humans in 2008 have so many channels and events and things competing for their time. The ones that will really truly succeed will be the most special and thoughtful.

    I hope I haven't offended anyone.. just thinking out loud about why I, a huge music lover and player, don't have much desire to attend festivals.


    The Fretboard Journal

  4. This is a great discussion you've opened up here Ted, I hope the people that can influence change are listening.
    Cheers, Jack

  5. Mr. Lehmann,

    Very interesting article. Love your blog. Great bluegrass info.

    We have a festival here in Shelby, N.C. (the home of Earl Scruggs) called artofsound. I am on the Board and was involved in the development of the event.

    I am an old bluegrass guy, and love the music, but we felt our best chance for survival was to make it acoustic based but eclectic, a sort of "mini-MerleFest." We have bluegrass, but also blues, jazz, Cajun, old time and other art forms.

    This has served us well. We have not gotten rich, but we have never lost money in the five years we have put it on!

    The link to our website is:

    then click on the Art of Sound Logo.

    I put you on my favorites- very nice bluegrass blog.

  6. Ted, I think you're right to encourage musical diversity at bluegrass festivals.

    On one hand, there is a distinct culture and history of bluegrass festivals, including jamming, material, and musical icons, that helps give festivals their identity. But to make a bluegrass event more interesting and appealing to a sizeable audience, a "pure bluegrass" format can be seasoned with compatible forms.

    Bluegrass music started as a musical melting pot, and in fact most bluegrass fans like a wide range of music.

    It's delicate to find the right balance between "enough bluegrass to maintain the basic bluegrass festival identity" and incorporating acts that are either part-bluegrass or at least bluegrass-friendly. But I do think that's what has the best chance these days and in the future.

    Jason's ideas about thematic elements to a festival, such as having a notable performer as "curator", sound both interesting and commercially potent.

    A big strength of many festivals, going back to the very first one, is presenting more than just stage shows of established acts. Workshops, contests, all-star jam sets, dance presentations, kids programs, etc. can spark extra audience interest.

    Many festivals thrive on having great jamming scenes, which can be encouraged by having jam-friendly physical layouts and policies.

    Many of these ideas have been batted around for years, at IBMA and elsewhere. I hope that festival presenters will be resourceful in trying them, to help the music not just survive, but thrive despite troubled times.

  7. Ted,

    We have a party every year (17 now) called the Big Squeeze. I have invited you for several years, but have removed you from the invitation list since you did not respond. The Big Squeeze is a private party. I am not trying to make it a festival, I am trying to keep it from becoming a festival. We have the party at the beginning of October and have had over 500 in attendance. The party is by invitation only and we would like to limit it to folks we know. I am a musician, so many of my friends are musicians. I can let you know what the appeal of the Big Squeeze is.

    There is no stage. there is no amplification. There are pick up groups everywhere and grinners to boot. A large number of festival goers are there to field pick. Anything a promoter can do to facilitate field picking helps. Don't pipe the stage music into camping areas. Have some slow jams for beginners.

    We have plenty going on besides the music. We call it the Big Squeeze because we have a cider press which we keep supplied with apples for anyone to squeeze. There are bonfires, and all the firewood & fire rings anyone wants, plus a good fireworks show in the evenings. We sometimes hire a clown. There are rope swings & ponies & parachutes and lots of other things for kids (bluegrass orphans) to do. We allow dogs.

    We supply sinks with running water, paper towels, lanterns outside & candles inside each portolet.

    We have good food, corn, baked potatoes about 30 gallons of turkey stew and an incredible assortment of pot luck ranging from smoked oysters to baked shrimp and fresh venison.

    The items I have listed are readily apparent at festivals like Grey Fox & Galax Old Fiddler's. Big or small, it takes a whole lot more than hot pickers or big name bands to make a successful festival (or party).

    To see more about our party. go to:
    You're invited
    David Wright

  8. Hey Ted,

    Always a great thread. I was just fielding some questions that bluegrass blog members of the Deep South were having about whether bluegrass was dying there. Some festival promotors having difficulty making their fests work, and others lamenting the loss of decent festivals to attend.

    Your post on festival success or failure kinda sums up nicely things that a lot of us have been saying for years. Those of us who have produced and promoted festivals who also happen to play in bluegrass bands at many of them can tell you first hand that diversity is a friend to music. I also agree with Jason that if one wants to feature some specific element in bluegrass at a festival (Trad-Progr.) finding a "thing" to focus on to promote and set you apart from the others is so true. (Fiddle Summit, Banjo Spectacular etc) makes a lot of sense to differentiate your festival.

    So often too, it's not the lineup or timing or what have you, it's basic layout. Don't know if you remember the "Smith Meeting House" Festival over in Gilmanton, NH, but it was a sweet little festival. It was located on a shady mountain top in a grove of big oaks and maples looking down on a stage. The Meeting house and outbuildings were gorgeous and perfect example of new england architecture. The lineup while small featured toward the end some great national headliner and good local/regional acts. Rough camping was across the rarely travelled road in a field. You saw many of the same hugely satisfied fans there every year. A few young couples, some hippie singles and then a goodly number of middle age-older traditional bluegrass fans.

    Aside from the music on stage, the only non-bluegrass entertainment for the family bluegrass "orphans" was, well the lovely architecture and a really cool old cemetary. No lake, no river, not even a single swingset or sandbox to occupy children or their handlers. This I might liken to the nearby "Shakers" at Shaker Village. Beautiful and lovely, quiet and respectful, a realy tome to the genre. But ultimately unsustaining and dying. Like John Hartford might say some old "Indian Relic."

    I personally like the diversity that draws so many different types and styles of fans. Partly because like the amazing Thomas Point Beach festival, those fans are often amazing musicians themselves. For me, to stroll around a campground and hear an enclave of picking: French Canadian music here, true to life "Old Country" music there, progressive-jazzy bluegrass in this cove and straight ahead driving traditional in another just gets me off. Then again there are those unforseen happenstance moments when some progressive jazzy player walks up and is welcomed into a jam of trad players (or vice versa) and the contrast and comparison while evident can lead to a genius kind of hybrid that is still true to the music. LOVE THAT!

    Anyway, thanks for all the good work you put into this, you may get some new readers to the blog as I have posted the link on the Deepgrass discussion list.

    Good Veteran's Day to y'all.
    Semper Fi!


  9. First of all want to say I read your blog all the time and I have loved every one of them. Except one that struck me wrong. Something about the Willow Oak Festival must have really got to you and I personally don't see a thing that was wrong with it besides some people coming in and complaining about other people smoking OUTDOORS. The fireworks were great and no one complained about them either. Rhonda came and played on Thursday because she had another gig to get to the next day. all the bands were great, not mediocre. I just cannot believe that someone would go to a festival expecting to have a calm collected crowd after dark. It's a bluegrass festival in the south where people like to drink and get rowdy. Blogs are about everyone's opinion and that's just my 2 cents I wanted to put in there. Thanks for reading.

  10. Dear Anonymous - I don't usually respond to folks who won't sign their names. You might notice that I always back my opinion with my name. Nor do I plan on fighting the Civil War again. If you go back and look at my review of Gray Fox (for instance)a large festival in New York, you'll not that my criticism has been consistently focused on the issue of consideration for others, not having fun, rowdiness, or regionalism. I seriously doubt that southerners have a monopoly on having fun or doing so with enthusiasm. However, I have observed that the more inebriated people become, the less they consider the comfort or enjoyment of those around them. Another point I thought I had made was that two quite good bands were asked to play six sets each. Very few bands have enough material to perform that much well. Thanks for your comments, and I look forward to hearing from you again. - Ted

  11. Hey Ted, I know about once a year you love to poke people with this subject. Thanks for all your hard work, photos, reviews,travel ideas, etc.. Maybe it's time to cut back to 12 or 14 festivals and include a couple of Jazz, Blues or Folk festivals. You would get a whole new perspective. I will meet you in Palatka in Feb and for a cup of coffee I'll straighten you out again. See you soon John

  12. Well said, Ted.

    I have attended a few festivals in my time, most of them bluegrass oriented and observed the lack of attendance, not because bluegrass isn't represented by some superb musicians or isn't appreciated but because there tends to be a sameness that, as you noted, wears on you after a while. I much prefer a nice mix of acoustic music where I can enjoy different styles.

    Traditionalists might argue that bluegrass should be played a certain way or no way at all and I firmly believe maintaining that posture will ultimately be its demise, festival-wise. I mean, how many ways can one play "Blackberry Blossom" before it becomes redundant?

    Speaking strictly for to the festival I used to help produce (nine years), Old Settler's Music Festival, we quickly found that a pure bluegrass festival would not draw as big a crowd as a nice mix of bluegrass/Americana. Drawing mainly from the Austin/San Antonio, central Texas populace, we tried to present a cross-section of music that would please a diverse group of attendees.

    I'm happy to say that Old Settler's is still growing in popularity not only because of who we book but because over in the campgrounds you can find some extraordinary music being played and not just bluegrass.

    Appealing to the masses involves finding what the masses want and giving it to them. That's not to say that overlooking the old favorites is a bad thing, rather failing to recognize trends and what draws fans and keeps them coming back is financial suicide.

  13. I've really enjoyed reading everyone's comments on this subject. I just a few days ago had a conversation with someone about this very subject concerning a particular band of youth who's music some consider to be more jazz than bluegrass. As one person commented in that discussion "I don't like jazz and I paid to hear bluegrass; this is advertized as a bluegrass festival".
    In looking at video's of some of the big bluegrass festivals, I kept asking myself is this Bluegrass. Someone at there first impression would walk away with thinking that any music that is played on an acoustic instrument is Bluegrass, and when I saw the pipe organ and psychedelic lights being used at a festival in Colorado, well that was just too much for me.
    I luvoe all types of musicm, Folk, blues, dixieland, cajun, bluegrass.
    and I go to festivals that have that diversity also.
    But the question is whither Bluegrass should go the route of once was country music. That is, in order to attract a larger audience the bands feel compelled to play "rock & roll with a twang".
    I've had too many top country artists say they would rather play the old time country but for commercial reasons play the Rock & roll country style.
    So is this what is to become of Bluegrass, just another commerical Top 40 sound?