Bluegrass Festivals To Offer Top Performers All Summer Long

Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley and anyone who's anybody in bluegrass hit the circuit during the warm seasons.

Don't fret if you're not going to make it to see, say, Doc Watson, Tony Rice, and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys at this weekend's Suwannee Springfest in Live Oak, Fla.

That's because the pickings are not exactly slim when it comes to hitting rich veins of fine bluegrass players at a batch of other festivals throughout the spring and summer.

Master flat-picker Watson (born Arthel Watson) will be featured at MerleFest 2000 (April 27–30 in Wilkesboro, N.C.), the traditional blowout that honors his late son, Eddy Merle Watson. The elder Watson also will appear at RockyGrass — the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival (July 28–30 in Lyons, Colo.).

Guitarist Rice will grace the likes of the Old Settlers Music Festival (April 7–9 in Dripping Springs, Texas), MerleFest and the Grey Fox Bluegrass Family Festival (July 13–16 in Ancramdale, N.Y.).

And singer/banjoist Stanley, 73, will be making no concessions to his age. Besides hosting his own festival, Dr. Ralph Stanley's 30th Anniversary Memorial Bluegrass Festival, from May 25–27 at his family's Hills of Home Park on Smith Ridge in Virginia, the living bluegrass legend will be appearing at MerleFest, the Gettysburg Spring Bluegrass Festival (May 18–21 in Gettysburg, Pa.), Grey Fox, RockyGrass, the Blistered Fingers Family Bluegrass Festival (Aug. 24–27 in Sidney, Maine.) and the 26th Annual Bill Monroe Hall of Fame & Uncle Pen Days (Sept. 21–24 in Bean Blossom, Ind.).

'The Lifeblood Of Bluegrass'

Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien and Peter Rowan also will be among the countless names playing these festivals, which have become a yearly tradition since the first multiday bluegrass event, a three-day affair in Fincastle, Va., was held over Labor Day weekend in 1965.

"It's the lifeblood of bluegrass," said acclaimed mandolin player Rhonda Vincent, who will perform with her band, the Rage, at MerleFest, as well as at the Santa Fe Trails Bluegrass Festival (May 19–21 in Kansas City, Mo.) and — along with the ubiquitous Stanley — the Graves Mountain Festival of Music (June 1–3 in Syria, Va.), among other gatherings.

"You can have a #1 record on the bluegrass charts or the Gavin Americana [chart] or whatever, but ultimately it comes down to working the road and playing the festivals," Vincent said.

"I guess I've been doing it so long, since the '70s when I was a little girl," added Vincent, 37, who grew up touring with her family's band, the Sally Mountain Show. "It's like I'm at home every weekend. I know the people, and it's what I live for."

"When the first multiday bluegrass festival was held in the mid-1960s, it inaugurated what has become the primary gathering place for the bluegrass music community," said Dan Hayes, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association. "Today, more than 500 multiday events are hosted in the U.S., and there are scores more around the world from Japan and Australia to Russia, the Netherlands and even in Brazil.

"For artists, festivals are the primary gigs on their tour roster, and for millions of fans they are a place to hear and personally meet multiple acts, attend workshops and unite with neighbors at campsites in night-long jam sessions."

Some of the other leading festivals are the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (June 15–18 in Lyons, Colo.); the Strawberry Spring and Fall Music Festivals in Yosemite, Calif. (May 25–29 and Aug. 31–Sept. 4); and the Grey Fox Bluegrass Family Festival, which was known until last year as the Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival.

"The biggest," said Mary Burdette of Grey Fox, is MerleFest.

Secrets To MerleFest’s Success

"Doc's influence" is part of the reason for MerleFest's success, the event's associate producer, Art Menius, said of legendary guitarist Watson. "Because his eclectic tastes have largely defined the broad range of music we present."

Watson is known as much for his interpretations of such traditional songs as "Frankie and Johnny" (RealAudio excerpt) as he is for his varied original material.

"A second factor is an emphasis on family friendliness," Menius continued. "Many folks write that we are the most family-friendly outdoor music festival they have ever attended. A third reason is attention to the details that affect the attendees' experiences.

"Fourth is providing a variety of venues that offer several different sorts of listening experiences. A fifth reason is effective marketing that reaches outside the folk/bluegrass audiences."

All of those factors have translated into strong ticket sales for bluegrass' premier festival event.

MerleFest announced in mid-March that ticket sales are running well above last year's record numbers, when 33,200 paid to attend the four-day event. As of the end of February, ticket sales for MerleFest 2000 were up 23 percent.

However, the addition of 1,100 assigned seats for the largest venue, the Watson & Cabin stages, means that some reserved spaces are still available. Tickets for MerleFest 2000, which features Watson, Willie Nelson, Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and a cast of hundreds more, can be purchased through the Web site (www.merlefest.org) or by calling (800) 343-7857 (U.S.) or (336) 838-6267 (outside the States).