Being part of the writing effort for a magazine that focuses upon Americana music means we are blessed with the chance to attend some exceptional music festivals throughout the year. Even when the official editorial call to attend is not there, my wife and I often find ourselves heading off for a whole weekend here or a single day there just for the personal enjoyment of the festival experience. Friends and family members say to us, “Do you just sit and listen to music all day?” It is difficult to answer such a question posed by a person with less interest or passion or need to hear the artistic effort of the performers than ourselves; however, the real answer is, “No, but . . .”
A music festival is so much more than just the listening experience. While the focus is upon the performers and their performances, the down-time between those performances is filled with experiences both diverse and interesting. Of course, all festivals are different but in many ways they are all the same. We just returned from one of the larger gathering of Americana goodness in Wilksboro, NC known as Merlefest; and while it may be a large music festival, the experience we had there is duplicated more or less at every festival we attend. So, with a few pictures and some words, let me answer those inquisitors and share with you that which is more than just the music.
That is Sand Art
No matter where the festival, there is usually an associated themed art display—sometimes just a modest display and sometimes an elaborate edifice. Merlefest is held on the campus of a community collage and the path to the main stage leads past a huge sand sculpture. For the past 20 years, Mr. Ed Moore’s production company, Sandy Feat, has over the course of the four-day festival, created an original, music-themed sand sculpture. Mr. Moore (who is a retired architect from Raleigh, NC) and his two assistant sculptors, use nothing more than 20 tons of mortar sand dipped from a pit along the Pee Dee River, artistic eyes, and steady hands to create a fragile masterpiece that will weather away in three or four months. Needless to say, many festival goers make many trips by that location to view the project in production and to photograph the final piece.
Got to Have That Shirt
No matter what festival we attend, or who the performing artists may be, nor even where it might be held, commemorative tee-shirts abound. If it is a festival with a long history, attendees strive to record that longevity with multi-year collections. Tee shirts are merely the tip of the ice burg. A small festival might support only a vendor or three while at a major one such as Merlefest attendees have ample choice to slack the thirst. With rows and rows of vendor tents touting every type of collectable from whimsical yard hogs to hand-crafted items that will serve their function for years to come. It is very easy to spend way too much time (and money) pursuing the vendor tents and thus make yourself late for the start of the next act on stage. In fact, the story has been told of shoppers who never make it to the music and spend the majority of their festival time in pursuit of bargains.
Going to the Jam
Speaking of missing a performance; many festival attendees never plan on sitting through many of the performances as a passive observer. It is the rare festival, that does not feature groups of fellow attendees sitting around in a campground or in some sheltered area on the grounds playing and singing their own versions of what is going on up on the main stage. The festival promoters at Merlefest officially encourage this effort with tents set aside and labeled for old-time, bluegrass, beginners and old-timers. This all serves as more entertainment for other festival goers such as me. Even if picking and singing is not the activity that calls, attendees usually can find some like-minded souls with which they can spend some time clogging and flat-footing right next to the jam tents.
Every festival large or small makes a valiant effort to feed the attendees. Granted, the effort at a small gathering might not compare to that of the major ones; nevertheless, food is essential—whether it be a modest food truck or a 100-yard long by 50-foot wide tent staffed by every non-profit group in the area as it was at Merlefest. Festival food is a large part of the festival experience.
I hope this explanation of what is more that just the music at a music festival has in some small way whetted your interest and answered the question of does one just sit and listen to music all day. If you have never attended an outdoor music festival, let us urge you to change that fact this summer. There are many opportunities in your own backyard that do not require a lot of travel. Check the ads that the promoters have placed in the pages of this publication for a festival near you. If you are a camper, this activity goes hand in glove with the outdoor music festival. Actually, some say the best music is that music is heard in the campground after the staged acts have finished.
By Edward Tutwiler