Did you ever enjoy something so much that you wanted it to never end? That is the way an Americana string music festival affects me. The season is just getting started for us here at Americana Rhythm and as I return to earth from my trip to Merlefest a month or so ago, I am already itching in anticipation for the Red Wing Roots and Pickin’ In Parsons festivals yet to come this summer. This essay is not going to be a wish you were there piece because if you miss one there are so many yet to come before the snow starts to fly this winter.
Even when the magazine is not going to be officially in attendance, my wife and I often find ourselves heading off for a weekend here or a single day there just for the enjoyment of the festival experience. Folks 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. True, the focus is upon the performers and their performances but 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. As I just mentioned, we recently returned from one of the larger gathering of Americana goodness in Wilksboro, NC known as Merlefest; and while it may be one of the larger examples of music festivals, the experience we had there is duplicated more or less at every one we attend. So, with a few pictures and words, let me answer my inquisitors and share with you what we love about the festivals.
Most every festival has a theme art display. Merlefest is held on the campus of a community collage and the path to the main stage leads past a huge sand sculpture. For many years, Mr. Ed Moore, a retired architect from Raleigh, NC and his two assistant sculptors have, over the course of the four-day festival, created an original, music-themed sand sculpture. Using nothing more than 20 tons of mortar sand, artistic eyes, and steady hands, Mr. Moore and friends create a temporary 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 progress and photograph the final piece.
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 multi-year festival, attendees strive to record that logitivity with multi-year collections. Tee shirts are merely the tip of the iceberg. Merlefest attendees have rows and rows of vendor tents touting every type of collectable. It is very easy to spend too much time pursuing the vendor tents and miss the start of the next act on stage. In fact, stories have been told of shoppers who never make it to the music.
Speaking of missing a performance, many festival attendees do not ever plan on sitting through many performances as a passive observer. It is the rare festival, that does not feature groups of fellow attendees sitting around 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 the festival goers.
Music makes a festival attendee want to move to the music even if you have two lead weighted left feet such as I. Merlefest promoters have an entire stage and roofed pavilion they call a Dance Tent set aside for such folks. Trust me; the term “Shake the Timbers” applies.
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 is a modest food tent or truck or major effort such as a 100-yard long tent staffed by every non-profit group in the area as it was at Merlefest.
I want you to consider this thought: Music festivals such as Merlefest are the only place that you can sit back for days and listen to the best Americana string music in all the styles it might present itself; visit with like minded folks from all across the land; and immerse yourself in the culture of the event. You can find a festival close to your home; all up and down Appalachia’s blue, smoky hills; and far and wide all across our blessed land.
Alas, all earthly music festivals come to an end but I leave you with this personal hope of mine: I sure hope my heavenly father allows string music in heaven; and if he does, I sure hope he counts me worthy to have a good place near the stage to sit and listen (and maybe tap my foot just a bit).
By Ed Tutwiler