My wife and I have been attending bluegrass festivals for about 20 years now. We found the genre — its music, community, history, and people — late in life. But it became a signature part of our lives, as we heard music that found its way into our souls, and that fit well into our stage of life. One night in 2002, our fifth wheel was parked in Myrtle Beach for the winter, and we were looking for something to do. We discovered the Rivertown Bluegrass Society, where Alan Bibey & BlueRidge would be the featured band on Saturday night, so we decided to attend. We drove a few miles west to Horry County Community College in Conway, South Carolina, to discover small groups of people standing or sitting in circles singing and playing acoustic instruments at a level we found amazing. Years later, our perspectives have become more informed, but we still find jams to be amazing. Here’s Bibey’s band at that time with bluegrass classic “Do What You Want to Do.”
The next year, we attended our first MerleFest. Founded in 1988 in memory of Doc Watson’s late son Eddy Merle Watson, MerleFest, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, characterized itself as traditional-plus. Attendees can hear anything from shape note singing to contemporary and historical country rock to the full range of bluegrass variety. Each year it provides a musical feast to roughly 20,000 daily visitors. Ahead of our first visit, in 2003, we signed into the box office the day ticket sales opened, and at 8 a.m. punched the button for the “best available seats,” which happened to be in row 20, dead center. What a vantage point for watching the headline bands in the evenings. Here’s a “Super Jam” on the main Watson Stage held in 2009. I can’t remember all the bands there, but I recognize Cadillac Sky and a singer named Phoebe Hunt.
Meanwhile, we were learning how to negotiate a large festival. MerleFest, at that time, had about 13 stages spread all over the Wilkes Community College Campus. Lots of walking and few seats in front of the smaller stages, unless you arrived very early, so we learned to carry three-legged picking chairs with us to make sure we could sit down to watch. They weren’t very comfortable for long, but they provided a way to listen and watch. Here’s another MerleFest venue, the Hillside Stage, where each year an interpretation of a great album (often rock) from a previous decade is re-created by the Waybacks and many guest artists. This is the scene there:
Often at bluegrass festivals, attendees can put out seats where they can see and listen from a vantage point that suits their own preferences. The clip below gives a good sense of the vibe at bluegrass festivals and the responses of the crowd. Karl Shifflett & Big Country Show recreates for contemporary festivalgoers the music you might have heard on the radio during the 1960s.
We’re in the process of downsizing, having sold our trailer and truck, but we're determined to try to continue going to events, albeit in a different style. We discovered, in our garage, a mighty pile of no-longer-used chairs. There are bag chairs of different weights and sizes, heavy duty rocking chairs, lightweight picking chairs, as well as the currently popular Rockers (an outdoor cylinder piston-driven chair). There was a time we carried eight to ten chairs in our truck. I needed a three legged stool to place under the tripod for my video camera. Irene provided two or three chairs for herself and a couple of band members at the merchandise tables where she often works, and we placed a couple of chairs very close to the stage for photography. Festivals also often offer a covered tent where seats can be placed for protection from rain and sun. We now put a couple of chairs under the tent, too.
Lest you say, “How can they take up all that space?” I need to emphasize a feature of the “bluegrass way.” If you are not in your seat, the empty chairs are fair game for anyone wishing to sit in them. All that’s necessary to regain your seat is to walk up and look at your chair. The people sitting in it will immediately and without complaint get up and move, with a smile.
Finally, here’s a video put together by Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival capturing successfully the totality of a well-organized, finely tuned bluegrass festival, including all the vantage points from which to enjoy it: