It’s time once again for the annual season of celebration. Of course we’re talking about festival season! Take the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors without inhibition and relish the Blue Ridge’s bounty of mountain culture. From roots-music bashes to adrenaline sports events, the Southern festival scene has something for everyone. But don’t just take it from us. This year we’ve asked the people who know best to tell the story. Get the scoop on the region’s favorite festivals from notable athletes and musicians in BRO’s 2009 Festival Guide.
10 Best Fests of the Blue Ridge
Artists and Athletes Dish on the Region’s Favorite Festivals
FRENCH BROAD RIVER FESTIVAL
MAY 1–3 • HOT SPRINGS, N.C. • frenchbroadriverfestival.com
This riverside hoedown blends a hearty amount of outdoor playtime and two days of some of the region’s best roots music. Fun competitions include the Raft Race and a 25-mile mountain biking race that starts at Tanyard Gap. There is also an opportunity to hit the river with pro paddlers to grab some pointers. All proceeds benefit American Whitewater. Musicians include Reverend Horton Heat, Acoustic Syndicate, Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, Snake Oil Medicine Show, and High Windy.
“It’s hard to describe the people at French Broad River Festival, because it’s a conglomerate of different kinds of crazy. You would think it might be all river folk, but there’s also people that just like good music or camping out in a really beautiful spot. This festival has gotten bigger every year, but it stays intimate and friendly. You can walk around the campsite, and people you don’t know will invite you to come over and join them for a while. It’s family-friendly with plenty of activities for kids. You see college kids getting hammered, but you also see people just enjoy the setting right on the river. You can enter the Raft Race or just hang out in the water in a tube. The raft race is a lot of fun. There are a half a dozen boats that really take it seriously but most others just take their time. I enjoy leading the Paddle with a Pro workshop, and this year I am also going to lead a river cleanup.”
—Eli Helbert, a three-time World Freestyle Open Canoe Champion.
MAY 7–10, OCTOBER 15–18 • BLACK MOUNTAIN, N.C. • theleaf.com
Celebrate a global collection of arts and music in the mountains of Western North Carolina at the idyllic Camp Rockmont. The Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) has one of the most diverse arrays of artistic offerings of any festival in the region, including 40 wellness workshops like yoga and tai chi, a folk art show, a national poetry slam, all-night-long West African Drum Circles in the mountains, wacky games in the Kids’ Village, and culinary treasures from all over the world.
“LEAF is a festival that is part of my internal clock. I wait for it every spring. This is an inspiring festival that’s not just about music—it offers healing arts, family fun, dancing, amazing camping. There is so much life on the festival grounds. People are constantly inspiring each other with their hula hoops and costumes, while kids are having fun on the zip line and other toys that Camp Rockmont offers. The adults, though, are the ones that really get to play, because the experience wakes us up to the sleeping parts in our own hearts that are waiting for spring. It gives us time to reflect and see if we are on the right track. The people that come every year know that this festival isn’t just about the fun that you have there. It’s about the stuff that you end up learning that changes your life. It dares people to dream, and that’s the coolest thing.
One of my favorite memories of the festival happened years ago at one of the last sets of music on Sunday. One of the performers asked the crowd to pick up trash on their way out. The festival had hired a clean-up crew to do the rest, and when they arrived they said, ”Is this the right place?” There was nothing to clean up. The crowd respects this beautiful piece of land. It’s spectacular.”
—David Wilcox, a singer-songwriter based in Asheville, N.C.
MAY 15-17 • DAMASCUS, V.A. • traildays.us
The mother of all hiking gatherings descends upon Damascus for a long weekend of Appalachian Trail celebration. Festival goers and hikers trade trail stories, march in a parade, soak each other with water guns, check out a variety of gear booths, and sip a little moonshine.
“On our last A.T. thru-hike, my wife Laurie and I came into Damascus during its annual Trail Days and learned why the town of 1,000 people has earned the title of ‘Friendliest Town on the Trail.’
On Thursday, after a hot dog eating contest in which the winner consumed 10 dogs in three minutes, the First Baptist Church treated hundreds of hikers to a complimentary evening meal. After dinner, I observed the dichotomy of small town life. Revival attendees were nodding in agreement to a circuit-riding preacher who was extolling the virtuous life, while two blocks away other hikers and locals were downing alcohol and inhaling smoke of questionable legality.
The next day, multiple vendors displayed wares, and gear manufacturers provided free repairs (a large rip in my tent was fixed in minutes). The VCA Highlands Animal Hospital checked over hiker dogs, the town barber provided buzz cuts to anyone who was willing to walk away with a shaved head, and shower stalls enabled festival goers to grab a rinse.
A Saturday highlight was the hiker talent show, with some truly exceptional acts—and some that would have had American Idol’s Simon Cowell howling in misery. Then there was the weird and wonderful parade, in which hikers, decked out in makeshift and sometimes bizarre costumes, paraded through town, being pummeled by water balloons thrown by local children, while at the same time using squirt guns to soak the crowds lining the street.
In addition, there are workshops on lightweight hiking, Leave No Trace ethics, and other long distance trails. You also get to hobnob with some A.T. luminaries. In 1951, Gene Espy became the trail’s second thru-hiker and this year he’ll be talking about his adventure. Warren Doyle has hiked the trail more than a dozen times and will share the knowledge he has gained.”
—Leonard Adkins, who has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail six times and is the author of numerous guidebooks.
MAY 22-25 • ALLEGANY COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS, CUMBERLAND, M.D. • delfest.com
One of the region’s newest festivals, DelFest was created as a tribute to bluegrass legend Del McCoury, who headlines the event with his band. After its debut in 2008, the festival gained major buzz as one of the best new string band galas in the country. Potentially the East Coast’s answer to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, DelFest brings to its stages a range of string bands from generations past and present. In addition to the Del McCoury Band, other performers include Old Crow Medicine Show, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush, Railroad Earth, Dark Star Orchestra, Peter Rowan, Steep Canyon Rangers, J.D. Crowe, Tim O’Brien, Crooked Still, and Infamous Stringdusters.
“When it comes to bluegrass, there is no equal to Del McCoury. He played with Bill Monroe, and he embodies the true sense of the music. I first saw Del in 1965 at the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival. Watching him play music today with his sons is such a powerful force and a great blend. He’s an icon that’s not based on trends. He stays true to himself. He’s always encouraged me to sing, and we just actually recorded a couple of duets for my next record. I love the direction DelFest has taken. It features great bluegrass music but also some different stuff like newgrass and jamgrass. Last year Del called me up on stage with David Grisman and Vince Gill. All of us had mandolins onstage, and it was awesome. The festival is going to have a wide-range appeal for years to come. To start a festival around this time is challenging, but from my experience I think DelFest will become a mainstay. Last year they set a standard for musical integrity.”
—Sam Bush, award-winning mandolin legend known as the King of Newgrass who now fronts his own Sam Bush Band.
MOUNTAIN SPORTS FESTIVAL
MAY 29-31 • ASHEVILLE, N.C. • mountainsportsfestival.com
An adventure sports junkie’s paradise, the festival mixes a variety of comps with music and local brew. No mountain sport is left neglected, as this festival includes a century bike ride, climbing comps for all ages, and a kayak relay race. Runners come for the rugged Rock2Rock 10K Trail Run on Friday or the steep Sunset Stampede on Saturday. Through three days there are also a variety of fringe comps including disc golf and ultimate frisbee showdowns.
“This festival packages three days of music and a bunch of great outdoor events. It’s the closest thing to the Gorge Games that I’ve seen on the East Coast. Last year thousands of people showed up and enjoyed the sun and local beer. The events are accessible for everyone, from the hardcore elites to the new racers. The Rock2Rock Trail Run is a gnarly difficult 10K course. Last year one of the best trail runners in the country, Shiloh Mielke, won the race, but I also had friends that pinned a number on for the first time and had an absolute blast. There’s everything from downhill mountain biking to slower family paddles. There’s something for people on every end of the spectrum.
It’s also become a big venue of longstanding events like the Sunset Stampede, which finds over 1,000 people running 10 miles through downtown, as well as newer events that are just getting started.”
—Jay Curwen, an elite adventure racer from Asheville, N.C.
JUNE 11-14 • MANCHESTER, TENN. • bonnaroo.com
The musical mothership lands at a dusty farm in central Tennessee. Bonnaroo started in 2002 as a jam band fan’s wet dream, but it has since evolved into a no-holds-barred, all-inclusive extravaganza with some of the world’s biggest bands in rock and beyond. The festival not only offers more than a dozen stages of music; it actually transforms the barren farm into city village with art exhibits, a movie theatre, an Internet café, and an arcade. Headliners this year include Phish, Bruce Springsteen, Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, Gov’t Mule, David Byrne, Wilco, Elvis Costello, Erykah Badu, Ben Harper, Paul Oakenfold, the Decemberists, Bela Fleck, Band of Horses, Mars Volta, TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Merle Haggard, Andrew Bird, Del McCoury Band, Jenny Lewis, Coheed and Cambria, Allen Toussaint, Girl Talk, Neko Case, and Bon Iver.
“I’ve played Bonnaroo almost every year since the festival was started. It’s a great opportunity for both the fans and the artists. Fans get exposed to a lot of music they have never heard of, and the artists get a chance to play in front of new music lovers. I always wind up playing with a lot of my friends. One year I was on stage with Les Claypool when one of my own sets with Gov’t Mule was supposed to start, so I jumped off stage and into a golf cart to quickly get to my own show. That’s what this festival can be all about, especially for those of us who thrive on improvisation.
I once played a solo acoustic set at 12:30 in the afternoon. At first people were gradually trickling in, and by the end tens of thousands of people were watching. I was just trying to greet the day and play songs that I thought the early risers would enjoy, but it ended working so well that I turned it into a live record. That’s the kind of vibe that comes from Bonnaroo.”
—Warren Haynes, the hardest working man in rock ‘n’ roll, is a member of the Allman Brothers Band, The Dead, and Gov’t Mule.
JULY 23-26 • BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY NEAR FLOYD, VA. • floydfest.com
Floydfest is a melting pot of music from around the world from the traditional strings of the Appalachians to African world sounds to eclectic underground indie bands to national headliners. The beautiful site with mountain vistas all around has scenic comfortable camping and kid-friendly activities. Performers this year include Blues Traveler, Railroad Earth, Toubab Krewe, Donna the Buffalo, Peter Rowan, Yard Dogs Road Show, the Felice Brothers, Emmitt-Nershi Band, the Duhks, and Ollabelle.
“Festivals like FloydFest are the saviors of the music scene as we know it. There’s a lot of very good music that never sees the light of day on the radio. Festivals like this have done great things for our band over the years, and I hope we’ve returned the favor with our playing. Whenever you go to this festival you end up liking 12 new bands that you had never heard of before. It’s also a great thing for our society. People don’t see their neighbors very often or really do anything together. Festivals offer a social environment that provides many magical moments. The beautiful setting at FloydFest with the wonderful camping is a great place to set up that interaction. It’s a festival that caters to a variety of musical subcultures in an atmosphere that’s friendly to all ages. Modern society has grown thin on a lot of culture, and this is a place to find it.”
—Jeb Puryear, singer and guitarist for grassroots rock favorites Donna the Buffalo.
RHYTHM & ROOTS REUNION
SEPTEMBER 18-20 • BRISTOL, TENN./V.A. • bristolrhythm.com
While Nashville might be stealing the spotlight, Bristol has history on its side. The underappreciated Southern city, which straddles the border of Southwest Virginia and Eastern Tennessee, is known as the “Birthplace of Country Music.” It’s where the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made some of their first recordings, and it’s making a comeback with this high-profile annual festival, which takes over downtown on State Street. Crowd size has been expanding into the tens of thousands at this festival, which features 16 stages of a broad spectrum of Americana roots music. Performers include Patty Loveless, Dr. Dog, Dan Tyminski, Hackensaw Boys, Larry Keel, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Tim O’Brien, John Cowan, Hoots and Hellmouth, the New Familiars, Corey Harris, and the Belleville Outfit.
“This festival felt historic from the beginning. It’s something special for a musician to be playing in downtown Bristol. You get a feeling of the history of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family when you’re there. It’s like playing the Grand Ole Opry in a sense, but a little more abstract. I am a fan of any downtown area that feels like it has a connection to the past. A lot of old acoustic songs are about trains and barrooms. To me that feels all connected—more real than being out in a field somewhere on a makeshift stage.
This festival books all kinds of music, and as a musician that’s what I believe in. It’s an exciting setup throughout the city blocks with a good variety of different kinds of stages. My favorite time to play is Sunday morning outside. I am drawn to music that has a sense of lineage but also has progressed and has new direction. Most of the performers at Bristol are renegade—in a sense that they are doing their own thing, and if they are successful, so be it. The state of the acoustic music scene is quite strong. It’s never been as rich and varied as it is right now. It’s great that we have something like Bristol to showcase it all.”
—Ed Snodderly, a musician, teacher, actor, who appeared in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and owner of the Down Home acoustic music club in Johnson City, Tenn.
SEPTEMBER 18-20 • SUMMERSVILLE, W.VA. • americanwhitewater.org
The biggest river festival in the world is all about throwing down in the name of the mighty Gauley. In addition to plenty of running the river’s raging rapids, this is a rowdy paddler’s party with crazy howlin’-at-the-moon fun that has included late night boxing and mud wrestling. Last year there was a huge Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament.
“It’s the biggest party on and off the river for paddling. Paddlers from all over the country come to the Gauley for this festival. There’s also a lot of gear swapping going on. Saturday morning everyone heads to the river and paddles all day. In the evening vendors are pouring beer and there are a bunch of live bands, and that’s when LiquidLogic does the big Roshambo [Rock-Paper-Scissors] tournament. One of our employees, Woody Callaway, stands on top of a big RV and plays against everyone in the crowd. Last year he played against 1,000 people. The crowd pretty much polices itself, which keeps people honest, and the winners get boats or paddles.
There is all kinds of debauchery and silly tradition, including mud wrestling and boxing. There is also a guy we call the Piano Man that walks around playing cheesy covers on a Casio keyboard. He’s the hilarious late-night entertainment.”
—Shane Benedict, world-class paddler who designs kayaks for LiquidLogic.
SHAKORI HILLS GRASSROOTS FESTIVAL OF MUSIC & DANCE
OCTOBER 8-11 • SILK HOPE, N.C.
This four-day bi-annual fest takes place in the spring and fall on a 75-acre piedmont farm that blends some of North Carolina’s best roots musicians with national headliners, touches of world music from abroad, green intiatives including an on-site solar power system, and an array of food, arts, and crafts.
“The vibe starts with the beautiful site tucked away in the woods. Whole families come and set up tents and enjoy the weekend experience. The coolest thing is the diversity of the musicians that the festival brings to the four stages. There’s an emphasis on dance, so there’s a lot of music to get people moving. My band, The Beast, is a hip-hop group that likes to use jazz, soul, and other genres. On paper you might not expect to see us at a grassroots music festival, but at Shakori they understand what the extent of grassroots music can be. They’re tapping into the wellsprings of American music traditions. At any given point you can walk over to one stage and see an 11-piece salsa band then catch a bluegrass or folk band.
Last year my mom, who is a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist (Nnenna Freelon), was one of the headliners. I’ve never been able to play at a festival with my mom, because she is usually playing something like the Monterey Jazz Festival. Shakori thinks outside the box and offers a diverse line-up. But it’s also a Carolina festival that makes sure to highlight the region’s rich traditions. The great energy comes from the mix of local and international performers.”
—Pierce Freelon, front man for hip-hop group The Beast, based in Durham, N.C. •