It’s time to tap into the Blue Ridge festival circuit. From spring through fall, the scene is bustling, and although the focus of most fests is music, there’s also plenty to do in between sets. We’ve highlighted 10 regional bashes that deliver stellar sounds on stage along with additional offerings in art, adventure, craft beer, and local food. Grab your whole crew, because these festivals have something for everyone.
RoosterWalk Music and Arts Festival
Martinsville, Va. May 22-25
Organizers host this growing event at the idyllic Blue Mountain Festival Grounds to commemorate the lives of two lost friends. If you find huge crowds to be a drag, consider this low-key fest while it’s still a best-kept secret. As the event’s impressive line-up of roots music keeps getting better, the masses will soon be making the journey to the scenic foothills of Martinsville—a former furniture mecca making a comeback through arts and outdoor recreation.
Music: Every year RoosterWalk’s line-up has gradually improved, and this year is no exception with the top billing going to quick-picking bluegrass innovators The Infamous Stringdusters and high-energy jam-funk crew Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Also catch New Orleans hero Anders Osborne, Yarn, The Lee Boys, and much more.
More: No need to leave the festival grounds to stretch your legs. On Sunday, the fest hosts the Tuff Strutter 5K—billed as one of the toughest trail runs on the East Coast.
French Broad River Festival
Hot Springs, N.C. May 2-4
The top-notch line-up of live music is certainly a draw, but this hoedown in the tiny mountain town of Hot Springs also offers a chance to enjoy the beautiful riverside setting and many outdoor opportunities on and around the French Broad. This annual bash was started by a local paddling crew, so the good times at this fest have raised boatloads of cash for river access protector American Whitewater.
Music: Acts on the bill this year include western Carolina favorite Toubab Krewe, Sol Driven Train, Dangermuffin, The Jeff Sipe Trio, Hillstomp, and Hot Buttered Rum with special guest Allie Krall on fiddle.
More: Sure, you can work up a sweat dancing to the tunes, but don’t snooze on the fest’s organized outdoor events. The popular FBRF Raft Race features the biggest, mass-start whitewater raft race in the Southeast, as teams pounce through the water in Class I-IV rapids for nine miles from Barnard to Hot Springs. Additional events include a mountain bike race, Paddle with Pros clinic, and a river cleanup. Your little ones will also find plenty of fun in the Kid’s Village.
Black Mountain, N.C. May 8-11
Twice a year the idyllic Camp Rockmont hosts a huge celebration of world culture. Set in the shadow of the Black Mountains, the Lake Eden Arts Festival—better known locally as LEAF—brings together artists, musicians, and performers from the around the globe for a big party amid the beauty of the Appalachians. The best part—this fest returns in the fall (October 16-19).
Music: Eclectic and varied, the LEAF line-up features a wide range of roots music. Acts this year include Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band, Los Lobos, Beats Antique, Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars, Red Baraat, and Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott.
More: LEAF features one of the most diverse arrays of artistic offerings of any festival in the region. Beyond the stellar tunes, check out the healing arts workshops, a folk art show, poetry slam, dancing, and culinary delights from around the world. This fest also provides a ton of fun for the youngsters, centered around the interactive Kids’ Village. Little ones will also enjoy the Roots Family Stage, Craft Tent, and Costume Tent.
Richmond, Va. May 16-18
Downtown Richmond hosts this full-weekend adventure sports festival that takes place on the banks of the James River. From central grounds on Brown’s Island, you can run, ride, paddle, and climb in a variety of comps and races, while live tunes are blaring in the background and big crowds are browsing gear booths from the outdoor industry’s best.
Music: Riverrock doesn’t skimp when it comes to providing a solid soundtrack to the long days of play. This year the event will feature two big headliners—bluegrass-rock expansionists The Infamous Stringdusters on Friday night and reggae-flavored MC Matisyahu on Saturday. Support bands include The London Souls, The Congress, Sunliner, and People’s Blues of Richmond.
More: This fest is all about indulging in as much adventure as possible. Friday features a 5K mud run and the start of the two-day bouldering comp, while Saturday is stacked with the long-standing James River Scramble 10K Trail Run, the Urban Assault Mountain Bike Race, an adventure race, and kayak and stand-up paddleboard races. Sunday includes a climbing speed comp, more paddling races, and the end of the weekend-long freestyle bike comp. If you’d rather keep competition to a minimum, you can check out SUP demos, join a group hike, test your pedal power on the mountain bike skills course, or gawk at the brave and balanced on the Slackline Highline Exhibition.
Damascus, Va. May 16-18
Do hardcore hikers know how to party? You’ll believe it when you see it at this longstanding celebration of the Appalachian Trail. Thru-hikers reunite to trade trail stories, march in a parade, soak each other with water guns (water balloons are now prohibited), get goofy in a talent show, check out a variety of gear booths, and sip a little moonshine. It all goes down in Trail Town, U.S.A., where you can access the A.T., Iron Mountain Trail, and the family-friendly Virginia Creeper.
Music: Not the main focus here. You’ll hear some local picking, which is just right as the backdrop for this down-home outdoor party.
More: Beyond the obvious festival fun, you can also take the opportunity to learn about Trail history and lore at a range of talks and presentations. A.T. legend Warren Doyle will deliver his slide/music show “My Forty-year Love Affair with the Appalachian Trail,” and Gene Espy, the second Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, will also share stories about his 1951 end-to-end excursion.
Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
June 12-15 Manchester, Tenn.
Still bringing the masses down to the farm after more than a decade in existence, Bonnaroo continues to be one of the country’s best music fests. Sure, it’s crowded and a little overwhelming with 80,000 people converging on a 700-acre plot in Central Tennessee. But since forming in 2002, the festival has become a well-run machine with a bevy of stages that offer a chance to cross numerous bands off your live show bucket list in one big weekend. Be sure to pace yourself and stay hydrated. It takes some planning and stamina to catch even a reasonable percentage on Bonnaroo’s huge line-up of diverse acts.
Music: Headliners this year include Elton John, Kanye West, and Jack White. Looking deeper, lesser-known gems on the bill include The Wood Brothers, Phosphorescent, Shovels & Rope, Real Estate, Lake Street Dive, and White Denim. Don’t miss the special Bluegrass Situation Superjam led by funny man/banjo picker Ed Helms.
More: Bonnaroo is best known for its musical overload, but make time for additional offerings like the comedy shows, cinema tent, garden workshops, Silent Disco, Food Truck Oasis, and even a new 5K Roo Run.
Red Wing Roots Music Festival
Mount Solon, Va. July 11-13
After a successful inaugural, accomplished Virginia-based string band the Steel Wheels are bringing back this new festival close to their Harrisonburg hometown at Natural Chimneys Park in the Shenandoah Valley. The hosts make this a family friendly fest with scenic camping and plenty to do for the little festivarians in the Kid’s Zone, which includes special band performances for younger audiences.
Music: Stepping it up with a bold line-up for its second year, the event will include sets from Trampled by Turtles, The Devil Makes Three, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Hayes Carll, Sarah Jarosz, Peter Rowan, Hackensaw Boys and many more.
More: The Steel Wheels have occasionally ditched the touring van and done some regional stints on bikes. Since the band members are big two-wheel enthusiasts, the festival features organized road and mountain bike rides on Saturday. You can also take a hike in the nearby North River Ranger District of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests or bring your rod and cast for largemouth bass and bluegill in Elkhorn Lake.
Louisville, Ky. July 18-20
From the same folks that bring you Bonnaroo, Forecastle features a huge slate of bands at Louisville’s 85-acre Waterfront Park. What started as a local neighborhood event has grown into a highly anticipated national festival in one of the South’s best cities.
Music: You’ll hear plenty of heavyweights on the banks of the Ohio River. Headliners this year include Outkast, Jack White, Beck, The Replacements, Band of Horses, Trampled by Turtles, and a recently reunited Nickel Creek. Also be sure to catch lesser-known acts like The Black Lips, Willie Watson, and Sharon Van Etten.
More: In addition to the tunes, this fest honors its home state’s great trade with a Bourbon Lodge, where you can taste plenty of high-end brown water and pair it with delicious Southern cuisine. Also check out the booths in the new Kentucky Landing village that focuses on local craft beer, food, art, and crafts.
Floyd, Va. July 23-27
Since emerging back in 2002, FloydFest has grown from a special underground gathering to a festival in the national spotlight. Every year crowds migrate to a scenic 80-acre mountain plateau off the Blue Ridge Parkway for a now five-day blowout of musical cultures near and far. The festival bridges the gap between Appalachian traditions and the melting pot of independent roots music from around the rest of the world.
Music: FloydFest has curated another eclectic line-up for its 10 stages of varying size. Top billing goes to Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Ray LaMontagne, Thievery Corporation, Ziggy Marley, and Michael Franti and Spearhead. Also, check out the fresh faces on the rise: Paper Bird, The London Souls, a new incarnation of The Duhks, and Tauk.
More: Last year organizers finally started utilizing the festival site’s amazing piece of land and started incorporating an impressive outdoor adventure program to its lengthy list of activities. The recently developed Moonstomper Mountain Bike Trail offers on-site singletrack with designated hours for riding and hiking. There’s also an organized 16-mile ride, the Belcher Mountain Beat Down, that features 1,700 feet of climb and offers shuttle service back to the festival. More adventure: disc golf, a 5K on Sunday morning and organized paddling trips on the Little River. Additional offerings include music workshops, healing arts, and plenty of fun for kids in the Children’s Universe.
Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion
Bristol, Tenn./Va. September 19-21
In early fall this big bash on the border celebrates Bristol’s historic distinction as the Birthplace of Country Music through a gala that incorporates roots music from all generations. This annual fest features a range of artists from national headliners to regional upstarts to down home Appalachian pickers playing along the bustling main drag of State Street (which straddles the Virginia/Tennessee line) on 22 stages—outdoors, inside theaters and bars, and in the popular dance tent.
Music: The best part about Bristol (besides the cheap ticket price) is the fest’s fearless ability to craft a line-up that bridges traditional artists with emerging acts in roots rock and indie folk. This year sets from Emmylou Harris, David Grisman, and Ray Wylie Hubbard will mingle with the up and coming sounds of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Bombadil and The Whiskey Gentry.
More: Take some time to soak in the history and visit the soon-to-be-opened Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which honors Bristol as the source of recordings by early genre pioneers including the Carter Family. You can also light up your taste buds with the festival’s Chili Cook-Off or burn off some energy in the 5K road race.
The Festy Experience
Roseland, Va. October 10-12
Tucked away in Nelson County at the base of Wintergreen Resort, this intimate fest sits on the scenic grounds of Devils Backbone Brewery. Through the long weekend an eclectic mix of music combines with mountain sports, workshops, and local beer and food—all amid breathtaking panoramas of the surrounding Blue Ridge.
Music: Expansive string band heroes The Infamous Stringdusters curate the line-up of this annual festival. Expect a carefully crafted roster that includes some fellow bluegrass border crashers, as well as established greats and artists on the verge in the worlds of jam, Americana, and roots rock. Full roster to be announced on June 1.
More: This is a music fest with built-in adventure. Run the Blue Ridge Burn 10K/5K trail race on Saturday morning (full disclosure, BRO organizes the race) or take a hike on the on-site trail network, much of which was built by Stringdusters’ bassist Travis Book. In between sets, you can duck into the brewery for expanded beer options and to catch up with your college football team.