Close this search box.

2016 Festival Guide: Choosing the Best Southern Festival

We’re living in a Golden Age of festivals. If you love live music and a great outdoor hang, there’s never been a better time to find your ideal fest. From big music bashes to boutique gatherings, there are fun galas taking place nearly every weekend from spring through fall, throughout the Blue Ridge and beyond. To help you wade through the options, follow BRO’s guide to choosing the right festival, focusing on the best experiences in tunes, brews, and adventures.

In the following pages you’ll also find a Festival Calendar, rounding up nearly 100 of the region’s best bashes.

Witness History at the Super Jams

Since its first year in 2002, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival (June 9-12;), has become the pace setter for the current explosion of multi-band mega fests, bringing 80,000 fans to a 700-acre farm in the middle of Tennessee for one of the country’s most eclectic, high-profile music extravaganzas. Endure the elements—heat, dust, and crowds—and you’ll be treated to sets from a wide range of artists, this year including Pearl Jam, Dead & Co., a reunited LCD Soundsystem, Jason Isbell, and Death Cab for Cutie.

While Bonnaroo has definitely grown beyond its jam band roots, that spirit is still alive with the festival’s annual Super Jam. Usually starting around 1 a.m., the jam has yielded some legendary collaborations between artists who don’t normally play together. In 2007 Ben Harper mixed it up with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, and in 2012 the jam staged D’Angelo’s musical comeback, with the neo-soul icon backed by Questlove and a hand-picked funk band. Last year upped the ante with a themed “80s Throwback Superjam” that turned into a huge dance party led by Pretty Lights, DMC of Run DMC, Metallica’s Rob Trujillo, and Chance the Rapper. This year it hasn’t yet been revealed who will be in the mix, but the festival has also added a Bluegrass Super Jam on Sunday led by banjo-playing comedic actor Ed Helms.

Another event that specializes in creating spontaneous onstage moments is the Lockn’ Music Festival (August 25-28; Arrington, Va.), a four-day sonic rager that takes place on the idyllic Oak Ridge Farm in Nelson County, Va. This jam fan’s paradise offers an alternative to the usual festival formula by holding bands on two massive side-by-side stages with no overlapping sets. The fest is also known for orchestrating interesting collaborations between artists, like last year’s mingling of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh with Santana and Warren Haynes, as well as Widespread Panic’s set with reggae icon Jimmy Cliff. No collaborations had been announced at press time, but the initial line-up is a doozy, featuring Phish, My Morning Jacket, Ween, and many more.Lockn' - Friday - Timmermans-20150911-162_FIXCatch the Legends While You Can

Earlier this year, we received sudden reminders that rock legends are not immortal when David Bowie and Glenn Frey of the Eagles passed away within days of each other. Fortunately, many of the old school greats are still on the road, but frankly, a lot of them are a little long in the tooth. Festivals often offer the opportunity to knock multiple legends off your musical bucket list at one time.

This spring and summer Greg Allman is hosting his Laid Back Festival ( in five different cities, including Atlanta on May 7 and Nashville on June 25. The Allman Brothers Band keyboardist is now 68, but since his main group retired in 2014 he’s seemed energized and maintained an active touring regimen, mixing Brothers classics and his own material with his solo band. At the Laid Back opener in Atlanta, Allman is bringing along fellow rock vets ZZ Top and steadily rising outlaw country crew Blackberry Smoke. This summer Allman is also playing FloydFest and Peachfest in Scranton, Pa.

Fans of fast picking and grinning should plan a trip to southwest Virginia for Dr. Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival (May 26-28). Still performing at age 89, Stanley is a pioneer of the high lonesome sound dating back to his days playing with his brother Carter in the Stanley Brothers in the 1940s. He still plays a set every day at his annual festival, a down-home, multi-band traditional bluegrass gala in a beautiful setting that’s approaching its 46th year.

Add Some Adventure

Festivals are much more than multi-band concerts. Sure, the music might be the main draw that lures you through the gates, but these days many festivals offer adventure opportunities alongside the sounds. The Mountain Music Festival (June 3-4;, a two-day bash in West Virginia’s New River Gorge, has a line-up of adrenaline-inducing activities to match its roster of killer bands. Taking place at ACE Adventure Resort, a 1,500-acre spread in the heart of the gorge, the festival site sits next to some of the best whitewater runs and climbing crags in the region. Before you get down to sets by Trampled by Turtles, the Infamous Stringdusters, Lotus, and Galactic, take a rafting trip on the Lower New or bring your mountain bike and ride ACE’s 30 miles of trails. Other activities offered during the fest: Zip lining, paddleboarding, and a mud run.

Another popular event that’s recently upped its adventure game is FloydFest (July 27-31), an eclectic roots music carnival that takes place just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd, Va. Since its inception back in 2002, FloydFest has become known for bridging the gap between Appalachian traditions and the melting pot of independent roots music from the around the rest of the world. On nine stages big headliners like Greg Allman, Warren Haynes, Bruce Hornsby, Greensky Bluegrass, and Fela Kuti perform alongside up and comers like Head for the Hills and West African music act Selasee & the Fafa Family.G0041941_FIX-759x500Set on a mountain plateau that’s surrounded by some of Virginia’s most scenic terrain, FloydFest organizers now offer plenty of ways to explore this pristine open space. In addition to a 5K trail race, the fest also has a nine-hole disc golf course and onsite singletrack on the Moonstomper Mountain Bike Trail. There’s also an organized off-site 19-mile ride, the Belcher Mountain Beat Down, which features 1,600 feet of climb and offers shuttle service back to the festival, as well as organized paddling trips on the Little River.

Party on the Appalachian Trail

If you love the outdoors and you live in the footprint of the Blue Ridge, Trail Days (May 13-15) is a bucket list festival. Set in the quaint southwestern Virginia town of Damascus, known as Trail Town, U.S.A., the festival is a big reunion for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and a huge weekend party that lets all outdoor enthusiasts become immersed in A.T. culture. Throughout the weekend, check out gear booths, hear live bluegrass, and watch hikers get goofy in a parade, talent show, and prom. There are also talks and presentations by A.T. legends of yesteryear.

At the fest, mainly set in Town Park but spreading throughout town, it’s also easy to enjoy the surrounding scenery. The A.T. runs right through Damascus, so it’s easy to pick up the trail and take a hike. You can also bring your bike and jump on the rugged Iron Mountain Trail for some tough singletrack or the family-friendly Virginia Creeper Trail for an easy rail trail ride. At night pitch a tent at one of the designated campgrounds on the edge of town. You’ll likely find a hiker to share some old trail stories and sips from a jar of ‘shine.

Bring the Whole Family

Sure, bringing the kids to a huge festival with thick crowds might seem like an overwhelming proposition. But fortunately the Blue Ridge has some intimate musical gatherings that feature top-notch line-ups to please mom and dad while also holding plenty of activities to keep the little ones happy. If you’re inclined to make it a family affair, check out one of these kid-friendly fests.

LEAF (Lake Eden Arts Festival)
May 12-15; Black Mountain, N.C.

The Lake Eden Arts Festival—better known as LEAF—goes above and beyond when it comes to keeping kids entertained at a multi-band music festival. A few years ago the fest, nestled within the mountainous Camp Rockmont, expanded its offerings for youngsters with the addition of eight Family Adventure Villages that include everything from puppetry and hands-on nature programs to art projects and organized games. Add swimming and paddling in Lake Eden and the kids will certainly be tuckered and ready for some tent slumber.

In addition to the family fun, LEAF features one of the most diverse arrays of artistic offerings of any fest in the region: live music, dance workshops, healing arts, and much more. There’s also the music, which covers sounds from around the globe. Acts this year include Shovels and Rope, Juan De Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, Fatoutmata Diawara, and Sarah Jarosz.

Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival

May 26-29; Martinsville, Va.

This homegrown festival recently got some new digs, moving last year to the scenic Pop’s Farm near Martinsville. Attendance has increased as fest organizers continue to add bigger national acts to the Rooster Walk line-up, but this is still a relatively small event with plenty of open space and a dedicated kid’s area to keep the kiddos happy. Acts on the bill this year include Lettuce, the Sam Bush Band, Perpetual Groove, and the Revivalists.

Bonus: This festival has a heartfelt purpose, created to honor two Martinsville locals who passed away. Proceeds from your ticket dollars go to a high school scholarship program created in their honor, as well as other regional charities.

Red Wing Roots Music Festival

July 8-10; Mt. Solon, Va.

Red Wing takes place in the relaxed confines of Natural Chimneys Park, a comfortable campground in the shadow of towering limestone rock formations. The festival, located in the Shenandoah Valley near Harrisonburg, was started by lauded string band and area natives the Steel Wheels, who curate a carefully selected line-up of Americana and acoustic music acts that perform on multiple stages in very close proximity. This year the fest will be headlined by Dawes, Shovels and Rope, the Lone Bellow, and the Steep Canyon Rangers. “We want music that draws from traditions of old country, folk, singer-songwriter, Cajun and bluegrass—what you would consider the roots of American music,” Steel Wheels front man Trent Wagler said about crafting the festival’s line-up. “We’re working hard to find great music that defines that term for us.”

While the festival’s musical ambitions are broad, attendance is intentionally kept relatively small to accommodate families. Red Wing also has an impressive slate of kid’s activities, including a Kinfolk Stage devoted to music for little ones.

Dig into Country’s Roots in Bristol

Located on the southwest Virginia/eastern Tennessee border, Bristol holds great historic significance in the first generation of country music. Back in 1927 a record producer named Ralph Peer working for the Victor Talking Machine Company set up a recording studio in a hat factory on State Street, the small city’s main drag. After placing an ad looking for Appalachian musicians from the surrounding area, Peer organized the now-famous Bristol Sessions, which yielded the first recordings by bluegrass pioneer Jimmie Rodgers and the legendary Carter Family.

The legacy of those historic recordings is upheld at the Smithsonian-affiliated Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and it really comes to life every fall at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion (September 16-18), a bustling street festival that spans downtown and incorporates roots music from a range of generations and styles. Impressively, the festival manages to seamlessly bridge traditional icons with emerging acts in roots rock and indie folk, hosting bands and singer-songwriters along State Street (which straddles the Virginia/Tennessee line) on 22 stages—some outdoors, others inside theaters and bars. At first it may seem like a stretch to see Loretta Lynn on a bill with Houndmouth, but when you consider the evolution and stylistic shake-ups in country music through its near century in existence, this festival’s line-up makes perfect sense. Additional acts on the bill this year include Cracker, Marty Stuart, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Keller Williams, Anderson East, and many more.

Pick with Your Heroes at Jam Camp

Delfest (May 26-29) is a progressive bluegrass and roots music festival hosted by genre legend Del McCoury in the scenic Potomac River Valley of western Maryland. The festival’s line-up mingles top-notch string bands and heavyweights in Americana and roots rock, this year featuring Bruce Hornsby, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters, and Railroad Earth, along with the usual sets by Del and his sons in the Travelin’ McCourys.

To make the most of the festival, consider coming early for the DelFest Academy, a four-day bluegrass camp that features instruction for musicians of all skills levels by acts on the fest bill. Starting the Sunday prior to the festival, the Academy offers the chance to learn from pro pickers with specific instruction for guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and bass. In addition to the instrument classes, the camp also includes plenty of group jam sessions, intimate performances by instructors, and Bluegrass Karaoke, which gives students a chance to play a song backed by their heroes. Instructors this year include all of the Travelin’ McCourys, Andy Falco of the Infamous Stringdusters, and mandolin-playing songstress Sierra Hull.

Another Jam: Banjo ace Pete Wernick of Hot Rize also hosts a Bluegrass Camp prior to Merlefest every April in Wilkesboro, N.C.

Drink the Best in Brew

Last fall, the Brewers Association announced that there are now more than 4,000 active breweries in the U.S. and 75 percent of adults age 21 and older live within 10 miles of a local brewery. It’s hard to predict how big the craft beer boom will get, but as more brewers continue to open new operations their best opportunities to get beers in the hands of new drinkers are at the many craft beer festivals taking place across the country.

With Virginia and North Carolina being craft beer hotbeds, it’s no wonder that the Blue Ridge is full of beer fests. Just outside of Charlottesville, Va., in the small town of Crozet, regional mainstay Starr Hill Brewery is getting set to host the IPA Jambeeree, a new fest that will celebrate the best in hoppy brews from the Commonwealth. The Jambeeree will feature a dozen Virginia breweries pouring more than 40 local IPAs. New varieties have taken hops in many directions, so whether you like bitter, piney, floral, or fruity, you’ll find what you’re looking for at this beer bash. Add live music, food trucks, and brewer exhibits, and you get some serious good times taking place at Hangar Park, across from Starr Hill’s brewery and tap room.

Down south, Burning Can (July 15-16) is hosted by Oskar Blues Brewery at its REEB Ranch outpost in Brevard, N.C. Taking place at a scenic spot on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, the fest features more than 50 killer breweries that put their best liquid in cans, as well as plenty of outdoor playtime, including a Beer Relay trail run, group mountain bike rides, a dirt-jumping comp, and paddle trips. Plus, there’s camping, so you don’t have to worry about getting home after drinking too many Dale’s Pale Ales.

Share this post:

Discover more in the Blue Ridge:

Join our newsletter!

Subscribe to receive the latest from Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine sent directly to your inbox.