Bluegrass festivals are where it all begins. These are the best:
Basics: A long weekend of pickin’ and grinnin’ takes place Memorial Day weekend in the scenic Potomac River Valley, surrounded by the vast Appalachians of Western Maryland. This fest was created to honor living bluegrass legend Del McCoury, who headlines each day and gets around for sit-ins with most of the bill’s main acts.
Bands: In addition to daily sets from Del and the boys, the line-up boasts a long list of high-profile progressive pickers, including Old Crow Medicine Show, Yonder Mountain String Band, Trampled by Turtles, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. A big surprise this year is two sets from Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, who will bring some funky rock exploration to the string band party.
Set Break Escape: Bring your bike and stretch your legs on the Great Allegheny Passage, a 141-mile rail trail that runs from Cumberland through shaded valleys all the way to Pittsburgh.
Aiken Bluegrass Festival
Bluegrass, bikes, and beer. They come together at this two-day bash in Aiken, which features picking from Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys, Larry Keel, Della Mae, and the Hackensaw Boys. On Saturday, start the day with a family bike ride downtown and during the fest enjoy micro suds from fest sponsor New Belgium Brewing Company.
Dr. Ralph Stanley’s Annual Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival
One of bluegrass music’s early forefathers, Stanley turned 86 this year, and he’ll still give you chills when he sings classics like “O’Death.” He also still hosts this traditional bash at his old home place, featuring some of his favorite bands like Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, the Grascals, and Larry Sparks.
Graves Mountain Festival of Music
May 30—June 1
Set next to the splendor of Shenandoah National Park, this longstanding bluegrass fest features a mix of the traditional and progressive picking among the welcoming comfort of Graves Mountain Lodge. Acts include the Steep Canyon Rangers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Lonesome River Band, and IIIrd Tyme Out.
ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival
The past and present of bluegrass is celebrated with this three-day fest in Owensboro, home of the International Bluegrass Music Museum. Leftover Salmon, the Punch Brothers, David Grisman, and the Steeldrivers will take the stage at Yellow Creek Park for the museum’s biggest annual fundraiser.
Mountain Song Festival
North Carolina native sons and Steve Martin’s backing band, the Steep Canyon Rangers bring a solid line-up of bluegrass heavyweights to Brevard every fall for a pickin’ party at the Brevard Music Center’s open-air auditorium with Pisgah in the backdrop. Acts this year still to be announced.