FloydFest—a BRO Favorite—takes place July 22-26 in scenic Floyd, Va.—Photo by Roger Gupta
Festival fans take notice: These are the bashes you must attend. New festivals keeping popping up across the country, but the Blue Ridge is full of proven galas that are worth your long weekend. This year BRO offers a guide to the top 20 festivals in the region. We chose events filled with the things our readers love best—authentic music, craft beer, comfortable camping, and outdoor adventure—in stunning locations that set the scene.
French Broad River Festival
Hot Springs, N.C. | May 1-3
Basics: Started nearly two decades ago as an intimate gathering by a group of paddlers, this fest at the Hot Springs Campground has grown into a regional favorite, featuring an impressive line-up of roots music and plenty of chances to play on the river. Best of all, it’s a party with a purpose: Through the years the fest has raised boatloads of cash for river access protector American Whitewater and a handful of other local charities.
BEST IF: You like camping festivals on the smaller side with some outdoor action during the day.
BANDS ON THE BILL: This fest is anchored by some of the South’s best regional acts, including Sol Driven Train, Larry Keel, and Big Daddy Love.
BEYOND THE TUNES: This is also a chance to enjoy the French Broad with a popular raft race, a Paddle with Pros clinic, and a river cleanup.
Black Mountain, N.C. | May 7-10
Basics: Nestled within the mountainous property of Camp Rockmont, the family friendly Lake Eden Arts Festival—better known as 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.
BEST IF: You’re open to music and art from around the world, as this year performers from 30 different countries will be represented at the festival.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Headliners this year include Xavier Rudd & The United Nations, Bombino, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, R. Carlos Nakai, and Donna the Buffalo.
BEYOND THE TUNES: LEAF is designed to be interactive with more than 40 healing arts workshops on a range of topics from yoga and holistic health to rolfing and martial arts, diverse global cuisine, a wide selection of artisan goods, and a nationally recognized poetry slam. You can also enjoy the scenic surroundings with a hike on the Rockmont trails or a paddle in Lake Eden.
Richmond, Va. | May 15-17
Basics: Billed as the nation’s largest outdoor sports and music festival, this adventure games bash draws huge crowds to the banks of the James River in downtown Richmond. 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.
BEST IF: You like to race and enjoy an epic post-party.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Riverrock organizers always cap the evenings with solid headliners, and this year is no exception with Blues Traveler and Greensky Bluegrass taking the top slots.
BEYOND THE TUNES: This one is more about the adventure than the music, as Riverrock hosts races and comps all weekend long. Runners have the James River Scramble 10K Trail or the Filthy 5K Mud Run, while fat tire fans can sign up for the Thule Urban Assault Mountain Bike Race. There’s also an adventure race, climbing comps, and kayak events, including a boatercross. If you’re looking to find a new sport, the Interactive Village has opportunities to try kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, bouldering, and more.
Damascus, Va. | May 15-17
Basics: The tiny southwestern Virginia town of Damascus, known as Trail Town, U.S.A., turns into a big reunion for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and a huge party for outdoor lovers of all stripes. Hikers get together to trade trail stories, march in a parade, get goofy in a talent show, soak each other with water guns, check out a variety of gear booths, and get rowdy at the campgrounds in the evenings. There are also talks and presentations by A.T. legends of yesteryear.
BEST IF: You’re all about the outdoors and the culture that surrounds it. You’ll be in good company here.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Local and regional bands will provide the soundtrack with free shows everyday at the fest’s central grounds in Town Park.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Take advantage of what this town is known for and get on the trails. While the A.T. runs through downtown, you can also easily access the rugged Iron Mountain and family-friendly Virginia Creeper Trails.
RoosterWalk Music and Arts Festival
Axton, Va. | May 21-24
Basics: Initially created to commemorate the lives of two lost friends, this low-key festival held in the scenic foothills country near Martinsville continues to improve its impressive line-up of roots music. This year the fest is moving to new venue, Pop’s Farm, in Axton.
BEST IF: You dig an intimate homegrown festival on the rise, and you’re open to discovering new up-and-coming bands.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Headliners this year include Yonder Mountain String Band, Lake Street Dive, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Donna and the Buffalo.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Henry County holds a 45-mile scenic stretch of the Smith River. Grab a reasonably priced canoe or kayak rental from Smith River Outfitters and make time for a morning paddle.
Dr. Ralph Stanley’s 45th Annual Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival
Coeburn, Va. | May 21-23
Basics: A down-home, multi-band traditional bluegrass gala in a beautiful setting at the old homeplace of Ralph Stanley, who’s still performing at age 88. He leads the bill with the Clinch Mountain Boys at his own Hills of Home Park in the mountains of southwest Virginia.
BEST IF: You can’t get enough of the high lonesome sound, and you need to cross Stanley off your bucket list of legends to see live.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Additional acts include Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers, and Stanley’s son Ralph II.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Learn about Appalachian music with a trip to the Ralph Stanley Museum. The festival provides shuttles to nearby Clintwood, where the museum sits in a historic Victorian house as a stop on the Commonwealth’s Crooked Road music heritage trail.
Cumberland, Md | May 21-24
Basics: A progressive bluegrass and roots music festival hosted by high lonesome sound pioneer Del McCoury in the scenic Potomac River Valley of western Maryland.
BEST IF: You’ve always wanted to make it to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival but would rather keep it local, and you can’t get enough acoustic string jams.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Along with daily sets from Del and his band, this year’s lineup is anchored by Americana all-stars Jason Isbell and Shovels and Rope, as well as return visits from Old Crow Medicine Show, Trampled by Turtles, Leftover Salmon, and Railroad Earth.
BEYOND THE TUNES: At Delfest you can stretch out every morning with yoga classes scheduled as part of the Movement Playshops program. The festival also has an Arts and Crafts Fair with vendors offering clothing, jewelry, and acoustic instruments.
Graves Mountain Festival of Music
Syria, Va. | May 28-30
Basics: Three days of the best in bluegrass takes place at the scenic Graves Mountain Lodge, in the shadow of Shenandoah National Park.
BEST IF: You like to keep it mellow at festivals, watching top-notch picking and singing while relaxing in a lawn chair with stunning mountain views as a backdrop.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Hear traditional bluegrass acts like Junior Sisk, Doyle Lawson, and Balsam Range alongside progressive folk artist Willie Watson.
BEYOND THE TUNES: You’ll be within some of central Virginia’s best terrain, so spend your afternoon horseback riding, hiking, or swimming before the music begins.
Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
Manchester, Tenn. | June 11-14
Basics: The pace setter for the current explosion of multi-band mega fests, Bonnaroo annually brings 80,000 fans to a 700-acre farm in the middle of Tennessee for one the country’s most eclectic, high-profile music extravaganzas.
BEST IF: Crowds, heat, and dust won’t deter you from throwing down, as you take in a musical marathon that can’t be topped.
BANDS ON THE BILL: The top of the bill features Billy Joel, Mumford and Sons, Deadmau5, and Kendrick Lamar. Go deeper and catch sets by the War on Drugs, Caribou, the Punch Brothers, and Sturgill Simpson.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Make time for Bonnaroo’s additional offerings like the comedy shows, the Broo’ers Festival craft beer garden, cinema tent, Silent Disco, and Food Truck Oasis.
Red Wing Roots Music Festival Mount Solon, Va. | July 10-12
Basics: An intimate roots music festival with an impressively growing line-up 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.
BEST IF: You need your music fix but like to keep it fun for the whole family.
BANDS ON THE BILL: In addition to host band the Steel Wheels this year Red Wing will feature sets from the Punch Brothers, Robert Earl Keen, the Wood Brothers, Jon Russell of the Head and the Heart, Nikki Lane, Chatham County Line, the Travelin’ McCourys, and many more.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Members of the Steel Wheels love to pedal, so this festival hosts group bike rides on Saturday morning. Pick from road options that range between 10 to 40 miles or a 10-mile mountain bike ride.
Since debuting in 2013, the Red Wing Roots Music Festival has quickly become a nationally respected Americana gathering, set in the intimate confines of Natural Chimneys Park in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The festival is a collaboration between some local Harrisonburg music promoters, including Jeremiah Jenkins of Black Bear Productions and versatile acoustic outfit the Steel Wheels. In three short years the festival has featured an impressive array of roots-music acts, from established legends like Del McCoury and Sam Bush to popular upstarts Trampled by Turtles and the Devil Makes Three. Ahead of this year’s event, Jenkins and Steel Wheels front man Trent Wagler offered a glimpse behind the scenes of festival preparation and favorite moments.
Early Roots The Steel Wheels tour regularly across the country and have been featured at some of the biggest acoustic music festivals in the world, including Merlefest and Stagecoach in California. A few years ago the band decided they wanted to host a party near home in Harrisonburg. “We would come home and talk about how great it would be to have a boutique musical festival right in our backyard that our own families would grow up around,” Wagler said. “We dreamed about something that could create that kind of community in the Shenandoah Valley.”
Defining ‘Roots Music’ Jenkins said the festival requires at least 10 months of planning, and in a sea of competition from other festivals, booking acts can be tricky. “Year-round we keep a long list of bands that we’d like to play the festival,” Jenkins added. “Fitting everything into a budget and schedule becomes a puzzle with a bunch of moving pieces. Fortunately there is so much great music out there. We’re a small festival, and that is all we are trying to be. 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,” Wagler said. “We’re working hard to find great music that defines that term for us.”
Keeping It Small Red Wing’s site at Natural Chimneys only allows a few thousand people to attend every year. While many festivals continue to grow, organizers want Red Wing to stay intimate and neighborly for people of all ages. “It’s a broad cross-section of our larger community,” said Jenkins. “People can come appreciate the festival in their own way. I love seeing people of all ages enjoying themselves—a 10-year-old girl with her face painted drinking out of a coconut, and an older couple sitting in lawn chairs, just grinning as they watch the music.”
After hours “Last year on Saturday night, after everything had ended, members of five or six bands were backstage hanging around the fire, playing music together and singing,” remembered Jenkins. “Two members of the Devil Makes Three were dancing under the moonlight, the trees were swaying, and everyone was happy. At Red Wing artists can let their guard down and be themselves.”
Louisville, Ky. | July 17-19
Basics: Once a small neighbor bash, Forecastle has grown to become one of the premiere music festivals in the country, taking place every summer at Louisville’s scenic 85-acre Waterfront Park.
BEST IF: You want to throw down with a deep roster of bands in one of the South’s most vibrant cities.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Hometown heroes My Morning Jacket will be joined by an eclectic mix of acts that includes Widespread Panic, Modest Mouse, Sam Smith, Cage the Elephant, Houndmouth, Tweedy, and many more.
BEYOND THE TUNES: You’re in Kentucky, so enjoying some brown water is a must. In addition to the tunes, this fest honors its home state’s great trade with a Bourbon Lodge. You can also check out more goods from the Bluegrass State at Kentucky Landing, which highlights local food and craft beer.
Floyd, Va. | July 22-26
Basics: You reach FloydFest on Milepost 170.5 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Once there you find an unsuspecting 80-acre mountain plateau that becomes a multi-stage musical blowout, bridging the gap between Appalachian traditions and the melting pot of independent roots music from the around the rest of the world.
BEST IF: You’re down to get lost in nine stages of music for five days in a remote Blue Ridge setting.
BANDS ON THE BILL: This year FloydFest is packed with something for everyone. Headliners include Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Brandi Carlile, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Drive-By Truckers, Trampled by Turtles, Lord Huron, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and plenty more.
BEYOND THE TUNES: The festival has added an impressive outdoor adventure program to its lengthy list of activities. The Moonstomper Mountain Bike Trail offers onsite singletrack, and there’s also an organized off-site 19-mile ride, the Belcher Mountain Beat Down, that features 1,600 feet of climb and offers shuttle service back to the festival. More adventure opportunities include guided hikes, disc golf, and organized paddling trips on the Little River.
Kris Hodges founded FloydFest back in 2002, alongside partner Erika Johnson, as a way to showcase the unique progressive arts community in Floyd, Va. The small Blue Ridge town has been a haven for musicians, painters, and organic farmers since the ‘60s and still remains an off-the-beaten path beacon of creativity in the South. With the fourteenth installment of the festival on the horizon, Hodges gave us an inside perspective on managing growth and sticking to FloydFest’s initial vision.
Early Roots FloydFest’s first line-up represented a bridge between the sounds of Appalachia and music from around the world. Regional hero Doc Watson shared a bill with the African Showboyz, while a modest crowd was exposed to Floyd’s culture. “In the first year the idea was to create social awareness globally,” Hodges says. “We wanted to use Floyd as an example of how communities can function through an old-school way of country living with a strong sense of barter, farm-to-table food, and organic farming. Floyd was started by people who left mainstream society to forge their own lives. People living there today are still outside the fray. We’ve gotten national attention, but we’ve never wanted to be mainstream. With FloydFest we’ve tried to forge our own path.”
Keeping It Real Hodges has always resisted booking a major headliner that would bring a dominating crowd to the festival. Instead he crafts a roster of roots music artists of all stripes that come together for a colorful combination. The formula has worked. FloydFest attendance has swelled into the tens of thousands in recent years, causing Hodges to even reduce capacity. “We’ve found you get a lot more connectivity when the crowd is able to act as community. We want this festival to be sustainable, so we’re going to keep a small cohesive vibe.”
More than Music “I’ve been a musician my whole life, but I’m also an avid backpacker and trail runner. I live in a yurt in the middle of the Blue Ridge. I want to be around like-minded people. Our crowd has been very receptive to our outdoor offerings. Our river trips sell out every year, and our 5K runs have been packed. This is a special place, located right off the Parkway, so we want people to experience what it has to offer beyond the music.”
Favorite Memory “From the beginning I remember telling myself if I can get Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and their whole crew on our stage, my work will be well done. When it happened in 2012, I remember walking through the crowd and seeing folks just smiling ear to ear, having the best times of their lives. That’s a great feeling—when you keep your integrity intact, you work hard, and it’s recognized.”
Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion
Bristol, Tenn./Va. | September 18-20
Basics: Bristol is a historic musical city, the site of early recordings by the Carter Family and many more pioneers. Every fall the border town celebrates this lineage 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.
BEST IF: You like a lively street party with a deep line-up of bands in a quaint Southern city.
BANDS ON THE BILL: This year’s diverse lot of roots-music acts includes Steve Earle, Dr. Dog, Hot Rize, Balsam Range, Delbert McClinton, Strand of Oaks, and Moon Taxi.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Take the opportunity to learn as well as listen by visiting the nearby Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Arrington, VA | September 10-13
Basics: A jam fans paradise on the sprawling, idyllic Oak Ridge Farm, Lockn’ offers an alternative to the usual festival formula by holding bands on two massive side-by-side stages with no overlapping sets. Approaching just its third year, the festival has set a high bar by already hosting the likes of Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, and surviving members of the Grateful Dead. The fest is also known for orchestrating interesting collaborations between artists, like the first year’s pairing of John Fogerty with Widespread Panic.
BEST IF: You miss the early years of Bonnaroo, when it debuted as a jam band marathon.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Catch sets from Widespread Panic, Phil Lesh, and the String Cheese Incident, who will play one set in a special collaboration with the Doobie Brothers.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Oak Ridge is a gorgeous property, and during the festival there are 30 miles of biking trails open to attendees. If you can’t bring your own bike, there is a demo fleet on site.
Raleigh, N.C. | September 10-12
Basics: Every year an eclectic mix of indie rock and experimental acts converge in downtown Raleigh for this annual festival that hosts shows in more than a dozen venues, including an amphitheater, theaters, and smaller bars and clubs.
BEST IF: You’re cool with navigating a schedule of 160 bands at a variety of venues.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Not announced yet but last year was headlined by Spoon, St. Vincent, De La Soul, and the War on Drugs.
BEYOND THE TUNES: The greater Raleigh area has 18 breweries, and Beltline Brew Tours (beltlinebrewtours.com) has a range of options for tasting some of the best around the Triangle.
Summersville, W.Va. | September 18-19
Basics: Started back in 1983 as a victory dance to celebrate the derailment of a dam project that would have disrupted flows of the mighty Gauley, this bash brings together class V whitewater runs, live music, and boater shenanigans as the biggest paddling festival in the world. In addition to plenty of river time, you can score some great gear deals and catch up with a who’s who of industry folks in the whitewater marketplace.
BEST IF: You’re a river junkie who loves to paddle and party.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Not typically the focus of this fest. Expect some local or regional acts that will keep the fun going.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Enjoy what you’ve come to celebrate and run the class V rapids of the Gauley. If you’re not a whitewater boater, jump in a raft with one of the area’s many outfitters.
Asheville, N.C. | September 19
Basics: New beer festivals keep popping up everywhere, but Brewgrass was around long before the current craft beer boom. Approaching its 19th year, the annual festival, now taking place at Asheville’s Memorial Stadium, features tasty offerings from 50 craft breweries and a full day of progressive bluegrass.
BEST IF: You’re into day drinking, and lots of it.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Acts this year include the Jeff Austin Band, Big Daddy Love, and the Packway Handle Band.
BEYOND THE TUNES: If you have anything left in the tank, head to one of Asheville’s 18 breweries for one more round. Or maybe just go home and drink water.
The Festy Experience
Roseland, Va. | October 9-11
Basics: This intimate fest sits on the scenic grounds of central Virginia’s Devils Backbone Brewery, hosting a long weekend of eclectic roots music combined with mountain sports, workshops, and local beer.
BEST IF: You’re looking for a small family friendly festival with comfy camping spots and crisp fall weather.
BANDS ON THE BILL: The Festy is always anchored by expansive bluegrass pickers The Infamous Stringdusters; many more acts to be announced soon.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Wake up early on Saturday morning and run the Blue Ridge Burn, a 10K/5K trail race hosted by Blue Ridge Outdoors on the festival’s three-mile onsite trail network.
Go Outside Festival
Roanoke, Va. | October 16-18
Basics: Every fall, Roanoke’s River’s Edge Sports Complex turns into a mountain sports playground filled with running, biking, climbing, slacklining, paddling, and fishing. Set along the Roanoke River, this annual three-day fest features races, relaxed gear demos and clinics, and the chance to check out the latest and greatest from gear vendors.
BEST IF: You want to celebrate your favorite sport or learn another.
BANDS ON THE BILL: Still TBD, but count on regional acts to provide the soundtrack in the evening. Last year was headlined by the Hackensaw Boys.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Another one that’s all about adventure. Run the trail half marathon, learn to roll a kayak, or enter the fly casting comp. Options are plentiful here, with 175 free activities, and you can camp on site. Craft beverages are also a big part of this fest. According to organizers, last year’s 20,000 attendees put back more than 12,000 beers.
TBD, 2016 | Wilkesboro, N.C
Basics: One of the country’s preeminent Americana festivals, Merlefest was started by late icon Doc Watson to honor his son and fellow musician Merle, who predeceased him. An estimated 80,000 people flock to the campus of Wilkes Community College for a huge line-up of artists that blur the lines between country, blues, bluegrass, and rock. This festival is dry, so the party truly revolves around the sounds. Grab an energy bar and bounce between 13 stages. Key tip: Don’t miss the midnight jam.
BEST IF: You can’t get enough roots music.
BANDS ON THE BILL: BRO’s guide comes out days after this festival finishes every year, but it’s too good not to mention. This year’s line-up featured the Avett Brothers, Dwight Yoakam, Bela Fleck, and Trampled by Turtles.
BEYOND THE TUNES: Bring your instrument, as the Merlefest scene always has legendary picking circles at the nearby campgrounds. Also, bring your bike and the ride the flowy singletrack of the Kerr Scott Trails.