Festivals Moving Forward

With limited attendance and safety protocols, live music bashes are making a cautious return.

Festivals are part of the fabric of Blue Ridge culture. From traditional gatherings like the Old Fiddlers’ Convention, which is approaching its 85th year, to newer favorites like FloydFest, the region is typically full of vibrant music galas. But last year, like so many things during the relentless hardship and loss of 2020, festivals completely vanished. 

Now the fest calendar is still light, but many organizers are plotting cautious comebacks for the spring and summer, with broader hopes of full-capacity events being targeted for the fall.

FloydFest, one of the region’s biggest festivals planning to proceed with summer dates in July, will allow fewer music fans than usual and put in place new safety measures like temperature checks. 

“We’ve reduced capacity by a significant amount, and as the country keeps reaching vaccination milestones we think we’ll be ready by July,” says Brian Swenk of Across the Way Productions, which produces FloydFest. “We feel like we’re going to have a safe and successful festival.”

Others are holding off a little longer, as popular events like Merlefest and Bonnaroo are being moved to September. But it’s apparent that as more arms get jabs, more sounds will be coming from stages.

The information on the following festivals was up to date as of mid-April when we went to press. But since the pandemic is still an evolving situation, visit the event websites as they get closer for possible changes, including dates and safety protocols. 

LEAF Retreat 

May 13-16 | Black Mountain, N.C. 

LEAF is a beloved music and culture festival that takes place twice a year at the scenic Lake Eden in Black Mountain. While plans are in the works for the fall festival (October 14-17) to resume with its usual format, the annual spring fest is taking place as the reduced-capacity LEAF Retreat, welcoming only one-fifth of the normal amount of attendees for live music, arts workshops, and panel discussions. The event is for LEAF members only. theleaf.org 

Dominion Energy Riverrock

May 14-16 | Richmond, Va. 

Riverrock normally brings big crowds to Richmond’s Brown’s Island for a long weekend of music and adventure. But this year organizers are instead offering a series of small-scale comps and races to continue the annual celebration of Richmond’s outdoor scene. Offerings on the James River and surrounding trails include a mountain bike time trial and kayak boater cross, as well as trail races with distances between 5K and a half-marathon. Plus, live music will still be part of the programming, with pop-up performances taking place in and around the James River Park System. riverrockrva.com

New River Gorge Festival

May 14-16 | Oak Hill, W.Va. 

Ace Adventure Resort will launch a new festival this month to celebrate the New River—one of the oldest rivers in the world and a prime outlet for recreation in the Mountain State. The three-day event will mix live music, camping, and adventure, with opportunities to paddle, climb, and mountain bike. Acts on the bill include the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and Travers Brothership. aceraft.com 

Trail Days

May 14-16 | Damascus, Va.

Trail Days is a popular festival that celebrates hiking culture and has been held in the tiny southwest Virginia town of Damascus—“Trail Town, USA”—since 1987. A big family reunion for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers from different generations, the fest features gear booths, talks by A.T. legends of yesteryear, live music from regional roots acts, and plenty of displays of Trail Magic—with locals providing food and gear repairs for hikers currently on the trail. Safety modifications will be announced. traildays.us

Forward Festival

May 28-30 | Lafayette, Ga. 

Forward Festival will take place at Cherokee Farms, a spacious 245-acre property in the Blue Ridge foothills of north Georgia. Catch sets by Oliver Wood, Grass is Dead, Jon Stickley Trio, and Kyle Tuttle Band. forwardmusicfestival.com 

Mountain Music Festival

June 3-5 | Oak Hill, W.Va. 

Mountain Music Festival is plotting a big comeback for its seventh running in June. The event, taking place at Ace Adventure Resort in West Virginia’s New River Gorge, will feature sets by Lettuce, the Infamous Stringdusters, the Wood Brothers, Pigeon Playing Ping Pong, and more—totaling 25 bands over three days. Outdoor adventure is also a big component of this fest, with onsite access to whitewater rafting, zip lining, and climbing. mountainmusicfestwv.com 

Lost Art Music Festival

June 12 | Douglasville, Ga.

An impressive lineup of roots-music acts will perform at this new event in the Georgia countryside. Catch sets by St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Shovels & Rope, the War and Treaty, and Ben Nichols of Lucero, all playing throughout the day at Foxhall Resort. Safety is a big priority at this festival, with attendees required to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test within 48 hours of entry. Also, the event’s 1,100-acre site will only be filled to 20 percent of capacity. lostartmusicfest.com 

Back Home Festival

June 25-27 | New Martinsville, W.Va.

This free, three-day festival is slated to return to downtown New Martinsville in late June. Organizers have stressed that they’re monitoring local case counts and will only be moving forward if it’s safe to do so. But as of press time, the event has sets scheduled by more than a dozen acts, including Sam Bush, Melvin Seals and JGB, and the Larry Keel Experience. backhomefestival.com 

Red Wing Roots

July 9-11 | Mt. Solon, Va.

This family friendly festival is hosted by beloved Virginia string band the Steel Wheels at the scenic Natural Chimneys Campground in the Shenandoah Valley. The planned return will be contingent on state regulations, and a lineup announcement is scheduled for early May. redwingroots.com

Master Musicians Festival

July 16-17 | Somerset, Ky.

This Kentucky roots-based festival—blending Americana, bluegrass, country, and indie folk—has become a regional mainstay in its 25-plus years of existence. Lineup includes Blues Traveler, the Steeldrivers, Devon Gilfillian, Kelsey, Waldon, and Morgan Wade, plus a special Friday-night tribute to the late John Prine by home state favorites the Wooks. mastermusiciansfestival.org

FloydFest

July 21-25 | Floyd, Va.

Set on a beautiful 80-acre mountain plateau right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Floydfest features one of the best curated music lineups in the region—mixing national mainstays with regional up and comers on the rise. The long-running festival will operate at reduced capacity this year to accommodate social distancing and include additional safety measures, including temperature checks and hand-washing stations. Acts performing on the festival’s nine stages include the Avett Brothers, Billy Strings, Old Crow Medicine Show, Goose, and Molly Tuttle. Floydfest.com 

Front Porch Fest

September 2-5 | Stuart, Va. 

This small, family-friendly festival takes place at Spirit Haven Farm, a spacious, 130-acre site in Patrick County, Va. The event’s Labor Day Weekend return will feature a deep roster of mainstay regional acts, including Toubab Krewe, the Nth Power, Big Daddy Love, and the Wooks. frontporchfest.com 

4848 Festival

September 3-5 | Snowshoe, W.Va.

After a well-received debut in 2019, this emerging festival at Snowshoe Mountain Resort is poised for a comeback in September. Bands play on two stages at the resort’s Mountaintop Village, and between acts attendees can paddle Shavers Lake or ride the winding network of downhill mountain bike trails. Greensky Bluegrass will headline two nights, with more acts to be announced soon. 4848festival.com

Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion

September 10-12 | Bristol, Tenn.

Every fall the small Southern city celebrates this lineage of roots music through a lively street fest that incorporates artists from many generations. This annual gala features a range of acts from national headliners to regional upstarts to down home Appalachian pickers playing along the bustling main drag of State Street, which runs along the Tennessee/Virginia border on more than 20 stages. This year the festival is plotting a big return for its 20th anniversary with performances by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Tanya Tucker, Blackberry Smoke, and Yola. bristolrhythm2021.com 

Merlefest

Wilkesboro, N.C. | September 16-19

Merlefest is one of the country’s preeminent Americana festivals, started by late icon Doc Watson to honor his son and fellow musician Merle, who predeceased him. Details, including an artist lineup, are still forthcoming, but the big fest on the campus of Wilkes Community College will move to September this year, instead of its usual running date in April. Merlefest.org 

Watermelon Pickers’ Fest

September 16-18 | Berryville, Va. 

Organizers of the long-running Watermelon Park Festival are unveiling a new name using a new location, the Clark County Fairgrounds, for their seventeenth annual event. One thing that won’t change, though, is high quality of bluegrass acts on the festival bill, as bands performing include the Infamous Stringdusters, Charley Crockett, Town Mountain, and Bad Livers. The headliner is a special ensemble assembled by banjo ace Bela Fleck called My Bluegrass Heart, featuring Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, and Brian Sutton. watermelonpickersfest.com 

DelFest

September 23-26 | Cumberland, Md. 

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury and his sons in the Travelin’ McCourys host this popular string bash in the mountains of western Maryland. It’s normally held on Memorial Day Weekend, but the McCoury clan is waiting until September this year, in the hopes of hosting a safe fall festival. In the meantime, a smaller, socially distanced fest dubbed DelFest Lite will take place at B Chord Brewing in northern Virginia on May 28-30 with sets from Del, the Travelin’ McCourys, Seldom Scene, the Gibson Brothers, and other ace pickers. delfest.com 

Lockn’ Music Festival

October 1-3 | Arrington, Va. 

Not many details have surfaced yet about this jam-centric festival, which is set to return in early October in the Blue Ridge foothills of Arrington, Va. Last year the event was supposed to be a celebration of Phil Lesh’s 80th birthday, so expect a heavy dose of Grateful Dead offshoots. locknfestival.com 

French Broad River Festival

Hot Springs, N.C. | October 1-3

This low-key river bash was started more than two decades ago by a group of local western North Carolina boaters with great taste in music. In its 20-plus years the paddler party has remained one of the region’s favorite small fests, staying relatively intimate at the Hot Springs Campground. This year the event has moved from its normal spring weekend to the fall; details still forthcoming. frenchbroadriverfestival.com 

Rooster Walk Reunion

October 8-10 | Martinsville, Va. 

The Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival usually takes place every May at the scenic Pop’s Farm in Martinsville, Va. Remaining cautious, organizers have decided to cancel the event again this year, instead opting to host a three-day festival in the fall (October 8-10) called Rooster Walk Reunion at the same site. Details are still to be announced. There will also be two days of socially-distanced pod concerts at Pop’s Farm on May 28 and 29. Onsite camping will be available. roosterwalk.com  

Cover photo: The Avett Brothers perform at Merlefest, which will return in September. Photo by Michael Freas/courtesy of Merlefest

Places to Go, Things to See: