Trying to sum up the second annual Earl Scruggs Music Festival in 10 photos is like trying to fit all of the festival’s performers on one stage at one time. But if Scruggs Fest can try that second thing (and it did), we can certainly have a go at the first one. With a stacked lineup including Emmylou Harris, the Infamous Stringdusters, and Greensky Bluegrass, the festival felt at once like a who’s who of modern bluegrass and a family reunion of not so distant genres — old time, country and blues included. Throw in three straight days of late summer sun, some excellent local food vendors, and a few thousand fans at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, and you have 2023’s Scruggs Fest: a second successful attempt at paying homage to North Carolina’s patron saint of bluegrass. Here are the highlights.
The Scruggs Festival highlighted plenty of acts based nearby in western North Carolina, and many gave some of the festival’s best performances. One such standout was the Brevard-based trio The Wilder Flower, who rocked the Foggy Mountain stage early Friday.
While bluegrass fests have a rep for being filled with older fans and musicians, the Scruggs Festival defied that in a few ways. Young players — such as those from the Junior Appalachian Musicians program, or seven year-old Silas Wilkerson of the Biscuit Eaters — were among the most captivating, while fans who attended as part of a field trip for Polk County 4th graders were among the most stoked fans at the festival.
Jake Blount’s in-crowd performance
Any festival will have its technical hiccups. Luckily, Jake Blount was ready to make magic out of a mishap. When their sound went out at the Foggy Mountain stage on Friday, Blount and his band came off stage and treated fans to a special set of fiddle tunes played from within the crowd, turning what could’ve been a set-ender into one of the most memorable performances of the festival.
Del McCoury’s still got it
“How did that sound come out of you?” Jerry Douglas asked Del McCoury onstage after McCoury hit an unworldly high note in the middle of his set. Rest assured, at 84 years old, the bluegrass legend hasn’t lost the vocal chops that made him one of the festival’s most anticipated acts.
In western North Carolina, showstopping food is the expectation. At Scruggs Fest, local vendors did not disappoint. Culinary highlights included barbecue from Bear’s Smokehouse, shrimp and grits from Polk County-based Spike’s Kitchen, and livermush at the festival’s own Bluegrass Brunch event on Saturday morning.
Scruggs Fest brought together music fans from across generations — from bluegrass purists close to Scruggs’ own generation, to younger pickers playing newer versions of the genre. While debates about the merits of “newgrass” could be overheard all weekend, headliners The Infamous Stringdusters rocked a packed, multigenerational crowd on Friday night with their own brand of progressive bluegrass.
Earl’s Pickin’ Pavilion held regularly scheduled jam sessions where festival goers could skip out on watching sets to bring instruments, circle up, and play. The scheduled jams regularly drew crowds of 20-30 players — most of whom had never met before — to play in the small gazebo near the Foggy Mountain stage. Most times, the gazebo couldn’t contain the music, either — jams often overflowed onto nearby sidewalks and outside shops, making the whole festival ground feel like a stage.
The collaborative spirit
While the festival’s lineup was star-studded with bluegrass greats, Scruggs Fest in many ways felt like a family reunion. It was rare to have a set go by without a special guest appearance, and headlining artists frequented each others stages with the familiarity of old friends. Electrifying collabs included Della Mae with Tray Wellington, Greensky Bluegrass with Michael Cleveland, Jerry Douglas with Biscuit Eaters, and many more.
Few artists need as little introduction in the South as Emmylou Harris, whose expected presence hung in the air over the festival long before her Sunday night set. Closing out the festival with a breathtaking performance of “Boulder to Birmingham,” Harris more than backed up the reverence she inspires, leaving many fans with joyful tears to end the weekend.
A grand finale
At the end of Harris’ set, fans stayed nearby as more and more performers flooded the stage. On a crowded stage reminiscent of those typically at Newport Folk Fest, joining Harris for one final performance were Jerry Douglas, Rissi Palmer, Darin and Brook Aldridge, Michael Cleveland, Twisted Pine, and many more.