Authentic American Folk Fests

Time-tested festivals offer a toe-tapping good time.

Listen closely and find places where America's heart beats loud and steady. 

 

Hundreds of thousands of patrons can attest—after attending an authentic folk festival—that the blues, jazz, Appalachian mountain music and other genres not only give voice and shape to America's roots, they're a foot-tapping good time. At many folk festivals around the country, attendees are offered once-a-year goodies—think music, food, crafts and demonstrations—only trotted out in the region during the few days a year that the area hosts the beloved festivals. 

Generations of Americans have participated in these events and helped organize efforts to preserve their community through the song, dance, art and showmanship that are on display during these heart-felt tributes to the heartland from California to the rolling shores of New England—and every small community with proud Americans in between.

Festival stage with crowds in background and mountains in far
background

Photo: (Courtesy Telluride Bluegrass Festival)

Telluride Bluegrass Festival

Each June the Telluride Bluegrass Festival plants its weekend-festival flag on the calendar as close to summer solstice as possible. 

For more than 40 years, musicians and festival-goers have hiked through the high-country in Colorado to the storied city of Telluride. Besides the film festival that made the town partially what it is today, the area is also known as a hippie community that operates on island time in the middle of the San Juan Mountains.

The four-day fest starts each year with an annual tarp rush; hundreds of eager patrons line the gates leading to the grassy main in front of the main stage. When the clock strikes just the right second, a voice can be heard screaming official welcome to the "festivarians"—the name lovingly given to festival patrons. 

Then ensues a mad, energetic dash of grown men and women sprinting to the front of the stage, flinging their tarps down in order to lay claim to the best seating possible. Cheers and whoops can be heard all around the festival ground as space grabbing-schemes pay off and patrons are rewarded with prime seating.

Veteran performers like Sam Bush are favorites of this decades-long festival while newcomers like Jazon Mraz and Norah Jones keep the bluegrass and soul singing alive.

Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival

In June, deep in Brown County, Indiana,—in the town of Bean Blossom, to be exact—patrons converge on the Bill Monroe Music Park. The 55-acre campground is home to a bluegrass festival area (and has been for every year since 1967) for the storied event started by mandolin player Bill Monroe. 

Celebrating its 50th year in 2016, the festival was home to dozens of performances, in addition to music workshops and a bluegrass camp. See old men perform in starched, point-tipped shirts on a white porch stage toe-tapping to the folk music flowing off out of their fingers and across their instruments: mandolins, guitars and fiddles to name a few. Monroe's Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum is also on the property, which guests are welcome to tour.

Merlefest

Photo: (©MerleFest)

MerleFest

Asked to help organize a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College, Doc Watson—a beloved, blind folk guitarist—had two stipulations before he'd lend his talent, and his friends' talents, to the event. 

"He wanted the festival to be named after his son Merle, who died a few years before in a tractor accident," said Ted Hagaman, MerleFest director. "He also said he wanted to bring some of his friends. He brought so many friends who wanted to honor Merle's memory that they didn't have enough stage space or room on the stage." 

After that first attempt, Watson's wife suggested the performer and friends make a festival out of the event and host it the following spring for the community of Wilkesboro, North Carolina. It was the mid '80s and that April, friends of Doc Watson including legends like Chet Atkins and Earl Scruggs hopped on stage to raise money for a sensory garden at the college. According to Hagaman, between 2,000 and 3,000 people showed up at that first festival and so the annual event was born. The fundraiser currently helps amass money for scholarships, buildings, technology and "keeps the college strong" for the area's students. Some 2,500 attend classes and upwards of 13,000 are using continuing-education services.

"We have five performers that have been here all 30 years," Hagaman said. "Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowen, Jack Lawrence and Joe Smothers. Smothers was a member of Merle's band, Frosty Morn."

The four-day festival is a proud legacy: 13 stages and hours of music in a family-friendly setting make a long-weekend for any music lover. Per the wishes of the Watson family, no alcohol is allowed at the festival and the general festival genre was classified by Doc Watson as "traditional plus," according to Hagaman. When asked to elaborate on the new genre Doc allegedly responded, "It's traditional Appalachian music plus whatever I feel like playing."

Beyond the stages, there are local food vendors who offer affordable eats and a mall which gives dozens of artisans a chance to sell unique jewelry, clothing, art and more.

Kerrville Folk Festival

The 18-day music feat that is Kerrville Folk Festival draws people from all over the state and country, and after more than 45 annual festivals the community in Kerrville, Texas, has made it clear that this is a summer event that will persist.

"We are a songwriter’s event, support for songwriters is our mission," said Dalis Allen, Kerrville Folk Festival producer. "So that means that even though we have the word 'folk' in the festival name we present music of most genres including folk, blues, bluegrass, jazz, Americana, country—as long as it is original and excellent."

Love for this festival is so intense that the first Friday of each year's festival includes a "Land Rush on Resettlement Day" event in which trucks, RVs and cars line up at the entrance of the festival for prime camping spots. What happens at the stroke of noon on that Friday is akin to Telluride's tarp rush, but on wheels.

During the festival, weekends are packed with more than a dozen performers and weekdays are full of sundown concerts and daytime workshops.

"The family relationships that have developed over our 46 years [is what keeps people coming back]," Allen said. "Many folks have been attending and camping with the same people that gather every year. Some of our staff is 4th generation. We are a safe family-oriented musical experience that goes far beyond what can be experienced at most three-day events."

Young women carrying
American flags

Photo: The Fourth of July parade at Kutztown Folk Festival is a parade that people and artisans jump into as the parade forms to meander the 30-acre festival grounds. (Courtesy Kutztown Folk Festival)

Kutztown Folk Festival

In the 1950s three local university professors in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, set about to find a way to celebrate the Pennsylvania Dutch, also called Pennsylvania German, community in their area. Born from those endeavors is one of the mac-daddy folk festivals in the United States: a nine-day festival centered around the Fourth of July, well past its 60th year, that attracts more than 100,000 visitors with each fest. 

"They wanted to present our unique culture to the rest of the world," said Steve Sheradin, Kutztown Folk Festival director. "This an outdoor event where it’s a 'working event' as far as the way the folk life is presented. You’re actually able to engage with people: their music, clothes, crafts and their art. You get embraced into the culture, these are not actors portraying the culture but people explaining the way they traditionally do things to the visitors."

More than 200 craftsman produce traditional goods and the five stages on the 30-acre festival are almost constantly full of color, swirl, twirl and foot tapping. Hungry patrons are offered Schnitt Knet—a traditional dish of dried apples and ham—and other heritage-centric dishes like chow-chow—vinegar-doused veggies—that are unique to the area, served only during the festival in some cases. Not to mention the fresh bread and pastries from the outdoor oven used only for the festival. 

"We're changing it up a little each year, but not making wholesale changes," said Sheradin. "A number of our visitors come every year [..] because of the connections they make at the festival. They want to see their favorite craftsman or their favorite musician."

When the main stage isn't thrumming with hand-picked music acts, the Miller family is center stage. According to Sheradin, Lester Miller's family has led the square dancing for five generations. Three times a day, every day during festival, the family and friends square dance. The now 80-something-year-old Miller calling the upcoming dances and steps to his children, their children and—in some performances—his great-grandchildren. 

Blind Willie McTell
Blues Festival

Photo: (Courtesy Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival)

Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival

Crooned about, and celebrated, by the likes of Bob Dylan makes for a musical legend and the folks in Thomson, Georgia, will defend William Samuel McTell as one of the greatest blues influences this country has ever seen. The festival honoring McTell is held each May in Thomson and brings out talent like The Wood Brothers, The Deslondes, John Hammond and more.

This BYO-blanket event is open to laid-back patrons who want to have fun, new music-enthusiasts and—most recently—cyclists with a love of blues: Special "Bikes & Blues" tickets available each year give patrons the chance to ride a 25- or 50-mile trail through the surrounding counties with historic stops along the way that influenced McTell's life and musical career, ending at the festival just in time to catch the opening acts.

Little girl stands
by a kneeling woman at a folk music festival

Photo: Young and old celebrate folk music. (Courtesy Wheatland Music Festival)

Wheatland Music Festival

Each September, fans flock to the 160-acre park that hosts the Wheatland Music Festival in Remus, Michigan. The three-day festival introduces patrons to talent to the tune of Radney Foster, Feufollet and other rising stars. 

The mega-event also offers workshops and demonstrations alongside artisans and children's activities. Other annual events hosted by the Wheatland Music Organization include a Memorial Day-weekend dance camp, a week in June dedicated to music and dance and a one-day Winter Wheat Festival each February. The area is almost always hopping with music, no matter the season.

Shovels and Rope at
the 2014 Newport Folk Festival

Photo: (©ljcurletta/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Newport Folk Festival

Established in 1959 as a companion festival to the local jazz fest, Newport, Rhode Island's, folk festival introduced the world to talent like Bob Dylan and his contemporaries. 

The three-day July event is hosted at Fort Adams State Park, part of the National Park Service. Among the four stages patrons can find hours of music. Look around the park a bit more during this event and you'll find local craft beer served at two beer and wine gardens. Drive By Truckers, Fleet Foxes and Regina Spektor are just a few of the performers who have—and will—grace the stage at this time-honored event.

Rocky Grass Music Festival

Each July the town of Lyons, Colorado, opens its arms wide to bluegrass fans who want to hear tunes from up-and-coming artists in addition to big names like Sam Bush and others. 

The Rocky Grass Music Festival is three days of camping—for many—and entertainment for all ages. Besides stages packed with entertainment, festival pastimes include mountain biking, hiking and tubing down the nearby St. Vrain River. 

This story by Jamie Lowe first appeared on WhereTraveler.com.

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