I have been attending Bluegrass Festivals since the early seventies both as a band member and a spectator. When my friend Tim Corbett invited me to the Fly In Festival 2019, the fourth one, I decided to invite my friend Melinda and see what all the hubbub was about. Located a few miles south of Barboursville, West Virginia, nestled between the CSX railroad tracks and the Great Ohio River, lies the lush green grounds of the Robert Newlon Airpark & Campground, sporting a 3000 foot long grass runway and the West Virginia Skydivers Association.
At first glance I knew I was in for a much different experience. As soon as we parked I ran into my old friend, national guitar picking champion, Robert Shafer. We shook hands and did the regular greetings, and he said that he was going to play back up for one of the young contestants in the flat picking guitar contest. I wondered if the young picker had any idea what an honor it was to have Robert on stage with him. The contest is the namesake of another well known West Virginia musician, Robin Kessinger. Last year there were 6 contestants, this year 12. I guess it’s growing, and next year on Friday will be the first Clark Kessinger Memorial fiddle contest. For those of you that don’t know, Clark Kessinger was a very famous fiddle player from this region.
Now this festival has a wide range of music, from bluegrass to old time and Americana. Nationally known acts like The Grascals, Kenny and Amanda Smith, Don Rigsby, and Danny Paisley & Southern Grass were on the bill, along with regional acts like String Therapy and The Bing Brothers. The rest of the music schedule was filled out with local groups from all around the West Virginia area. The main difference in this festival is while you are watching the performers on stage, there is a constant backdrop of skydivers landing behind the stage, plus a stream of aircraft landing and taking off. These airplanes are older model tail draggers to dual wing bi-planes, to Cessnas… and I even saw a Gyro copter land.
You can sign up for a sky diving lesson, and the planes are giving rides to those who desire to take one. At around 7:00 p.m. Saturday night the sky divers jumped with a large American Flag while Jake Krack played the Star Spangled Banner from the stage on his fiddle. The audience rose to their feet with their hands across their hearts and sang as the flag got closer. I don’t know about them but I felt a sense of pride and emotion seeing this.
The airplanes are flown in by their owners from West Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida. These pilots pitch a tent under the wings of their planes and camp for the weekend. Skydivers were from the WV Skydivers Association with their headquarters at the Airpark. There is a Café that serves fresh seafood, flown in from the east coast on a weekly basis. There is kayaking down at the river and a race is planned for next year.
A Sam’s Club campground is nearby, with full hookups and plenty of room for camping in the rough with showers and clean bathroom facilities. Vendors and sponsors from around the area are set up displaying their goods, and one sponsor, Sheetz, has their employees walking around giving cold water and cookies to anyone that wants some. Allegheny Echo’s instructors are on site teaching young music lovers beginner pointers on their respective instruments.
As I said earlier, I have been too many festivals in the last 50 years, and I say that usually I go to hear and see a certain band or old friend that I know is playing, but the Fly In Festival is a true fun family event that not only is showcasing the music that I love, but also bringing young new blood to the music to help carry it to the future and beyond.
Carl Bailey (owner of the airpark), Tim Corbett, and Robbie Keyser had worked together on the 1st Jewel City Jamboree in Huntington, WV, and Carl invited them to come to the airpark to come up with some new ideas. They met several times and the Fly In Festival was born. If you really want a different experience from a regular bluegrass festival, I suggest you make plans next year for the 2020 version.
Our friend Derek Halsey, independent music journalist, shared this video he created on site.
For more information visit their website at www.flyinfestival.com