Creative solutions for post COVID bluegrass festivals in 2021

A summer without bluegrass was unimaginable last year. To our amazement, festival after festival decided to postpone their events until 2021. Many promoters held out hope, especially those who held festivals in the late summer and fall. However, as the pandemic showed no signs of slowing, all of them decided to cancel. Not so this summer. This season, festival promoters have made a wide variety of decisions, many of them creative, but all driven by safety concerns. While some promoters decided to postpone their festivals for another season, others are forging ahead and taking a cautious but determined approach to opening their gates to bluegrass lovers who are all eager to see their favorite musicians take the stage.

Promoters for one of the earliest festivals of the season, the Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Bluegrass festival at Denton FarmPark in Denton, NC decided to simply go ahead as scheduled and held their festival over Mother’s Day. Spokesperson for the festival Karen Miller said, “We basically went back to normal and had more folks than we have had in over a decade! We had 100 more campers than we have ever had at the festival.”

MerleFest, which has been running since 1988, typically takes place the last weekend of April, on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC. Rather than cancel their 2021 festival, director Ted Hagaman decided to make a one time change of date and, this year only, will be holding the festival September 16-19. Although this was a tough call for him, safety drove the decision and it felt better to postpone the event to a later date than cancel it again.

Another COVID-related wrinkle for MerleFest this year is that they have not yet announced their full line-up. They had initially planned to livestream the news but have decided instead to announce artists on May 24, and again on June 10 when they will open ticket sales. As always, check their website for ongoing changes and announcements.

Promoters for the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in Goshen, CT are cautiously but enthusiastically moving forward, and plan to hold their festival as usual August 12-15. In recognition of their attendees who lost the 2020 season to COVID, The Podunk Board of Directors are freezing the price of tickets until June 30. For safety reasons, they will observe strict enforcement of the state’s COVID mandates and guidelines. Rich James, a member of the Podunk board, says that they expect to have the same line up as planned for their 2020 festival with only a few adjustments. So far, their pre-season sales have been brisk, and they are gearing up for a busy and well attended festival. Two other festivals, Ossipee Valley and Thomas Point Bluegrass Festival have taken more novel approaches to holding their festivals this year. 

Ossipee Valley Music Festival, taking place this year on July 23- 24 in Ossipee, NH will be a micro-festival. Attendance for their 2021 festival will be capped at ¼ of its 2019 festival, and there will be no events that encourage large close quarter gatherings like barn dances, beer tents, and/or the children’s music program. However, they plan to go ahead with their annual String Camp. All micro-festival attendees are welcome to attend. The String Camp will be held July 18-22, with the same number of participants as last year, 100. Rather than limit students, they will instead offer smaller class sizes.

Another COVID-related change is to eliminate the tight quarters at the main stage. Instead, the bands can be heard on two side stages rather than a main stage. Festival goers can expect both food and craft vendors, just fewer than in the past. Vaccinations are not required to attend, but the micro-festival will follow all CDC guidelines, whatever they may be in mid-July. Given the fast rate of CDC changes now that vaccination numbers grow every day, Ossipee Valley promoters suggest that folks check their website for updated information.

Thomas Point Bluegrass Festival promoters and organizers, Shari Elder and Michael and Jen Mulligan, are eager to have a fully attended festival on September 2-5. However, like Ossipee organizers, they want to keep close track of attendance numbers for several reasons, one of them being safety. To do this, they have decided to release their tickets in batches or in limited runs. As each block sells out, they will reassess the state’s public health and safety considerations, and then release an additional block of tickets. 

Mulligan is optimistic that he will be able to release all ticket sales, and in no way wants to create unnecessary worry for folks who are eager to attend the festival this year.   However, he does want to be able to manage ticket sales in the off chance that the state announces any unexpected restrictions. Another reason that Thomas Point is taking this limited sales approach is that they wanted to be able to first notify their long standing and loyal festival supporters about the changes. This gave supporters a chance to purchase tickets in first block releases. Many of these folks directly purchase tickets from Mulligan himself over the phone rather than use computers, and he wanted to give them a chance to secure their tickets the old-fashioned way before he announced ticket sales on their website.

If one of these blocks of tickets appears sold out or are unavailable, he encourages people to sign up for the festival newsletter or follow the festival news on their website, or on Facebook to get the latest ticket news.  

So far, Mulligan has seen a much higher volume of presales this year, which is exciting, but which he says makes it harder to estimate total numbers. However, this year’s higher presale numbers may not be totally COID-related. The Thomas Point 2021 line up, almost a perfect roll over from 2020, includes some ringers! Sam Bush, The Del McCoury Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, The Becky Buller Band, and many more. Long time attendee Shelly Howard recently posted on her Facebook page, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it just might be the fire at the loose caboose.”

That is just a brief round-up of what is happening in the post-COVID festival world. If you are unsure of what your favorite festival is planning, check their websites and Facebook pages. Just because one festival is canceled, does not mean that other festival promoters have not found ways to open their gates to campers, vendors, and most importantly, to the musicians we have missed so much over the past year and a half.

Enjoy your summer!