If, for some awful reason, I could only attend one bluegrass festival each year outside of IBMA’s big bash in Raleigh, I would most likely pick one of the twice-a-year extravaganzas at Gettysburg.
The music, of course, is terrific, with enough variety spread over four days to appeal to traditionalists and genre-stretchers alike. There’s plenty of space to camp and jam – the festival is held at the Granite Hill Camping Resort, which features a swimming pool, store and lots of wide-open spaces. The food choices are plentiful, too, though truth be told, I usually never get much beyond Uncle Moe’s, which serves up fried catfish, red beans and rice and other treats. Icing on the cake: The Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg are just a few miles away.
This year was extra special, marking the 75th Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. The remarkable run, through several economic recessions, began in the 1970s. The lineup, always larded with many of the biggest names in bluegrass, seemed even more star-studded this time around, if that is possible: Balsam Range, Lonesome River Band, Seldom Scene, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, the Traveling McCourys, Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, the Becky Buller Band, Darin and Brooke Aldridge and many more.
Here are some of my favorite moments from my time at Gettysburg last week:
At Gettysburg, even the substitutes are all-stars.
As I wandered backstage before the first of three Seldom Scene sets over the weekend, I was surprised to run into Ron Stewart tuning his fiddle. Turns out the Scene’s newest member, Rickie Simpkins, was recovering after a medical procedure. Stewart, who doubles on fiddle and banjo just as Simpkins does, didn’t have a gig with the Boxcars, so there he was.
For my money, Stewart is one of the best pickers around, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to him. “Couldn’t find anybody good,” he said. “They’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel.” The Scene also added Jay Starling, son of founding member John Starling, to their Saturday night lineup.
Becky Buller found a top-notch fill-in, too, for her Saturday sets, and she only had to look a few miles up the road. Tom Adams, a local resident with a storied bluegrass resume, stood in for Dan Boner on guitar, while Dan tended to day-job business with the East Tennessee State University bluegrass band. It was good to see Tom back on the Gettysburg stage.
It’s not all big names, of course. The lineup always includes a few local bands or newer ones that fans might not be familiar with. I first crossed paths with Gold Heart and Detour in years past at Gettysburg.
This year, one treat was stumbling across Fireside Collective, a young quartet that writes all of its own material. Songs from the band’s new record, Life Between the Lines, came across well on stage. If the recorded versions are equally impressive, listeners are in for a treat. (Look for a review here in the near future.)
The band, nominated for a momentum award, will have a busy lineup of official and unofficial showcases at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass this fall in Raleigh, according to mandolinist and chief songwriter Jesse Iaquinto.
Another pleasant surprise was discovering Carley Arrowood’s gift for songwriting. I’ve known for a while that she was an outstanding fiddle player and harmony singer for Darin and Brooke Aldridge. In fact, her work with the band earned her a nomination for a Momentum award for instrumentalists.
Judging from a song she sang during the band’s first of two sets on Saturday, an unrecorded number she sang with the band during a vocal workshop and a recently finished song that she shared with me in the merchandise tent, we’re going to be hearing a lot more about her as a gospel songwriter for years to come. She is, after all, barely into her 20s.
Mixed in with all the fun and fantastic music was one scary moment on Saturday evening. A storm accompanied by strong wind gusts sent fans scurrying. Unfortunately, the winds pretty much flattened a 20-foot tent filled with racks of tie-dyed clothing and wall hangings being sold by vendor, Katy Feather. She and her son Jake were injured by falling racks.
It could have been worse. A rack filled with colorful shirts and other clothing stayed in place, keeping the main part of the tent from collapsing on people who had crowded in, and some fans but rushed to keep parts of the tent and some metal support poles from flying free and causing further damage.
At last report, Katy and Jake were recovering at home, and getting ready for their next festival, with the help of a brigade of volunteers who are cleaning, folding and packing her creations for the trip.