The Travelin’ McCourys with Jerry Douglas at the 2018 Jam In The Trees – photo by Alisa B. Cherry
If the best festivals are measured by the vibe as well as by the music, then Jam in the Trees successfully scores on both counts. Although the crowds are modest in comparison with other gatherings, it offers its own appeal in the ability to navigate the terrain, find an ideal vantage point even when not given access to VIP seating, and having only two stages, an indoor and an outdoor, where performances alternate, and negate the need to choose one or the other.
Those are indeed all pluses.
Likewise, most, though not all, of the featured artists leaned towards either grassicana or traditional bluegrass, each displaying an upbeat attitude befitting the lovely locale offered by Black Mountain, North Carolina, a mere 20 minutes south of idyllic Asheville.
Although the festival could have easily been condensed into a single day, the Friday night sets offered the crowd an opportunity to become acquainted with their surroundings, set up chairs and lay out blankets without too much distraction. Indeed, the relative brevity of the event and its proximity to Asheville combine to increase the accessibility factor, particularly for those who have limited time or ability to take in an entire weekend. Likewise, anyone who hates having to make choices that need to be determined when it comes to prioritizing the performers one wants to see would find Jam in the Trees an ideal event as well. That includes your’s truly. Because its a relatively low key set-up, it allows people to arrive and depart at their leisure, and then stay to see as many or as few acts as they desire without having to deal with traffic congestion, fighting their way to the front of the stage, or worrying about missing key performances in the process.
Naturally, none of this would matter if the line-up wasn’t first rate. So while there are lesser known artists featured on both the inside and outside stages, the headliners are impressive. Lindi Ortega, Elizabeth Cook, and Jim Lauderdale were ideal choices for the inside stage, although as the day wore on, that venue became increasingly crowded. Presenter Pisgah Brewery, which operated a craft beer bar in that locale, may have had something to do with the draw, although there’s no denying that Ortega, Cook, and Lauderdale (who later returned to host Saturday night’s After Hours Jam) each offered enticing performances all on their own. These were intimate environs after all, but an ideal choice nevertheless, especially considering the fact that the solo performers were better able to command attention by being in an immediate proximity of their audiences.
By that same token, the outside stage proved the perfect venue for such artists as the genre-bending Gangstagrass, the down home designs of The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Canada’s riveting Slocan Ramblers, nu-grass champs The Steel Wheels, the rockier and rowdier Shooter Jennings, and venerable crowd pleasers The Travelin McCourys. The latter was joined by Jerry Douglas, who earlier in the day eschewed his usual role within an ensemble to simply play solo. Douglas was indeed entertaining; not only was he brilliant in terms of his material, but he was also whimsical during his discourse with the crowd. Introducing his rendition of Hey Joe, he noted that it was “a song by my favorite bluegrass guitar player, Jimi Hendrix.” Very clever.
Lauderdale’s late night jam, the finale as far as the festival was concerned, brought many of the artists who had played earlier back to the stage for a final reprise. “This is the Jam in the Trees,” Jim Lauderdale noted, “And this is the jam!” By that time, the crowd had thinned and started to disperse, but those that stayed greeted each performer warmly as they wove their way through the crowd to take their place on the stage.
Ultimately, the festival ended the way it began, in a kind of communal circle where informality and intimacy proved key to both ambiance and atmosphere. After only three years, Jam in the Trees still has plenty of room to grow and expand, and pick up more word of mouth along the way. The big question remains how many people will become devotees who choose to return every year, and, in turn, how many folks will be tempted to attend for the first time. Obviously, only time will tell. But those seeking quality even at the expense of quantity could do way, way worse than to give it a try.