Driving up the winding road to Poppy Mountain, the buzz of ATV’s gradually mixed with the music festival-goers come to enjoy year after year in Morehead, KY. We noted the infamous signs of the festival’s past artists along the entrance road while the smell of corndogs, French fries, and Italian sausage wafted through the windows. Watching the dust kick up in my rearview mirror, I knew I was in store for the special charm of summer bluegrass which only backwoods festivals can achieve.
The Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival takes place every third week in September, running Tuesday, September 11 through Saturday, September 15. This year marked the 26th annual festival.
Walking around the grounds, we felt like total newbies. Even though I myself am no stranger to bluegrass festivals, it seems each festival has its own culture and set of traditions. Within a couple minutes, we realized a very obvious difference between ourselves and the rest of the attendees: we were on foot. The 1,000 acre farm is segregated by ATV trails, with camping grounds perched on a hill just beyond the main stage. There are two small, outdoor stages designated for late night jam sessions among campers, “Jammin’ Ridge” and “Jammin’ II.” This is where Poppy loyalists like to gather for what they consider to be the epitome of Poppy Mountain: the signature jam sessions that last well beyond the featured performers. Many of these same people spend a good majority of their time at the “Yellow Barn” (that is if they aren’t riding trails) where new and local groups showcase their talents.
With over forty featured artists at the main stage and more than twenty showcasing bands, there was endless music ranging from veterans of bluegrass, to up and coming talent and local favorites. This year at least four bands showcasing at the Yellow Barn performed on the main stage, including Bitter Sweet, Black Powder Express, Lacy Creek, and festival favorite Whiskey Bent Valley Boys.
The Whiskey Bent Valley Boys are a trio of young men from Pewee Valley, Kentucky (about 20 miles Northwest of Louisville) and have recorded four albums on their own personal label. Offering traditional folk and Appalachian music featuring fiddle, upright bass, and clawhammer banjo, they dress in the traditional garb reminiscent of the Great Depression era: Flannel button-ups, vests and suspenders, fedoras and flat caps, and of course long, flowing beards. The boys opened the main stage performances on Friday for Hammertowne, Flatt Lonesome, and the Lonesome River Band.
Saturday’s lineup consisted of Brad Hudson, Edgar Loudermilk featuring Jeff Autry, and Turning Ground. Brad Hudson of Pinecastle Records provided audience members with classic bluegrass tunes festival junkies love and come to expect. Edgar Loudermilk entertained listeners with great musicianship on Autry’s instrumental Foothills (the title of their most recent album) and tight, soothing harmonies by Loudermilk and Autry on Jerry Reed’s heartfelt A Thing Called Love. Turning Ground is set to release their third album, Old Country Store, on Bonfire Records today, September 21. The group primed audiences for classic performances by Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, and The Earls of Leicester.
The night finished off with a turn toward country music, which was a fair compensation for a large number of younger patrons in attendance. As the evening grew late, many filtered in sporting fan t-shirts for Tyler Booth, a new voice in modern country music whose career has just begun. His first self-titled EP released last year and features his most popular single, Hank Crankin’ People. Opening for Booth was Aaron Tippin, a country favorite of the ’90s and early 2000s, who pumped up the audience with hit songs such as Kiss This and Americana classic Where the Stars and Stripes and The Eagle Fly.
Overall, Poppy Mountain has no shortage of diversity in its performers. The grounds are rich with traditions that have been honed over the past 26 years. Walking along the paths (yes, we walked), we came across a few friendly motorists who gave a us a warm “Happy Poppy!” and some even stopped to offer us a ride. As one long-time Poppy-goer told us, “You can’t do Poppy on foot; it’s not right!” He told us we could rent a golf cart, and even though we felt like perhaps we didn’t get the full experience, we weren’t prepared to throw down 80 bucks for a golf cart. Although, Lord knows we probably spent close to that amount in fried foods. Anyone who turns down a deep-fried Oreo at a bluegrass festival needs a word of prayer.
It was my first trip to Poppy Mountain, but it certainly won’t be my last. For anyone who’s considering a trip next year, I would recommend budgeting for a golf cart. However, if you’re like me and you over-indulge in festival foods, it may be a good idea to skip the wheels and use your legs to burn some calories! Next year, I’m going to try out my new catchphrase and see if I can’t get it to catch on as the new slogan, but for now I’ll leave you with a “Poppy Trails to You!”