Weed Bluegrass Festival swells tiny New Mexico community each summer

Vintage performs at the 2023 Weed Bluegrass Festival – photo © Jay Eschenberg

Not all bluegrass festivals find their success in bringing in big name acts and national touring bands to draw in a crowd. Those events are great fun, of course, but this report is about a smaller community festival held this past 27 years in Weed, NM, on the southeastern slopes of the Sacramento Mountains.

This report is a contribution from Jay Eschenberg, a writer and media producer living in New Mexico. In his 70 years, he has worked in a variety of vocations including as a violent crime investigator, a radio personality, a documentary film producer and photographer, and even as a pilot for an aerial advertising company. Music has always been an important part of his life, having begun playing drums and guitar professionally at age 15. Jay regularly pursues 4WD off-roading, canoe paddling, flying, painting, and exploring the country in search of stories with his girlfriend, Laura, and their German Shepherd, Bixby.

Every third weekend in July, the high country of Southern New Mexico comes alive with the lonesome twang and close resonant harmony of traditional mountain music. This past weekend, people gathered from around the state and beyond for the 27th annual Bluegrass Festival in Weed, NM… a very small mountain community of about 20 permanent residents that can easily swell to over 500 during this popular two day event.

Located deep in the Sacramento Mountains and starting life as Garden Spot, NM, Weed was born when a rancher named William Weed came to the mountain in 1885, and two years later started the first post office in the little village which ultimately took his name.

Community music has been a part of these parts for more than a hundred years according to John Bell, who, like generations of his family before him, is a lifelong resident of the area. He is also the current President of the Weed Community Association, the organization behind the event.

Together with his former rodeo-queen wife, Sylvia, John has been the ramrod for the festival for the past eleven years, having inherited the duties from co-founder, Shirley Stone-Akers. Shirley passed just a few days after the 2022 Festival and received posthumous honors for her many contributions at this year’s gathering.

Shirley is described as a musical savant by those who knew her… able to play any instrument she picked up and deeply committed to the idea of sharing the traditional sounds of bluegrass and old-time fiddle music. This simple, unpretentious festival bears the mark of her genuine love for the art form, and her tireless determination.

Having served as postmaster in Weed for more than thirty years, as well as owner/operator of the local store and café, Shirley was a tiny powerhouse of a woman… known to everyone in the area. She is also remembered as the mother of two boys and two girls who are busy carrying on the Stone name, now in its fifth continuous generation on land originally homesteaded by the family following World War I.

Four bands performed at this year’s festival… each hand-picked and each contributing their own personal flavor to the mix of bluegrass standards, contemporary tunes and original compositions. Several of the groups consisted of family-related members. One fiddler, in only his tenth year of life, played like a seasoned performer and, more than once, earned the hearty applause of the appreciative crowd.

The bands for the 2023 Weed Bluegrass Festival:

  • Gordo Grass: Roy Merworth, Mark Davis, Anne Yust, Terrell Davis, William Keith
  • Blue Sky Country: Lonnie Owens, Amy Owens, Mark Heinreich, Courtney Owens, Patricia Chesser.
  • Vintage: Kent Taylor, Bryce Taylor, Rechelle Taylor, Jackson Houghtalin, Ruben Hall, Cally Wood.
  • Simple Gifts: Kelly Hicks, Rob Hicks, Tim Miller, Joe Snyder

Presented by each of the four groups doing two sets of about an hour each, the music rang-out all day from the well-worn wooden stage at the Weed Community Center, beginning at 8:00 a.m. with an open-mike jam session. Raffles, a bubble-blowing contest, and plenty of good food, combined with the refreshment of pine-scented air more than 30 degrees cooler than that of the desert valley below, made the day really something special.

For me, meeting, talking with, and making new friends was one of the best parts. Glenn Harrison just turned ninety, although, if he didn’t proudly confess his age you wouldn’t guess it by his appearance or his energy.

Glenn recalled the early days of Weed, when travel was by horseback and roads were just dusty trails. Growing up some distance away, he told of playing high-school basketball against the town’s very small team which later became renowned for winning against much mightier schools, even though sometimes there weren’t enough players in the small high-school to fill out a team roster. In those years, younger, junior high boys would be recruited to fill in.

And Roy Merworth, a lanky cowboy and musician from the area who almost thirty years ago teamed up with Shirley Stone to form the beginnings of the early Weed festivals and then went on to organize and run similar events all around New Mexico. Roy is still picking bluegrass today and his band, Gordo Grass, entertained the crowd on both days.

And there were so many others… all memorable, and all made us feel like we were welcomed and belonged there. So, how would I describe the musical weekend spent in Weed? I guess I’d have to say, “just about perfect.”

A small mountain community overflowing with talented musicians and filled with a good vibe, great entertainment, and genuinely nice people, Weed, NM and its Summer Bluegrass Festival should definitely be on your calendar for next July. I know I’ll be there.