12 Bluegrass Festivals
Places to camp and jam, hear great music and make new friends
Bluegrass festivals have grown during the past few decades to the point where there’s actually a circuit, with performers (and some fans) traveling across the country from one to the next. A resurgence in the popularity of bluegrass after the 2000 release of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” certainly boosted the genre and recently major country stars (like Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Dierks Bentley and more) have released bluegrass albums to much acclaim.
Typically, bluegrass festivals last for a two- or three-day weekend, but some run longer. Most festivals have a camping area, or one that is nearby, but many only provide dry camping sites, so be prepared to boondock while you are there. A big part of the fun of attending a festival is jamming with fellow campers until late into the evening.
We’ve gathered here a sampling of some bluegrass festivals across America that combine the love of RVing with the love of music.
Wilkesboro, North Carolina
You want big? MerleFest brings more than 75,000 people together to hear awesome music (April 23-26; www
.merlefest.org). Performers typically include acts such as Alan Jackson, Balsam Range, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, Missy Raines and The New Hip, The Nashville Bluegrass Band and lots more. Seriously, lots. In 2014 there were more than 130 performers on the bill — with 13 stages.
MerleFest celebrates the life and music of Doc and Eddy Merle Watson. Considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, MerleFest is an annual homecoming of musicians and music fans to celebrate traditional, roots-orientated sound of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music. With so many acts it’s easy to expand into Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles.
MerleFest has often served as a launching pad for new “buzz bands” like Mandolin Orange, Jon Stickley Trio, Kim Robins and more. The Midnight Jam on Saturday has a slew of special guests. In addition to promoting “traditional plus” music, a term used by Doc Watson to describe the wide variety of musical genres and styles celebrated at MerleFest, the festival also features heritage crafts demonstrations, instrument picking lessons and jam sessions.
The Pickin’ Place is a venue devoted to pickin’ and grinnin’. Included in The Pickin’ Place are the Traditional Jammin’ Tent, Bluegrass Jammin’ Tent, Anything Goes Jammin’ Tent and Hands On Tent. Bring your acoustic instrument to this area hosted by the Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society.
The festival, held at Wilkes Community College, offers limited RV spaces. It’s dry camping only, but a dump station is located on Stevens Lane. You must have a four-day festival pass to purchase a camping space.
Dr. Ralph Stanley’s Annual Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival
For the past 44 years, the Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival (May 21-23; www.drralphstanleyfestival.com) has showcased some legendary performers (like Dr. Ralph Stanley and Ralph Stanley II, of course). The 2014 festival hosted Second Generation, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and more. Tickets are sold at the gate only, no advance sales.
Don’t miss the Dr. Ralph Stanley museum in nearby Clintwood. A trolley runs from the festival to the museum.
Electrical hookups for motorhomes are available for $25 on a first-come, first-served basis. Dry camping sites are also available. Water, shower facilities and dump stations are located on the grounds.
Held at the Allegany County Fairgrounds — nestled along the Potomac River in the scenic Appalachian Mountains — DelFest (May 21-24; www
.delfest.com) is a family-friendly festival celebrating the rich legacy of Del McCoury’s music. Of course you’ll see the Del McCoury Band at this festival, but also about 35 others.
There are three options for on-site camping. The RV Dry Pass is dry camping only. The RV Pass includes limited electricity only (on a first-come, first-served basis). And the RV DELuxe Experience is a VIP package that includes an RV Pass with full hookups and a reserved space. A family camp area is available for those who want a more kid-friendly environment.
Strawberry Music Festival
Grass Valley, California
Held in the heart of the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Strawberry Music Festival (May 21-25; www.strawberrymusic.com) has been going strong for 34 years. The venue, Nevada County Fairgrounds, has been called one of the most beautiful fairgrounds in California, and offers forested camping, tree-lined meadows, permanent bathhouses and level terrain. Camping is first-come, first-served; however if you have a camping ticket, there will be space for you whenever you arrive. Although a large portion of the camping is shaded by forest canopy, other areas are open meadow camping. This year’s headliners include Bonnie Raitt, Peter Rowan’s Big Twang Theory and Ray Bonneville.
Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival
The man who is credited with inventing the genre started this festival and it claims to be the world’s oldest, continuously running bluegrass festival (this year will be its 49th year). Nestled in the beautiful hills of Brown County in southern Indiana, it features classic sounds of traditional bluegrass.
The picturesque and natural surroundings of the Bill Monroe Music Park & Campground in Bean Blossom provide a beautiful backdrop for the music and camping. This eight-day event (June 13-20; www.beanblossom.us) features more than 75 bands!
Campsites have 30- or 50-amp electricity and water hookups. Both wooded and open sites are big-rig friendly. Facilities include hot showers, restrooms, a coin laundry, two dump stations, a stocked fishing lake (no license required), walking trails, picnic tables, fire rings and barbecue grills
Huck Finn Jubilee
Held on Father’s Day weekend (June 12-14; www.huckfinn.com), the Huck Finn Jubilee is celebrating 41 years in 2015. This bluegrass festival has a heavy emphasis on activities and fun, but the music is top notch too. You might hear The Gibson Brothers, or Sam Bush or Rhonda Vincent, or The String Cheese Incident or one of about 20 other bluegrass performers.
When you need a break from music, there are two fishin’ holes that are regularly stocked, and lifeguards if you want to swim or paddleboat. A Mountain Man Village and Camp allows you to step back in time to the 1840s with demonstrations of blacksmithing, tomahawk throwing, flint knapping and more. The zero-depth Splash Play Area has a Slip ‘N’ Slide, and there’s a big dance on Saturday night. You might want to try to climb the greased pole, build a river raft, or join in the Tom Sawyer Fence Painting Championship.
The festival is conveniently located at the 150-acre Cucamonga-Guasti Regional Park with green grass, bountiful trees and lots of space for dry camping. There are no dump stations on site, but a honey dew wagon and a vehicle offering fresh water for a fee is always there. Showers and portable restrooms are also available.
Telluride Bluegrass Festival
The 42nd “Festivarian Pilgrimage” (as some call it) to the 8,750-foot elevation of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado will take place June 18-21 (www.bluegrass.com/telluride). The Telluride Bluegrass is a spectacular four days of community, inspiration and unbridled acoustic adventures.
Bonnie Raitt said, “I loved the vibe of playing the festival, so eclectic, tribal and such a wild celebration. It’s like the whole town is one big partying tribe, and in one of the most stunning settings you could imagine.”
Popular acts have included the Punch Brothers, Ray LaMontagne, Peter Rowan, Steve Winwood and Allison Krauss (she was part of the “house band” in 2014).
A central part of the Festivarian experience is camping — sharing a meal with new neighbors, returning home after an exhilarating day of music to share a few tunes at the campsite. There are several campgrounds nearby: Two camping areas (Town Park and Warner Field) are adjacent to the festival grounds while the quieter high school campground is located on the edge of town. Other options are just west of town and accessible via a free shuttle bus that runs late into the night.
One nice aspect of the festival is that during the week prior to the event, Planet Bluegrass offers music lovers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of bluegrass. Small classes with professional musicians are hugely popular. Sessions on group jamming, vocal coaching, songwriting, one-on-one instruction and more fill up the schedule. Band scrambles, barbecues and jamming for novices through advanced ability levels are common. There’s even an opportunity to make your own instrument. No experience is needed to build a mandolin and mando-building graduates can build a guitar.
Held at Yellow Creek Park and billed as the Bluegrass Roots and Branches Festival, ROMP (River of Music Party) has Americana dance bands lighting up the night with a hybrid of bluegrass and dance music from the front porch of the iconic cabin in Pioneer Village.
If you can withstand the hours and hours of dancing and smiling, then
you can attend the All-Night After-
Parties too! This year (June 24-27; www.rompfest.com) will be the 12th ROMP. Last year’s performers included Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, the Sam Bush Band and Old Crow Medicine Show. John Prine is this year’s headliner.
Dry camping sites at the beautiful venue are plentiful, but are on a first-come, first-served basis. Nature trails compete with arts and crafts classes and workshops, plus there’s plenty for kids to do at the Beumont Grinn Village.
Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival
Oak Hill, New York
This four-day music festival (July 16-19; www.greyfoxbluegrass.com) features dozens of internationally acclaimed artists, music and dance workshops, children’s activities, food, crafts and thousands of fans from around the world. On-site dry camping is a big part of the event with 4,000 camping tickets sold each year. “We do not have many rules,” the organizers state, “Just enough to ensure a safe and pleasant weekend for all.” Several “quiet camping” areas are available (super quiet from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.) if you want to avoid the all-night jamming that goes on in the regular campground areas. Other areas include Pickers Paradise, Generatorville and Family Camping.
North County San Diego’s Vista, California, puts on a three-day festival every year (Aug. 14-16; www.summergrass.net) on the grounds of the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum. While the bluegrass is great, with headliners such as Della Mae and Special Consensus, the camping is filled with spirited jammers, and the food is varied and high quality. The fact is that the surrounding scenery of old steam engines, tractors, trucks and farm implements is a huge draw for a lot of people. It’s such a throwback to the days of old that you could spend the three days wandering and exploring and not see everything. One official described it as “Disneyland for old people,” but the young ones have just as good a time checking out the historical preservation.
There’s dry camping on site, with more than 200 spaces available. About 50 of the sites have electricity and a dump station is available. Generators are not allowed after 10 p.m., but jamming is unlimited and it’s common to see jams lasting until 3 a.m.
Wheatland Music Festival
An annual celebration of music and the arts, dating back to 1974, the Wheatland Music Festival is not strictly a bluegrass festival, but there sure is a lot of it going on there. And the old-time music and roots music that gets played isn’t much of a stretch from bluegrass. Performers in 2014 included singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell, American roots performers Pokey LaFarge, bluegrass singer Sarah Jarosz and Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon. The 2015 festival will be the 42nd annual.
Rolling hills, meadows and wooded areas of sugar maple, beech, red oak, black cherry, aspen, white and jack pine are spread throughout the 160-acre Wheatland Music Organization property. Once the centennial farm of Mark and Gladys (Baumann) Wernette, the Wheatland property includes the southeast quarter of Wheatland Township’s Section 30 in Mecosta County, Michigan. Stone pile fences and pine stump rows built long ago to confine cattle and control erosion serve as wistful reminders of the land’s rich heritage. Since 1975 when the traditional arts organization began using the site for events, walking paths and roads have been built on the property.
Each year, in early September (Sept. 11-13; www.wheatlandmusic.org), local and world-renowned musicians gather together for three days of singing, dancing and friendship. Thousands of children and adults converge on the festival site for traditional music and arts. Something like 10,000 volunteers help put on the Wheatland Music Festival in Remus, Michigan.
Kids Hill is great for the young ones, but MiddleGround was created to provide a place where young people who have outgrown Kids Hill can have fun and learn the ancient art of volunteering. Late night Friday and Saturday at Centennial Stage bands perform that are geared toward the younger crowd.
Only dry camping is available and is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Pickin’ in the Pines
One of the magical things about a music festival is the community that forms in the campgrounds. At Pickin’ in the Pines all of the campgrounds are an easy ¼-mile walk to the amphitheater but there is also a shuttle every 15 minutes. Pickin’ in the Pines is a world-class bluegrass and acoustic music festival first held in 2006. Held in a family-friendly setting under towering pines and bright blue skies, there are workshops, band contests and more.
Held in September (Sept. 18-20; http://pickininthepines.org), headliners in 2014 included Peter Rowan’s Bluegrass Band and the Travelin’ McCourys with Bryan Sutton.
There are four camping options at Pickin’ in the Pines and some have partial hookups.