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April 2, 2012 11:21 AM   Subscribe

What are the best bluegrass and folk festivals on the east coast of the US?

My wife and I would like to hit some fun music festivals this summer and fall, particularly bluegrass, folk, and American roots music. We'll travel within roughly within an eight hour driving radius of the DC area. 

We're looking for friendly and easygoing ambience, a variety of musical forms and people, and performers who explore both traditional sounds and new interpretations of the old stuff. I've unearthed long lists of local music festivals, but I'm looking for personal recommendations, particularly for the kinds of events where strangers get together after hours for a jam session (and perhaps tolerate the participation of some clumsy beginners). We're happy to camp out, although we're less excited about venues where the campground becomes a whooping all-night boozefest. 

Super bonus points if we can bring the dog. 
posted by itstheclamsname to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
There's Merlefest
posted by readery at 11:23 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Philadelphia Folk Festival fits your criteria, except no pets allowed.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:27 AM on April 2, 2012

The Florida Folk Festival is great, and in a really beautiful location.
posted by saladin at 11:27 AM on April 2, 2012

Newport Folk Festival - no pets, unfortunately.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:28 AM on April 2, 2012

I keep promising that I'll get myself to the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. Friends who have been describe it as family-friendly and easy-going.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:33 AM on April 2, 2012

Old Time Fiddlers' Fest in Galax is, no contest, the best bluegrass and old-time music festival in existence.
posted by RogerB at 11:33 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Uncle Dave Macon Days right here in (beautiful) Middle Tennessee. Camping nearby is sort of iffy, though.

The Smithville Fiddlers Jamboree, too.
posted by jquinby at 11:34 AM on April 2, 2012

Old-time musicians also love Clifftop, officially called the Appalachian String Band Festival. It's huge and has tons of jamming.
posted by ceiba at 11:35 AM on April 2, 2012

Seconding Newport and Merlefest. Also, you might want to visit the Carter Family Fold.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:44 AM on April 2, 2012

The Mountain Opry, in addition to being one of the longest-running opries in existence, has the advantage of occurring every Friday, holidays included, year round.
posted by valkyryn at 11:51 AM on April 2, 2012

Grey Fox in Oak Hill, NY gets my vote. It is known as a "players" festival where picking goes on well into the we hours of night/morning. There is a real sense of community - old timers and newcomers alike are welcome. The music is a mix of traditional bluegrass & new grass and if you need a break the dance tent usually has Zydeco. People care about this festival in a way that I haven't seen for many others.
posted by a22lamia at 12:03 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

It hurts my heart that I won't be able to make it to the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in North Carolina this year. They have festivals in spring and fall, so even though this link only talks about the upcoming April festival, there will also be a fall one. It's definitely jam-session friendly, and the camping isn't necessarily a boozefest- there's a separate quiet camping area you can stay in. No dogs, unfortunately, but I think you would love this one- it's big enough to be consistently interesting and dynamic, but it also feels very cozy and homemade. I have some really great memories of Shakori.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:03 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to Brewgrass with my family in Asheville last year and enjoyed it. Not sure if that's what you're looking for but it was a good time. Getting tickets can be a pain though.
posted by kat518 at 12:11 PM on April 2, 2012

My boyfriend and a few of his friends had a great time at Delfest last year. The lineup is always solid and it's a very friendly crowd.
posted by Flamingo at 12:11 PM on April 2, 2012

Ack, sorry, meant to add-- Delfest is in Cumberland, MD, which is only 2.5 hours from DC.
posted by Flamingo at 12:12 PM on April 2, 2012

I haven't been since 2005, and the driving distance pushes your time limit, but I went to Falcon Ridge six years running, driving from both DC and North Carolina, and it changed my life. There is quiet camping, boozefest camping, jam session camping, and all-night dancing. The food is amazing by festival standards, my experience was 100% easygoing atmosphere (ok, except maybe the land rush for the best seats each day), and you can bring the dog.
posted by clavicle at 12:30 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've only been to Newport, but a number of my friends are devoted festival-goers. Here's my sense of things: At Newport you'll get great acts in a great setting, but not much in the way of jamming (there's no camping, so there's not much of a parking lot scene.) Clifftop and Galax, on the other hand, are at the other end of the spectrum - they're mostly about the jamming and competitions. Based on what you mentioned I'd go for one of the festivals that combines an official performance lineup with lots of campground/parking lot jams. That includes DelFest, Merlefest, Grey Fox, Gettysburg and probably some of the others mentioned above. I've heard particularly great things about Grey Fox and Gettysburg - they're a little smaller and more intimate, but still draw amazing performers and players.

Since you mention that you are also beginner musicians, I have to make my obligatory pitch for attending a music workshop, where you'll have the chance to take classes, jam and hang out with some of the incredible musicians you are likely to encounter at the festivals. Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia is an easy drive from DC. Swannanoa in NC is right on the edge of your driving radius. Just something to keep in mind!
posted by messica at 12:49 PM on April 2, 2012

My wife and I go to a dozen or so music festivals a year, most within 2 hours of DC. A lot of them are quite small, 100-200 people, and don't get widely advertised. Some are private, and some are semi-private, meaning that I shouldn't post them here, but I'd be happy to send a few recommendations your way. Not all are bluegrass-centric, but I'll list the ones that sound more-or-less up your alley. Here are the ones we're trying to hit this summer, with links where appropriate; not all fests have sites, or announced dates yet.

April 20-22: Spring Thing, Strasburg, VA
April 28: Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival, DC
May 11-13: Spring Pickin' Bluegrass Festival, Blain, PA
May 25-28: Hootenanny, Aldie, VA
June 15-17: Shenandoah Riverside Festival, Berryville, VA
July 6-8: Healing Waters Farm Fest, Capon Bridge, WV
July 13-15: Cecilfest, Aldie, VA
August 3-5: Elysian Fields, Boyce, VA
August 3-5: Shangri-La, Rock Camp, WV
August 10-12: Honeyfest, Downington, PA
August 10-12: Cofaque, Aldie, VA (the best damned barbecue festival on the east coast)
August 17-19: Pig Pickin', Aldie, VA
August 24-26, Villadego, Haymarket, VA
September 7-9, Pickin' in the Panhandle, Hedgesville, WV
September 20-23, Watermelon Park Bluegrass Festival, Berryville, VA (this is the must-see)
September 28-30, Snugglefest
October 5-7, Festy Experience, Nelson County, VA
October 19-21: Ubiquitopia, Aldie, VA (maybe)

I, too, am a beginner guitarist, and have found welcoming, encouraging jam sessions at all of the events. It's an incredible amount of fun, for sure. Let me know what you're going to, and maybe we can all hook up.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:09 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wanted to second the recommendation for Grey Fox. I'm headed back for my fourth year this July, and I stay with a large group of people who've been going for over 30 years. I'll go until I die.

It's perfect for a number of reasons, many of which a22lamia mentioned above. It's also the perfect size, big enough to bring major talent but small enough that it doesn't have that sketchy feeling that a lot of massive fests have these days. Folks are super-friendly and things pretty much peacefully take care of themselves. I've never seen a cop have to enter the festival premises, ever.

Wandering around all night, listening to people pick and having a good time, etc. is my favorite part of the festival. You will definitely also see folks from fairly big bluegrass bands out and wandering and jumping into jams. Happens every night. Keep an eye out for bluegrass camping staples like the Grillbillies.

In terms of the "all-night whooping boozefest", that definitely happens where I camp but you do have an option. Picker's Paradise, where I camp, is pretty much no-holds-barred and there is both pickin' and drinkin' all night, every night. However, you can opt for Quiet Camping. Just make sure you get there early and consult the map as to the boundaries between the two. There are areas of QC that are literally separated by a ten foot dirt path from loud camping. Avoid them.

The best option for quiet camping, to me, is High Meadow. Tents only, no cars can be brought up but there's a shuttle bus to get you there. If you camp light, want to be literally a minute from the main stage, and want quiet after the main stage music is over, this is the perfect spot.

Shoot me a note if you want any more info, and hope to see you at Grey Fox this year!
posted by rollbiz at 2:05 PM on April 2, 2012

There's the tiny little Bishop's Jubilee on July 14th in beautiful Orkney Springs, VA, just about 100 miles from D.C.
posted by jocelmeow at 6:04 PM on April 2, 2012

I've been to DelFest for the past two years and it's AMAZING. Sadly, no pets allowed but it's completely worth it. Great bands, beautiful setting, fun and welcoming night jams. Go!
posted by youcancallmeal at 8:12 PM on April 2, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the recommendations! I'm poring through them and factoring which ones to fit into our schedule. Your experiences will make a big difference in determining where we go.
posted by itstheclamsname at 7:14 AM on April 3, 2012

I am thirding, fourthing or whatever Grey Fox. I have been to this festival many times and the camping experience is indeed amazing. This year's lineup looks pretty deep with Del McCoury, Tony Trischka, Chris Thile/Punch Brothers among many others.

For sure if you are leaning toward this one the Full Camping option is key. Since your preference is not for all-night whooping and hollering, be sure to follow the above advice about Quiet Camping! Try to make friends with people who have the regular spots though, cause that's half the fun.
posted by jeremias at 8:15 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't believe no one has mentioned the Hudson Clearwater Festival yet! Much more about the music than the boozy camp-out, although there is camping. Ani Difranco is headlining this year which I think is awesome.
posted by brackish.line at 8:35 AM on April 3, 2012

"Try to make friends with people who have the regular spots though, cause that's half the fun."

If the OP or anyone who reads this thread decides to come to Grey Fox, shoot me a note. I camp with F.O. Village, and we run about 100 strong on any given year. Let me know if you want 100 new friends!
posted by rollbiz at 8:21 PM on April 4, 2012

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