Steve Johnson, the long-time artist relations manager of Merlefest, is moving to Nashville to run a new outpost for Bonfire Management, an Americana offshoot of the venerable Pinecastle Records bluegrass label. It's part of a growth strategy by the co-owned music companies, whose rosters include Chatham County Line, Danny Burns, Nashville's Barefoot Movement, and multiple IBMA Award nominees Sister Sadie.
Johnson described the vision of the unified effort as an “old school” record company. "We want to have booking, management, label services, recording studio, graphic design, everything is in one spot."
At least one virtual spot. Bonfire has a new recording studio in Piedmont, SC. Pinecastle's headquarters are in Western NC. Johnson will oversee management and a new booking agency out of Music City, based on the broad-minded approach of the festival he booked for the past seven years.
"Merlefest taught me a lot of things,” Johnson told WMOT last week. “it's the philosophy of taking an artist's heart and soul and helping pushing that out (according) to something Doc Watson said: 'If it's good music, son, it's just good music.' And that's really the philosophy we're trying to incorporate with Bonfire.”
Johnson’s been in or near the roots music business his entire life. His aunt ran the Bill Monroe Fan Club until the icon’s death in 1996. “There was this history of Mom and Dad and my family helping Monroe out with his festivals. I remember selling merch at his shows from the time I was old enough to make change.” After some work in the field of nursing, Johnson started a bluegrass booking agency in Nashville in the 2000s. He signed on with Merlefest in 2013, coordinating all the stages and educational programming at the influential Spring event in North Wilkesboro, NC.
Johnson's not out of the festival business as it turns out, announcing today he'll manage an eclectic new Earl Scruggs Festival of Music in Tryon, NC starting Labor Day weekend of 2020.
"It's going to represent all the music of Earl Scruggs, from Flatt & Scruggs to the Earl Scruggs Revue and beyond,” he said. “And the lineup will reflect that."
Bonfire joins a handful of Americana music purveyors based in Nashville, including Compass Records, New West Records, Rounder Records and Thirty Tigers. Bonfire and Pinecastle will host a company showcase during AmericanaFest on Saturday, Sept. 14 at the Station Inn.