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Roots Music Readies For A Crush Of Fall Festivals

War & Treaty at Bristol 2018
The War & Treaty perform at Bristol Rhythm & Roots, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this September.

Live music has returned less like a flash flood and more like a dam being gradually opened up, following the life-altering, industry-clobbering shutdown of 2020. Venues have added dates and artists are for the most part just now resuming touring that resembles 2019. But come September, the entire system is going to get stress tested for fun and trouble, with the renewal of roots music’s biggest festivals.

Already Rockygrass and the Newport Folk Festival have taken their turns, to much acclaim. But it’s in late August and September that things really take off. Railbird hits Lexington, KY on August 29. The following month includes the post-Covid returns of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in Bristol, TN/VA, AmericanaFest in Nashville and the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC. Adding to that usual September load, three major festivals have moved in, making up Spring dates that didn’t feel right when the planning window was open: Merlefest in North Wilkesboro, NC, ROMP in Owensboro, KY and DelFest in Cumberland, MD.

“It’a big revival, a big reawakening, if you will,” says roots manager and booking agent Mike Drudge. “I wonder sometimes how much or how little some people realize how the whole industry had to recoil during COVID, because there were many dates that were booked and rebooked, and rebooked. I think the record for me was five times on some engagements. And of course, nobody makes any revenue until the date plays.” Now, after that bleak 16 or so months, promoters, agents and artists are all jostling amid what he, with professional verbiage, is calling “crowded inventory.”

Festival directors contacted by WMOT sound upbeat and undaunted. “We sense that people are really eager to engage with live music,” said Chris Joslin, executive director of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which moved its signature fund-raising festival ROMP from July to September 15-18. “Enthusiasm has been there. Most of the people in our orbit are really excited that ROMP is back, despite the date change. We knew it was going to be a crowded field (in September), but we felt for the sake of our brand and fans of the festival we needed to move forward.”

Most of the festival’s headliners - Bruce Hornsby, Sam Bush, the Infamous Stringdusters - rolled over without much ado from the 2020 plan, Joslin says. And where adjustments had to be made, it led to adding artists they’re excited about, including Robert Earl Keen and Sarah Jarosz. The festival is at this point expecting close to its usual cumulative four-day total of 25,000 visitors.

Over in North Carolina, the 33-year-old Merlefest ran a bunch of scenarios, says veteran director Ted Hagaman. “We had a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” he said. “It’s really been a process. We had to plan two or three different looking festivals, and as time rolled on we were able to start narrowing down what that looks like. And we’re still doing that. We will not put the final protocols out until a week or two before the festival.” While neither ROMP nor Merlefest have Covid concerns noted on their websites at this time, the Delta variant has the promoters watching, but there are no expectations of closures or downsizing. The fests are generally calling for personal responsibility.

“We are going to ask people to be good neighbors to each other,” Hagaman says. “A lot of it is going to fall on each individual looking out for each other, that we’re not crowding each other and that we’re being sensitive to the fact that we’re all in this together and that we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to protect each other.” That said, Merlefest is even now vaccinating its staff and volunteers and will have a vaccine station on site for patrons.

Just a few miles away, Bristol Rhythm & Roots will celebrate its 20th anniversary September 10-12 on and around Bristol’s famous State Street, which has Tennessee on one side and Virginia on the other. Executive Director Leah Ross tells WMOT the packed month is a modest concern. “Merlefest, for example, that's right on top of us. But I do believe that we're on schedule to hit our target. Ticket sales are going good. I really believe most festivals, and this is just my opinion, not based on any science or anything, most festivals are going to see good attendance, because I think that's the one thing that can feed most people's soul is music. And I think they're ready to get out there.”

The one notable bottleneck Ross has noticed in producing her re-scheduled event is that it’s been harder to recruit volunteers, which are critical to the smooth operation of the festival. But as for staging, logistics and talent pool, she and the other promoters say it’s been better than some expected this past winter.

What’s the same across all these marquee events is the urgent need for the communities at the heart of these festivals to recover from the Covid recession. Some like Merlefest are devoted to an institution, in their case Wilkes Community College. And Bristol’s festival has been critical to its civic and economic revival of the past quarter century. “We want the downtown community to profit from (the festival), because we have restaurants and retail down here,” says Ross. “And we've been told for many years that the festival weekend is what helps him carry them through through the winter months when sales are down etc. So our hope is that we have people here who are going to spend their money and help our community bounce back from this.”

Sort through a complete list of music festivals across America by genre, artist and more here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.