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First Annual Earl Scruggs Music Festival Proves a Stunning Success
(by Lee Zimmerman)
Founding a festival is no easy task, so credit the organizers of the first annual Earl Scruggs Music Festival with a job well done, even with its initial time out. The event, held over Labor Day weekend, September 2 - 4, was a stunning success, having attracted an impressive opening line-up that included such stellar headliners as Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, Bela Fleck and his band My Bluegrass Heart, Sam Bush, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Balsam Range, Dom Flemons, Acoustic Syndicate, Leftover Salmon, Alison Brown, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Chatham County Line, Town Mountain, and Jerry Douglas, that latter of whom not only curated the event, but also brought along his band The Earls of Leicester, a group that pays tribute to the genius of Earl Scruggs and his early, erstwhile collaborator Lester Flatt.
Hence the name…
Douglas’ namesake aside, reminders of Earl Scruggs were everywhere. Held within the sprawling grounds of the Tryon International Equestrian Center, located a stone’s throw from the Earl Scruggs Center — which serves as a testament to the banjo master’s contributions to Bluegrass and Americana music overall — it offered up-close views of the main stage and intimate gatherings around the smaller Foggy Mountain Stage, where up-and-coming acts and students from local music programs provided alternative entertainment opportunities.
Although the VIP seating came with the perks of food, beverages, and stadium seating, those with general admission tickets weren’t slighted in the least. Accessible viewing of the performances on the main stage was available to anyone who brought their own chairs and didn’t mind enduring temperatures that soared into the upper eighties. A variety of food trucks, restaurants, vendors, and merch shops added to the allure.
That said, it was the reminders of Scruggs’ ongoing legacy that permeated the proceedings. In between acts, the giant screens showed interviews and rarely seen photos documenting his early career. A song-by-song replay of the Earl Scruggs’ Revues’ Live at Kansas State album, featuring an all-star line-up, made for an enthusiastic gathering at the Foggy Mountain Stage on Saturday, while, ironically, Tropical Storm Earl churned, as if by coincidence, in the open Atlantic. “I Love Earl” tee-shirts were plentiful everywhere, and the artists shared their love as well, both in story and in song.
That said, each of the acts excelled individually, driving the audience’s enthusiasm and excelling with their instrumental verve and versatility. Naturally as well, practically every set featured walk-ons by other artists. Douglas, who reportedly had enlisted all the festival’s participants, guested during practically every act, making himself a staple throughout the weekend, accompanied not only by his ever-present dobro, but his beaming smile as well.
Nevertheless, every artist held to their individual template. Veteran performers such as Douglas, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and Alison Brown demonstrated that there’s a trajectory that extends from Scruggs’ pioneer reinvention of banjo music and Bluegrass in general, to the contemporary conceits of today’s Nu-Grass elite. Relative newcomers in that regard, both Molly Tuttle and Becky Buller also showed their reverence and respect. For his part, Dom Flemons, an American storyteller in the strictest sense, laid out a traditional tapestry that paid tribute to the often-unrecognized Black musicians who helped pave the way forward. So too, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band demonstrated that the festival was indeed a homecoming of sorts, given the fact that it was their album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, that provided the cultural crossover that bonded Scruggs and his contemporaries to a new generation of musicians anxious to pick up the torch and bring it to a contemporary crowd.
All in all, this first annual Earl Scruggs Music Festival made for an auspicious beginning, and thankfully, the organizers have already promised that next year’s Labor Day holiday will see it continue. Little needs to be tweaked at this point, a rare scenario considering the magnitude of all that’s involved. Indeed, Earl Scruggs’ legacy lives on, leaving little doubt that the man himself would be proud.
A timeless tribute has rarely been better served.
Please go to Earl Scruggs Music Festival website for more information
Listen to ten artists from the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival on Spotify
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