Sugar Grove Music Fest Attracts Crowd
BY KATHERINE SMITH
Special to The Pilot
Sugar Grove is a small town, a plot of 22 square miles founded with a post office and nestled next to Boone in the middle of Watauga County.
But for the last 15 years for one summer weekend, Sugar Grove has hosted the lions and lambs of bluegrass and folk music.
Music Fest 'n Sugar Grove will be held at the Historic Cove Creek School in Sugar Grove on July 13 and 14. Reserved tickets for the weekend are $55. Friday tickets are $15 reserved, $20 at the gate; and Saturday tickets are $20 reserved, $25 at the gate. Gates open at 10 a.m.
Begun in 1998 after Doc Watson won Asheville's Man of the Year Award, every second Saturday of July was proclaimed to be Doc Watson Appreciation Day.
"Word got out," says Tommy Walsh, director and founder of the festival. "My phone was ringing off the hook. People came from all over."
Until this year, Watson has been present at every Music Fest, generous and unobtrusive in his respect for other musicians; unbiased in his adoption of the listeners.
"The first time I saw him on stage at Music Fest is my favorite memory of him," says Willard Watson, an intern at Music Fest, who happens to be Watson's third cousin. "He just got up there and said, 'Hey everybody, I'm just me, nobody special. Just glad I can sit with y'all here.' And this giant burly guy that had driven up on a motorcycle got up and screamed, 'I love you, Doc!' with tears streaming down his eyes."
With Doc's recent passing, Walsh says of the festival, "It'll go along. I had lunch with him on the Friday before he fell. He said he wanted to play on Friday and Saturday. He said, 'I enjoy that festival.' See, a lot of these bands here have been influenced by Doc Watson. That's why they're picking instruments. Nobody could replace him, though. That's the way he done it."
A tribute to Doc Watson will be held at the festival.
Festival headliners will be the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Kruger Brothers, and the Carter Brothers.
Doc Watson's fathering of what he called "traditional plus," or "traditional, plus whatever anybody is feelin' like," is the only stipulation for music played. This year, the headlining bands all have reformed their particular music of interest.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are perhaps the only band that could resurrect minstrel music, brush it off from its national shame of slavery, and roll it into new but faithful music. Their songs, covers of plodding ballads accompanied by mournful banjos, guitars, bones and fiddles, thump with the nuance of unapologetic sass and scat.
"We just like to play it," Rhiannon Giddens, the lead singer of the band, says. "We're exposing a new generation - like my grandparents' age."
The Kruger Brothers' pilgrimages make their music lucid. Their music is diverse - Celtic, Scottish, Americana, rock, folk, bluegrass, blues and classical - but it does not lose its authenticity in the range. Rather, the diversity makes the contrasts between each all the more honest and singular.
The music of bluegrass is often associated with mule-like resistance to change. But the Carter Brothers, descendants of the august Carter Family name, are a sort of civil duty dissenters. They brandish Stratocaster guitars, Marshall amps and B-3 Hammond organs with banjos, mandolins, fiddles and Dobros to foster what some are calling "newgrass" or "bluesgrass."
The family-oriented festival's grounds feature a children's playground and a natural amphitheater of a craggy blue mountain skyline, and a rocky creek surging circular around the field.
"Last year we had folks that came over here from Switzerland and France, and they played up there on the grounds," Walsh says. "Doc and all the musicians that came would stand in front there (we don't have a stage) and play, and then they'd just fall back into the crowd."
The script of bluegrass was written for family-room storytelling, dusty mines, tall days, and cornflower-blue eyes.
At Music Fest, the land and the bands whistle the same scripture as the genre: "one of the people," as was engraved on the brass sculpture of Watson in downtown Boone.
"I think this festival is just what he would've wanted," Walsh said.
To order tickets or for more information, visit musicfestnsugargrove.org.
Katherine Smith is a former Pilot intern now attending Appalachian State University.
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