Dedicated Steep Canyon Ranger fans and Mountain Song veterans lined up at the Brevard Music Center’s gate hours before gates were to be opened, just to snag an ideal spot in the front row of the open-air auditorium. When the gates did open there was a mad rush to the front row, attendees throwing blankets and coats across seats to claim their spots. But as more people filled in the auditorium and people made their way to the Oskar Blues beer tent, tensions subsided and people began to appreciate the sunshine and cool mountain air that filled the auditorium.
Friday afternoon’s music began when the host band, the Steep Canyon Rangers were welcomed to the stage by a standing ovation from the audience, and jumped right in with their recently nominated IBMA song of the year “Radio.” Their set, filled with tons of crowd favorites and songs from their latest album “Radio,” was followed by Tim O’Brien, a true bluegrass legend. O’Brien switched between playing his mandolin and his open-back banjo, all the while delighting audiences with his incredible vocals and songwriting. Friday’s music ended with Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester, who welcomed Mike Guggino of the Steep Canyon Rangers, to play mandolin with them for their entire set. He even wore a matching suit and hat.
Saturday began similarly to Friday, fans lined up and rushed inside to grab a good spot, and then made their way to some of the many food vendors or to the Oskar Blues beer tent. A bluegrass band all the way from San Francisco, Front Country took the stage first, blowing away the audience with their impressive picking and powerful vocals from Melody Walker. Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith took the stage next, and were joined by Mike Guggino and Whitworth’s husband, Woody Platt, of the Steep Canyon Rangers. Whitworth’s soulful voice and beautiful songwriting fit perfectly with the gorgeous weather that day. The SteelDrivers then took the stage and delivered a high-energy set of progressive bluegrass tunes and jams, much to the delight of the audience. One of the most interesting performances of the festival came Saturday afternoon from the Dom Flemons Trio, who followed The SteelDrivers. Flemons, a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, plays a variety of instruments and pulls from traditional old-time folk music and storytelling to create his beautiful and mesmerizing sound.
The most unforgettable set on Saturday came from the Steep Canyon Rangers, who finished off the day of incredible music with an even more eventful performance. Their energy and powerfully skilled instrumentation coupled with an expressive light show on stage, made for an incredible and entertaining set of music that had the crowd cheering along. But, when the lights dimmed and they welcomed their surprise guest Steve Martin onto the stage, the crowd went even wilder. Martin sat on a stool placed in the middle of the stage and played a few clawhammer medleys before he stood and joined the Steep Canyon Rangers for some more lively tunes. The band then welcomed Jerry Douglas on stage, whose dobro skills are truly unmatched. The band played and jammed with two living legends, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Steve Martin on banjo. The smiles, both on the faces of the musicians on stage and the audience watching, were truly unforgettable.
Sunday, the last day of the festival, was a more mellow day of music, which began with a gospel-tinged set from the Steep Canyon Rangers. They sang several gospel tunes crowded around one microphone, and ended their set with a widely requested song, “The Mountains Gonna Sing,” perhaps the unofficial song of the Mountain Song festival. Afterwards, Darrell Scott took the stage, and his soulful and achingly beautiful songs filled the auditorium. The day ended with The Kruger Brothers and The Kontras Quartet, two brothers born in Switzerland who play bluegrass music and a string quartet from Chicago, IL. Though an unexpected pairing, they created beautiful sounds and powerfully emotional music on Sunday afternoon.
The Mountain Song Festival is a truly unique music festival that focuses on environmental awareness, charity, and music. Nestled in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina, it undeniably exists to celebrate music over all else. Here you find genuine music fans, fans who stand in line 6 hours on a Saturday morning to get a good view of the stage, fans who wait in line after a performance to meet the artist and buy all of their CDs, fans who fly from California just to support their favorite band, and fans who will assuredly come back next year with the same level of enthusiasm and love for this one-of-a-kind festival.
Article and photographs by Marisa Muldoon