10 Music Festivals You Must Attend At Least Once

Here are ten musical festivals to put on your bucket list (plus, an idea for creating the eleventh...)
The hillside at MerleFest 2015, during the Album Hour. (photo by Jacob Caudill)

Spoiler alert: You’ll never get out of this world alive. Neither will I. Neither did Hank Williams, whose posthumous No. 1 hit of 1952 delivered the bad news straight up: “No matter how I struggle and strive…,” well, you know the rest. So, before you kick the bucket, here are 10 music festivals you must attend at least once.

Kacey Musgraves performing at Farm Aid 2015 (photo by Paul Natkin)
Kacey Musgraves performing at Farm Aid 2015 (photo by Paul Natkin)

Farm Aid
Raleigh, North Carolina
Back in the Reagan era, three musicians with heartland bona fides—John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young—decided to hold a benefit for family farmers. More than 30 years and some $48 million in donations later, Farm Aid is still going strong, still doing good things for the world, and still moving around the country. In 2016, the 31st Farm Aid arrives at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh—the same host venue that featured the marathon ten-hour Farm Aid in 2014, which started with Willie’s version of the Lord’s Prayer and ended with a sing-along to his “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me (When I Die).” In between, Young unveiled a protest anthem called “Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth,” Mellencamp went solo on “Jack and Diane,” and Todd Snider played to the biggest crowd of his life. “I’ll be sharing my opinions not because they’re right or they make sense,” he warned. “I’ll be sharing them because they rhyme.”

North Adams, Massachusetts
Where else can you spend a weekend listening to neo-trad bluegrass, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and wandering through a 19th-century electrical factory filled with paintings by Sol LeWitt? Nowhere but MASS MoCA, which happens to be the hippest performance space north of New York City. Following Bang on a Can’s annual residency, last year’s FreshGrass drew Sarah Jarosz, Punch Brothers, Peter Rowan, and thousands of fans for three days of music in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains. In addition to music, you’ll find a hands-on art studio for kids and a Joseph Beuys installation about the victory of socialist self-determination. Oh, and there’s a tent full of master luthiers to repair your guitar between sets.


Nick Lowe performs at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2015 (photo by Hugh O'Connor)
Nick Lowe performs at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2015 (photo by Hugh O’Connor)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
San Francisco, California
Three totally free days of music (meaning the price is $0) in Golden Gate Park, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was founded by a venture capitalist who was dedicated to keeping out corporate sponsorships. (Thank you, Warren Hellman.) HSB began in 2001 as Strictly Bluegrass, but even in that first year, there was little room for purism, and in 2003 the festival officially added the ‘Hardly.’ That sounds about right for a place where you can hear Robyn Hitchcock, Kronos Quartet, and Fantastic Negrito performing a stone’s throw away from Hot Rize, Dry Branch Fire Squad, and Chatham County Line. And if you’d rather follow a different drum, try the hushcast Hardly Strictly Disco between the Banjo and Rooster stages. In 2011, organizers estimated three-day attendance at 750,000, almost as many people as you’d find in the entire city. And you know what? Not a single one asked for their money back.

Los Angeles Old Time Social
Los Angeles, California
The first Los Angeles Old Time Social was a modest backyard jam session and square dance on a seasonably hot day in Historic Filipinotown, just up the hill from downtown LA. In the 11 years since, it’s grown into a high-stepping festival with three sleepless days of folk music, workshops, dances, fiddling contests, and parties, fueled by a passion for old-time music and a love of cake in all its glory. (One of Saturday’s non-musical highlights is a cakewalk, complete with prizes for sexiest, goofiest, strangest, and most attractive cake.)  The 10th anniversary event woke up with a Cajun-Creole dance party, let loose with a concert by the Happy Neighbor Club, and didn’t rest until the end of an epic square-dancing showdown at the American Legion Hall. How’s 2016 going to top that?

photo by William Sparklin
photo by William Sparklin
Willie Watson performs at MerleFest 2015 (photo by Sara Brennan-Harrell)
Willie Watson performs at MerleFest 2015 (photo by Sara Brennan-Harrell)


Wilkesboro, North Carolina
In a good year, MerleFest can draw 80,000 people to the campus of Wilkes Community College. That’s a lot of pickin’, grinnin’, and fundraisin’ for scholarships, which was exactly what Doc Watson wanted. Founded in his son’s memory, MerleFest remains true to Doc’s concept of “traditional plus” music, with local folkies rubbing shoulders with veteran grassers including Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush, string bands such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Old Crow Medicine Show, and big names like John Prine, Dwight Yoakam, and the Avett Brothers. Pete Wernick hosts a weekday Jam Camp for anyone who can play four chords, but really, the whole shebang prides itself on being one big pickin’ party, from the Traditional Jammin’ Tent to the Bluegrass Jammin’ Tent to the Anything Goes Jammin’ Tent, where anything really does go. Not to be missed: the Doc Watson Mural, which will be unveiled this spring, and the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, whose past winners include Tift Merritt, Martha Scanlan, and Gillian Welch.

Newport Folk Festival
Newport, Rhode Island
Founded in 1959, this is the little folk festival that started the whole movement when it decided to compete with the big-time jazz fest next door. And though the Newport Folk Festival has died a couple of times since then, it’s now been going strong for 30 years in a row. It survived Bob Dylan’s famous (or infamous) 1965 electric set, living long enough to celebrate last year’s 50th anniversary, hosted by the Dave Rawlings Machine. Along the way, it’s held on to its identity as the voice of folk music history—from early legends such as Odetta, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs, to later ones like Billy Bragg, Suzanne Vega, and the Indigo Girls, straight up to more recent appearances by Beck, Laura Marling, and Leon Bridges. In its half-century of concerts, the Newport Folk Festival has taken on new meaning as a home for change, diversity, and carrying forward the best in folk culture. An icon.

The Woods Stage crowd at Pickathon 2015 (photo by Tim LaBarge)
The Woods Stage crowd at Pickathon 2015 (photo by Tim LaBarge)
The Woods Stage at Pickathon 2015 (photo by Dylan Wanweelden)
The Woods Stage at Pickathon 2015 (photo by Dylan Wanweelden)

Happy Valley, Oregon
Seven stages, each distinctly different; four dozen bands, from down-the-road to other-side-of-the-world, and everybody plays at least twice. Pickathon takes place in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon, on some of the most stunningly beautiful stages you’ll ever see. Ever. Anywhere. It’s paradise, Pacific Northwest-style. What you get in addition to great music: camping in the forest; good, cheap, sustainable food; craft microbrews; circus tricks. What you don’t get: corporate sponsors or plastic. It’s a laid-back communal vibe that is  famously family-friendly and impressively indie. Just like Portlandia, which filmed an episode there last summer, with The Flaming Lips hoisting a set of balloons spelling out the message, “Fuck Yeah Portland.” (You had to be there.) But that was just a TV show. The festival is real and should not be missed—that is, if you like radically eclectic rosters typified by the 2015 lineup: acoustic old-time folkie Dom Flemons, Malian band Tinariwen, experimental hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces, and indie royalty tUnE-yArDs.

Uncle Earl performs at 3 Sisters 2015 (photo by Ann S. Ball)
Uncle Earl performs at 3 Sisters 2015 (photo by Ann S. Ball)

3 Sisters Bluegrass
Music Festival
Chattanooga, Tennessee
When they say bluegrass in the Southern Appalachians, they mean bluegrass: acoustic guitars, banjos, fiddles, basses, Dobros, four-part harmonies. At the 3 Sisters Bluegrass Music Festival in 2015, that meant standard-bearers like Michael Cleveland, Hot Rize, Della Mae, Lone Mountain Band, The Railsplitters, Rooster, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Travelin’ McCourys. Best of all, the whole thing is free, courtesy of the Fletcher Bright Company. (Bright is a realtor who plays fiddle in the Dismembered Tennesseans.) Set up on the riverfront in downtown Chattanooga, the site is accessible by public transportation, leaving from the former home of the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Seriously. The Beaux-Arts terminal is now a Hilton Hotel, but that shouldn’t keep you from pretending you’re Glenn Miller—or better yet, Jack Lathrop, his guitarist—and tooting your proverbial horn. Just say whoo-whoo.

Strawberry Music Festival
Grass Valley, California
Tuolumne, California
If a tree falls in the woodlands of Grass Valley, does it make a sound in Tuolumne? Yes, the Strawberry Music Festival happens twice a year, and whether you choose Memorial Day in Grass Valley or Labor Day in Tuolumne, you’ll get the Band Scramble, where musicians randomly form themselves into bands. You’ll also get Hog Ranch Radio, which broadcasts live from morning till night. And you’ll get The Revival, a secular, archetypically Californian celebration of the human spirit, along with hot yoga, games, fiddling for kids, family sing-alongs, and photography workshops. This year, you’ll get some pretty hot main stage performances, too: the David Grisman Sextet, Tim O’Brien, and the Wood Brothers (Memorial Day), and Del McCoury (for Labor Day)—plus, several more acts that will be announced later.

There’s an eleventh must-see festival, but you’ll have to organize it yourself. That’s what we do in Ithaca, home of Porchfest. It’s an afternoon of friends and neighbors making music for the pleasure of making music, a celebration of amateurishness with a roving audience that travels from house to house. You can do that anytime you want. Right now. Go ahead, do it. Before you kick the bucket. 

Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz

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