The National Folk Festival is coming to Nashville’s Bicentennial Mall Labor Day Weekend, September 2-4, 2011. This festival is the longest-running celebration of traditional music, dance and arts to audiences throughout America. With more than 250 performers and craftspeople, the festival brings a dizzying array of offerings that appeals to people of all age. Read more about the National Folk Festival by at The Tennessean.
National Folk Fest entertains, educates with broad musical mix
At first, it might sound like any other weekend in Music City: tourists pouring into town from hundreds — if not thousands — of miles away to take in all the live music that Nashville has to offer.
This weekend’s crowd, however, won’t be heading to the honky-tonks for twangy tunes. They’re on their way to Bicentennial Capitol Mall to watch everything from East African rumba orchestras to mariachi bands, Japanese shamisen virtuosos and breakdance masters.
The National Folk Festival today kicks off the first of three consecutive years in Nashville, offering a variety of arts and entertainment that even Music City rarely sees — and does it all completely free of charge. The long-running festival currently travels around the country in three-year blocks, and Nashville was selected out of more than 40 cities to be its latest host (the festival was last held here in 1959.)
Of course, the city also will see a number of annual festivals in the coming months — World of Bluegrass Week, SoundLand and the Americana Music Festival, among them. But National Folk Festival co-chairman Garry West says the fest aims for a broader, no-experience-necessary appeal.
“Nashville is rich in the number of events that we have for music junkies, but what we wanted to do is create a music event not just for those people, but for everyone else, as well,” he says.
Tops in their fields
One key difference between this and other fests: There are no headlining performers at the 73rd National Folk Festival. Instead, there’s a focus on bringing the broadest musical menu possible. None of the acts are a household name, but they’re among the top in their fields, and their role isn’t just to entertain the crowd, but to enlighten them on their craft.
That’s how Mick Moloney, leader of traditional Irish band the Green Fields of America, has seen his role as a performer at National Folk Festivals since the early ’80s.
“The audiences are very much general audiences, because these festivals are free,” he says. “It’s very much an educational and entertainment experience. I always love that mix, because I think people love to learn more than anything, and especially if they can learn in an entertaining fashion.”
It’s a learning experience for performers like Folk Festival veteran Eddie Pennington, as well. The Princeton, Ky.-based guitarist is a leading torch-bearer for the “Travis-Style” thumb-picking technique named for country legend Merle Travis. Having been part of the Folk Festival’s broad lineup for decades, he’s seen its ability to “break down barriers” between cultures, and says it’s not uncommon for performers of wildly different backgrounds to team up onstage.
“You mix some bluegrass with some African drummers, and you’ll be surprised at what comes out,” he says.
Other artists, like acclaimed trio the Holmes Brothers, do the mixing in their own music, weaving together bits of gospel, blues and country music. Sherman Holmes defines folk as “the music of the everyday people, before they were influenced by other communities, and they invented their own styles.”
A touch of Nashville
Nashville’s own musical community plays a big role in the festivities, as well. Programming for the festival’s Tennessee Folklife Stage was curated by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and it centers on the city’s musical traditions. The stage’s performances and discussions feature local luminaries from all corners of Nashville culture, from the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys.
Attendees also will get a look at Nashville designer Manuel Cuevas’ famed rhinestone suits, the signature poster art of Hatch Show Print and the country star tour buses of Modern Entertainer Coaches, among other Music City-centric attractions. There’s a marketplace to highlight regional crafts, a family area for hands-on activities and lots of local and ethnic food to sample.
“That’s what really represents Nashville,” West says. “You can reach out to that kind of community, people with those pedigrees and vast experience, credibility and success, throw out an idea for this kind of thing and have people join on immediately. No other city in America could put together programming as robust as this is as quickly as it all came together.”
This weekend, the festival gets to see if the public shares that same enthusiasm. Because it’s not a ticketed event, West says, it’s hard to predict attendance, but they’ve seen encouraging buzz on social media. Attendance hit 165,000 at last year’s festival in Butte, Mont.
Pennington says he’s excited to have the festival in Nashville, close enough for his relatives in Princeton to come see him perform on a big stage. He’s hoping lots of other folks in the surrounding areas follow suit, too.
“If people turn the TV off and go over there and see what all there is to offer,” he says, “they can find things that will change their life.”
Contact Dave Paulson at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 615-664-2278.
If You Go
What: The 73rd National Folk Festival
When: 6-10:30 p.m. today, Fri.,11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-6:45 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park (600 James Robertson Parkway)