Brandon Bluegrass Fest a family affair

Kate Barcellos / Staff Photo

Staff Writer

BRANDON — The hills were alive with the sound of banjos.

At the end of Basin Road in Brandon, beneath a thickened canopy of maple leaves, is a giant field that, once a year, becomes a miniature city.

Hundreds of people traveled from all over the country in all manner of RVs and campers to the annual Brandon Basin Bluegrass Festival this past weekend, which might more accurately be called the Basin Bluegrass Family Reunion.

“We play a lot of festivals in the country, and this one ranks right up there,” said Ryan Frankhouser, guitarist for Remington Ryde, a bluegrass band from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It’s a great crowd and we always have a great time here.”

Three enormous white event tents shaded rows of collapsible chairs set up a week in advance. The chairs surrounded a hand-built wooden stage adorned with signs reading “Forever Bluegrass” and “Pick’n and Grin’n.”

Around the perimeter, concession stands sold everything from Philly cheesesteaks to fried mushrooms to pulled pork sandwiches, while vendors displayed racks of hand-hammered sterling silver earrings, hand-thrown ceramic bowls, maple syrup and T-shirts.

For many, the festival began earlier in the week, when the grounds open up for campers hoping to snag an early spot, days before anyone’s guitar is tuned.

Because you can never be too early for family.

“I know half of the people here by sight,” said organizer, director and bluegrass baroness Linda Berry. “Bluegrass just has a way of bringing people together…It really is one big bluegrass family.”

The festival officially began last Thursday night with a spaghetti supper and a concert by Corey Zink and County Line. It kicked off a weekend of back-to-back bluegrass performances from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Linda and her late husband Dudley started the festival back in 1981, after traveling to several annual bluegrass festivals around the country, making friends along the way.

One morning, after returning from a bluegrass festival in Maine, Linda was standing in the field drinking coffee when she was hit with an epiphany.

“I thought, this would be a great place for a bluegrass festival,” Linda said. “My husband said ‘Are you crazy?’”

But the Berrys, along with their friends Tracy and Harriet Wyman, and Tracy’s parents decided to try it anyway, and the Neshobe Sportsman Club agreed to sponsor it.

Linda Berry already had hundreds of contacts with other bluegrass enthusiasts from her excursions with her husband, but decided to reach out to local newspapers, radio, and a magazine called Bluegrass Unlimited.

Berry said the day the magazine showed up in her mailbox, her phone started ringing. For many, bluegrass festivals aren’t so much an event as they are a lifestyle, and Berry’s little operation became the newest stop on what for many is a never-ending musical road trip.

“A lot of these RVs, people live in them,” she said.

The Brandon Chamber of Commerce lent the group start-up funds for the festival, and in the event that the group didn’t make enough money to pay the Chamber back, the debt would be waived.

But they made enough.

In its first year, around 900 people came from far and wide to the Brandon Basin Bluegrass festival, camping out for three days and reuniting with friends from the road.

Today, Berry said they host around 600 people camping out in 300 sites, and anywhere between 200 and 500 additional day-trippers every year.

The festival is a group effort. Berry said she works with the hosts of other festivals for things like social media content coordination in exchange for ticket sales at the gate, or whatever needs to be done to keep the festival running smoothly.

Even before the festival begins, help is never far away.

The old wooden stage in the center of the field where Cedar Ridge, the Seth Sawyer Band, Moonshine Falls and others take up their instruments blew down in a windstorm last year. Organizers were unable to rebuild it in addition to other preparations, so local folks and friends helped rebuild the stage, bringing in a cherry picker to hoist the remains of the structure up to rebuild the walls in exchange for tickets valued at $60 apiece.

“I’ve been doing these festivals for 45 ½ years,” said Lynda Lynn, president of the Adirondack Bluegrass League and stand-up bassist in the bluegrass band Cedar Ridge, who performed at this year’s festival. “Bluegrass people are always there for you, sometimes more than your own family.”

Lynn and Berry said they have both lost close family members in the past, and that no matter where they were on their journeys, their bluegrass family came through, sending cards and calling to offer support in any way they could.

“If it wasn’t for these people, I honestly don’t know where I’d be,” Lynn said.

The preparation for next year’s festival started Monday, and Berry said the event’s music acts will be booked by early fall, before 2,000 fliers are mailed out in January to remind her extended bluegrass family to stop by on their travels.

In the bluegrass community, where there is music, there is home, even if your home has wheels.