Charleston has always been a city well in touch with its artistic side, especially where music is concerned.
Over the years, there have been more than a few music festivals staged in the Lowcountry. Some, such as the much-missed Chazzfest, attempted to incorporate as many musical styles as possible.
Others, such as the annual Lowcountry Blues Bash, focus on one particular style of music. All of these events have been organized by groups of people who are passionate about the types of music presented.
Friday and Saturday, it is bluegrass music’s turn to get a multiday seat in the spotlight, as Surf Bar and the Sewee Outpost throw the inaugural Charleston Bluegrass Festival.
Brains behind music Bluegrass music has long been popular in Charleston.
Bluegrass master Ricky Skaggs recorded his excellent 2003 live album “Live at the Charleston Music Hall” here, and there are plenty of local groups playing that “old timey” music.
Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant holds an annual bluegrass festival and barbecue cook-off that draws thousands of fans each year.
But this is the first time in recent memory that a multiday festival has been dedicated to the genre.
The Charleston Bluegrass Festival is the brainchild of Eddie White, Perry Darby and Brooks Geer.
White, who has a dental practice in Mount Pleasant, is one of the masterminds behind Awendaw Green, a local music collective that has gone from just a few friends sitting around a campfire playing guitars to a living, breathing musical phenomenon.
The organization holds weekly “barn jams” on Wednesday nights that are open to the public. It also hosts a variety of special events throughout the year with an eye and ear toward local and regional music.
Talking about the inaugural festival over tacos at a local restaurant, White is more than enthusiastic.
“We had originally planned to hold the event at Patriots Point but decided to switch it to the Sewee Outpost in Awendaw in order to have a more intimate venue for the music,” White said.
So why bluegrass? According to White, part of the appeal is the purity of the music being performed.
“Bluegrass music strips away the layering and focuses on the instruments and the voices,” he said. “Plus, the artists that play bluegrass are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
White said he was happy to be working with Darby and Geer on organizing the festival.
“This is a great new partnership between Perry, who co-owns Surf Bar on Folly Beach, Brooks, who manages the Sewee Outpost, and I that will hopefully lead to more music-based events to come,” White said. “We were planning a ‘Halfway to Merlefest’ event this fall, and the idea came up to throw a multiday bluegrass event. The Sewee Outpost is close enough to the city that you don’t mind making a day trip, and yet far enough out of town that you feel like you’re in the country.”
The Charleston Bluegrass Festival features an impressive lineup, with local acts such as Jordan Igoe, the S.C. Broadcasters and Gravel Road performing on the same bill with regional and national acts such as Town Mountain from Asheville, N.C., The Mosier Brothers, which features members of the popular band Blueground Undergrass, and the Atlanta-based Whoa Nelly.
Darby is probably the man best-suited to talk about the band lineup for the festival. After all, he has been playing bluegrass music for nearly four decades.
“I’ve always been a big bluegrass fan,” said Darby, speaking by phone from his Folly Beach establishment. “I grew up in Kentucky, and through playing and traveling to other bluegrass festivals, I’ve been able to make friends with a lot of the band members, including some of the folks playing this festival, like Whoa Nelly and Town Mountain.”
Darby, who plays mainly guitar but dabbles in mandolin, dobro and upright bass, also explained his philosophy on wanting to start a local bluegrass festival.
“I always thought Charleston would be a great blue bluegrass destination. With all the bluegrass lovers here, there is really no reason not to have a local festival.”
While he wouldn’t name any particular act he was most looking forward to seeing, Darby revealed that he was looking forward to seeing what acts collaborated on both days of the festival.
“I’m definitely looking forward to some cross-pollination among the bands,” he said. “I don’t want to force anything, but that usually happens when you get bluegrass artists together.”
Darby also talked about the recent passing of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs.
“It’s strange,” Darby said. “I had just finished reading ‘Satan is Real,’ a biography about the Louvin Brothers, earlier this week and I was lying in bed thinking of Scruggs, thinking he probably wouldn’t be around that much longer. I woke up the next morning, and the first voice mail message I got was my brother telling me Scruggs had died.”
While there were no official plans to memorialize Scruggs at this weekend’s festival, Darby said he would be surprised if the musicians didn’t find some way of remembering the music legend.
For bluegrass fans, the inaugural Charleston Bluegrass Festival will provide two days of great music in a family-friendly atmosphere.
Food and beverages will be for sale from a number of vendors, and a portion of the proceeds will go to benefit the SEWEE Association’s Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge’s Sea Turtle Programs.
Whether or not the event continues as an annual event relies heavily on how many folks attend.
For Darby, what matters is that people come out and support the festival so there can be a second annual version of the event.
“I believe in this kind of music,” Darby said. “Please come out and support it.”