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Earl Scruggs Music Festival gets it right with its debut

The initial Earl Scruggs Music Festival makes its mark the first time out

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Earl Scruggs Revue Set performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Saturday, September 3, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Earl Scruggs Revue Set performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Saturday, September 3, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Jerry Douglas with Becky Buller Band performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Sunday, September 4, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Jerry Douglas with Becky Buller Band performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Sunday, September 4, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Steve Mougin and Sam Bush performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Friday, September 2, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Steve Mougin and Sam Bush performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Friday, September 2, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Brooke & Darin Aldridge performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Saturday, September 3, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Brooke & Darin Aldridge performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Saturday, September 3, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Earls of Leicester performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Friday, September 2, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Earls of Leicester performing at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Friday, September 2, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Milly Parker and Danielle Dror, Victory Lap Media, at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Sunday, September 4, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Milly Parker and Danielle Dror, Victory Lap Media, at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Sunday, September 4, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Bela Fleck performing at the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival in Mill Spring, NC on Friday, September 2, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Bela Fleck performing at the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival in Mill Spring, NC on Friday, September 2, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Molly Tuttle performing at the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Friday, September 2, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Molly Tuttle performing at the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Friday, September 2, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

By Lee Zimmerman

Special thanks to Alisa B. Cherry for photos

Curating a festival, no matter how long it’s been in existence, is never an easy prospect. There are logistics to consider, bands to engage, audiences to placate and dozens of other elements that impact the event overall.

That said, it’s somewhat surprising that the organizers of the first annual Earl Scruggs Music Festival held over the course of this past Labor Day weekend, managed to get it right the initial time out. An exceptional array of headliners — among them, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Molly Tuttle & Golden. Highway, Bela Fleck and My Bluegrass Heart, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Balsam Range, Acoustic Syndicate, Ro Ickes & Trey Hensley, Darin & Brook Aldridge, Leftover Salmon, the Becky Buller Band, Town Mountain, and Chatham County Line — provided the artistic allure, while the sedate setting offered by North Carolina’s Tryon International Equestrian Center made it all easy and accessible. Two venues — the main Flint Hill Stage and the smaller, more intimate Foggy Mountain Stage — allowed the crowd to ramble back and forth and get up close to the action at the same time. Even those that opted for general admission as opposed to the stadium seating offered to the VIPs had an opportunity to get close to the main stage and get an intimate view of the action.

Of course it was the spirit of Earl Scruggs that bound it all together. Scruggs, of course, was one of the people that brought bluegrass to a mainstream audience — he and his partner Lester Flatt famously wrote and performed the theme song for the hit comedy “the Beverly Hillbillies” — and it was his method of revolutionizing the banjo that made it a main line instrument that’s respected and revered by a new generation eager to tape into tradition. Interviews with Earl, who died a decade ago, were shown on the large screens and his presence was prominent throughout the weekend. The “I Love Earl” tee-shirts and array of memorabilia also ensured it would linger well beyond.

Ironically, a tropical storm named Earl meandered off the coast, but it was the oppressive heat and not any sign of severe weather that made the most impact.

Of course, it was the artists themselves that ensured the link remained intact from past to present. Saturday headliners the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were rightfully hailed as heroes, considering the fact that their Will the Circle Be Unbroken album — which marks its half century anniversary this November — provided impetus for the music’s early prime movers — Scruggs, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, Vassar Clements, and Roy Huskey Jr. — to share a studio and their classic songs with a new generation of long-haired musicians eager to pick up the torch. In a very real sense then, that album not only lived up to its name, but also provided a beacon that came to full flourish at the festival.

So too, Jerry Douglas, who reportedly gathered the festival’s line-up through is own auspices, contributed to its overall success. His Earls of Leicester, specifically named in honor of Scruggs and his partner Lester Flatt, culled a homegrown authenticity, even to the point of playing in the sweltering heat clad in matching suits, hats and bolo ties. Douglas himself was a recurring presence throughout the weekend, appearing as special guest during practically every set, as well as providing the welcome at its kick-off and giving the farewell at its conclusion on Sunday.

For his part, Dom Flemons, an American storyteller in the strictest sense, laid out a traditional tapestry that paid tribute to the often-unrecognized Black musicians who helped pave the way forward. It was an excellent addition to the festival and one that illuminated the music’s history in a decidedly expansive way.

Organizers promise that the festival will continue next year over the Labor Day holiday, and while it’s hard to imagine any need for much tweaking, it’s also easy to believe that this festival will continue to grow and become a mainstay amongst ongoing festival offerings. At any rate, the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival was a definite success. 

Jerry Douglas with Chatham County Line closing the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Sunday, September 4, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Jerry Douglas with Chatham County Line closing the Earl Scruggs Music Festival at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC on Sunday, September 4, 2022. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry