Graves Mountain Festival of Music fills silver anniversary with tunes, memories

In Music
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This weekend’s Graves’ Mountain Festival of Music will include a tribute to a traditional bluegrass star and the reunion of a contemporary bluegrass group.

And although the grass may be blue, the anniversary is silver.

As the festival marks its 25th anniversary at Graves’ Mountain Lodge, some things haven’t changed. The family atmosphere of the spacious Madison County mountain resort, for instance. The wide variety of outdoor activities still includes hiking, fishing, horseback riding and hayrides. And festival fans still like to take breaks, stretch their legs and head to the lodge for its rainbow trout and other home-cooked specialties.

“Our first year was 1993. At that time, we only had a two-day festival,” said Mark Newton, a bluegrass singer, mandolinist and guitarist who has scheduled the festival’s acts at the Syria resort since the beginning. “In 1995, we went to three days. It’s always the first Saturday after Memorial Day Monday.”

The elements that have evolved over the years have been encouraging; younger faces are more visible in the crowds, and audiences have embraced more contemporary bluegrass acts and current acoustic favorites.

“Sometimes, you can look out in the audience and see it being passed on to new generations,” said Newton, who has watched his own 24-year-old daughter grow up while he has been scheduling the music for — and performing in — the festival.

Newton, in fact, will be taking part in one of this year’s reunion shows. The Virginia Squires will take the stage together at 6:25 p.m. Saturday, giving Newton a chance to team up with Rickie Simpkins, Ronnie Simpkins and Sammy Shelor for a set of contemporary bluegrass.

And for the traditionalists, there will be a tribute to banjo star Don Reno by his sons and musical friends at 9:10 p.m. Friday, featuring the Ronnie Reno Band and Reno Reunion.

Fans of the country band Shenandoah can help the country band mark an anniversary of its own. The Muscle Shoals, Alabama-bred band known for “Sunday in the South” and other hits, now marking its 30th year, will perform at 9:20 p.m. Saturday.

As the past quarter of a century has slipped by, many of the original fans are gone, but the children and then grandchildren they brought along keep coming back. Thanks to a new generation of fans and the bands they follow, bluegrass is thriving.

“They learn this music so fast now with the internet and Facebook, and their parents took them to the festival,” Newton said of the younger fans. “Then you have this whole movement of these young bands. I’m proud that this music is growing like that.”

From the beginning, the weekend was a “Festival of Music,” not strictly a bluegrass event. Newton made an effort each year to program both traditional favorites and innovators who pushed the musical envelope a bit. Bands with roots in Irish music have kept toes tapping, and bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops have brought in old-time references. And there’s no telling who might catch the bluegrass bug next.

“I think you need to expand people’s musical tastes. There might be someone in the audience who’d go out and learn an instrument,” Newton said.

The Great Recession wasn’t kind to the music industry, but the festival weathered the storm.

“We’re like everybody else,” Newton said. “We had to cut our budget and work through it.”

And over the years, festival organizers did their best to keep from pricing longtime fans out of the market — a gesture that hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Folks will say, ‘You folks need to go up on your three-day pass,’ ’’ Newton said with a chuckle.

Staying true to traditional bluegrass artistry and bringing in the best of the new practitioners requires a thoughtful kind of curating, and Newton never forgets that he’s a fan, too.

“You’re always trying to be conscious of cultivating a new fan base,” Newton said. “We have to take a look at every year as if it’s the first.”

Keep in mind that all campers must purchase three-day festival tickets. Camping at the site is $15 per day, and the campground opens at 8 a.m. Friday.

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