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2017 Charleston Bluegrass Festival Recap

Forlorn Strangers bringing soul grass to Night 2. Photo: Joshua Daves Martin

The 2017 Charleston Bluegrass Festival was fantastic. Awendaw Green hosted what was promised to be a grassy time at Middleton Place Woodlands, and grassy it was.

From intimate single mic bluegrass sessions throughout the day to late night bonfire jams after hours, the Charleston Bluegrass Festival was a great time with serious potential for growth at Middleton Place Woodlands.The grounds sit on many acres of forest along an open lake that leads into the Ashley River. Friends and family could enjoy the lake on kayaks and canoes provided by lead sponsor Coastal Expeditions on Saturday, while two stages hosted bluegrass musicians from across the Southeast.

Friends docked next to stage renting canoes from Coastal Expeditions. Photo: Ethan Waldrop
Main Stage ready to go. Photo: Awendaw Green

Gates opened at noon Friday, April 7th and music started with Southbound 17 at 5:00 pm. After their set, we felt the frequency of the festival heighten as festival goers looked forward to their set the following day. The night kept on truckin’ as bands switched off on the main stage efficiently and the venue began to pack out as many anticipated the Grass is Dead set as the first headliners of a terrific weekend. Everyone began to crowd the stage as Grass is Dead played some favorites of the Grateful Dead catalog including a quick paced, extra grassy “Brown Eyed Woman” that shuffled the feet of everyone leading to their closing act. Local Mandolin player Aaron Firetag added a bevy of mandolin work throughout their set. The band closed out with a stellar “Shakedown Street” with the only Electric guitar that was brought on stage the whole weekend. This Shakedown was on the edge of a Funk Grass feel that got our feet warmed up throughout a brisk night.

Aaron Frietag jamming with Grass Is Dead. Photo Credit: Ethan Waldrop
Grass Is Dead. Photo Credit: Ethan Waldrop

Musicians took to the bonfire spot 200 feet from the main stage where we stayed for a good while before campers returned to their sites for even more grassness. Local guys grabbed their strings and played roots music the entire night while a few bonfires embered out. During pick up in the morning both forks of the lake rose up with steam as pick up for the day started. One of the best things about this festival was the togetherness so many patrons felt. Early risers were treated to eggs and bacon by festival management by the stage and all were welcome.

Fog over one side of the lake. Photo Credit: Ethan Waldrop

Music kicked off on two stages at noon on Sunday. The Coastal Expeditions acoustic stage hosted a variety of bands that had a personal and honest touch to the music. One of the musicians I had the chance to get up in the middle of the day was a woman by the name of Marci Shore (Fiddling Marci) based out of Charleston. She was playing with her family band based out of North Carolina and mentioned many of the the family aspects of bluegrass and why they play. The family band aspect was the a special aspect of the Charleston Bluegrass Festival.

I had the chance to get up with some of the guys from the River Boys as we watched Marci Shore get down on the fiddle before their set. Following the River Boys set I ran into YeeHaw Junction veteran banjo player Ted who was plucking with Julius Siler who reps 105.5 The Bridge. We went through a great Bluegrass catalog while Ted and J Bird broke out Hobo Song from John Prine and Garcia’s Old and In the Way for us. They even incorporated some great violin from a young musician learning the ropes.

YeeHaw Junction. Photo Credit: Ethan Waldrop

The evening shows kicked off with Red Cedar Review joined by Aaron Firetag on mandolin who sat in with Grass is Dead the night before and Dallas Baker and Friends at The Charleston Pour House in the past.

Check out Dallas Baker and Friends collaboration on Jerry Garcia’s “Deal” at The Pour House this past year:

Red Cedar Review went through their catalog setting up for a final night filled with wonderful musicians leading up to one of the headlining bands Forlorn Strangers. I had the opportunity to get up with Forlorn Strangers members Abigail, Hannah, Chris, and Jesse after their set to talk past, present, and future for the Nashville based band, and that interview will be published soon. This band was a great fit for Charleston Bluegrass Festival, as singers and sisters Abigail and Hannah started the group with husband and friends a few years back. Throughout the set members switched instruments and upright bass player Jesse brought his bass down to the grass to incorporate the crowd. The Forlorn Strangers set provided a soul grass feel that cooled everyone down for an intimate time between family, friends, and the band as the second to last musicians.

Jesse from Forlorn Strangers getting down on the dobro. Photo Credit: Joshua Daves Martin
Abigail, Hannah, and Benjamin of Forlorn Strangers hitting a family harmony. Photo Credit: Ethan Waldrop

The final act on the main stage was Dallas Baker and Friends. Before the set Dallas mentioned how excited he was to perform here and keep the tunes going into the night. As Dallas led the band, help came from Benjamin of Forlorn Strangers on banjo. The band came back out for an encore of Doc Watson’s 1964 hit, “Sittin’ On Top of the World”. This was followed by an original tune before heading to the super jam bonfire that brought together some of the best grass cats from the weekend.

There we saw Dallas Baker and Friends, Aaron Firetag, and Zach Hudson of up and coming country rock band Hans Wenzel and the Eighty Sixers. Hans Wenzel and the Eighty Sixers will debut their first album at The Pour House on Cinco de Mayo with Dallas Baker and Friends with support from Sara Shook and the Disarmers.

You can get tickets here.

The group took on a great finale to wrap up music in the venue. They went through yet another wonderful “Shakedown Street” and even a cover of “Play that Funky Music” to bring the festival back to its Funk Grass roots from the night before. The final song was a solo by Dallas Baker with his acoustic, playing an original soul grass song where everyone was enthralled with laughter and tears.

Aaron Firetag, Dallas Baker and Friends, and Zach Hudson with late night bonfire grass jams.
Photo Credit: Joshua Daves Martin

At the campsites, Lowcountry Bluegrass vets plucked around old Americana Dead tunes and Rolling Stones roots to rock the grounds to sleep. By the morning, clean up started and Middleton Place Woodlands was left in pristine condition thanks to the variety of volunteers and workers that have been with the festival since its planning last year.

In the end this is a great festival to go meet bluegrass lovers, musicians, and appreciators alike away from the day to day hustle of our day jobs. Thanks to Awendaw Green, Coastal Expeditions, and all the vendors that had a part in this fantastic weekend. Special thanks to friends Ethan Waldrop and Joshua Daves Martin. Cheers on many more to come.