This weekend the 15th Anniversary of the Aiken Bluegrass Festival will be celebrated at the Aiken Fairgrounds with bluegrass royalty Del McCoury headlining a bill that brings the ABF back to the roots of bluegrass while celebrating its future.
“With the Aiken Bluegrass Festival, we are very focused on the newgrass and jamgrass vibes and all of the artists that are involved are just family,” Burns said. “It is really a beautiful group of people, and everybody likes hanging out with each other and playing together, and it really shows. The audience knows. The energy of all of the parts comes across on stage very clearly.”Greg Burns
McCoury, at 80 years of age, is the living embodiment of bluegrass music’s rich history. Today, the Del McCoury Band enjoys the praise of traditional bluegrass lovers and tie-dyed clad “Del-Heads” alike. Their current dates range from performing arts centers to hardcore bluegrass festivals. After years of playing hip, youth-oriented jamfests such as Bonnaroo and High Sierra, Del launched his own in 2008 — the popular four-day DelFest in Cumberland, Maryland. Spreading the bluegrass gospel wherever he goes, Del has proven not to be a relic of bluegrass music’s past, but an architect of its future.
Another architect of the future of bluegrass is most certainly 26 year old Billy Strings, also playing this weekend. Strings, who has taken that rich bluegrass history, downloaded it into his frenetic brain and added metal and rock influences such as Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath, has created a tasty rock and roll bluegrass gumbo. In fact, in January 2019 Rolling Stone Magazine declared Strings “The Bluegrass Star You Don’t Want to Miss,” a head-thrashing banjo phenom whom the venerable magazine referred to as a “breakneck guitar picker”.
In between these two the weekend lineup is jammed with some of the best artists on the scene in town to celebrate 15 years. Keller and the Keels, the Larry Keel Experience, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Cris Jacobs, Lindsay Lou, Town Mountain, Brad Parsons & Starbird, Kitchen Dwellers, the Tenth Mountain Division, the Kyle Tuttle Band and Benny Galloway, Artist-at-Large Zebulon Bowles, DJ Bontzilla and Doug & The Henrys.
With the Aiken Fairgrounds feeling like the epicenter of the bluegrass world for a couple of days, event organizers work year round to create the atmosphere and infrastructure that makes the ABF so special.
Check-Check. Check. Check.
Hundreds of campers begin descending Thursday-creating a small town for like-minded music fans from all over the country. We spoke to the Head of Production and Co-Director of the festival, Greg Burns, about how he got involved in the industry and the hard work involved in having so much fun.
While there are entertainment programs at colleges around the country, the path to backstage is paved with long hours, low pay and hard work. To move ahead in the industry, Burns says experience is the key. “It’s more like ‘hey, I worked for this person, this person, this person. I did these gigs at this level and these gigs.’ ”
Through his twenties Burns would advance through the field, running sound in the auto expo circuit for Hyundai before moving on to becoming a successful sound engineer for hire-mixing in enough corporate gigs so he wouldn’t starve while pursuing his true passion: music.
“Over time I wound up meeting this band Greensky Bluegrass out of Kalamazoo. When I was 27, they tried me out for a few months and they eventually offered me a full-time job as their tour manager.
The band was becoming increasingly unhappy with their sound engineer. This led Burns to a unique idea, using a blend of left and right brain thinking for the entrepreneurial idea of approaching the band with an offer. “I said, ‘look, give me a little bit of capital and I’ll buy new sound equipment, pay you guys back in one year and I will be your sound guy.’ ”
The road to the top was recognized by how the road was traveled, according to Burns. “We went from being in a band in a van to a van with a trailer to a large RV pulling a trailer to a big tour bus.” Burns laughed,
“Bus touring is whole other level.”
The acts appearing at the ABF run the gamut from van to bus. “A major act may show up to concerts with two tour buses and four semi-trucks full of equipment. An up-and-coming band might only have the finances to tour in a van, and they rely on the venues or festivals to provide additional gear, sound crews and stage crews” Burns said.
This is where the open jam happens, the mash-up of performers created by festival organizers each year, which has given Aiken its own very special place in ABFer’s hearts. The impromptu-planned performances go on for hours, with stages in the parking lots and usually wraps up for performers and staff only in the greenroom, later than anyone would like to admit.