Written by Selomon | C.S. Closson
Photos by Shannon Shine of ShineTime Studios
Early Friday my partner Shannon Shine and I entered the grounds of one of the most family and doggy friendly venues I have been to so far in my life–Sleepy Creek Campground! This smaller festival residing right next to the Potomac river in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, was simple in structure, but eclectic in attendance. The fact that there was only one stage, and music was the only focus of the event, it was really cool being able to see each set without having to miss anything.
Driving through the grounds, we heard the sounds of hammers striking down stakes as we looked for a place to set up camp. People were smiling and laughing as they met new friends and reconnected with old ones. On stage people tested their instruments as vendors were getting their products out. We found a spot in general camping next to a big RV with the word “Adventurer” written across the side.
Five minutes into setting up, there was the sound of a horn off in the distance. Seconds later, a big train blew by with a roar. One attendee said he counted 72 trains went through during the festival. It was such a big part of the event that they even had a train visualizer on the stage. The trains, kids, and dogs were half of the festival experience.
The whole crowd was a wide mix of children, adults, and dogs, from all walks of life. The first one I met was dressed in cargo shorts, a Dirty Grass Players t-shirt (that’s who he was there for), and a trucker hat. His face sported a nice bushy goatee/mustache. He was walking with his dog Nuka who looked like an Arctic Wolf. One thing I noticed about my new friend Russell and the rest of the crowd, was that everyone was so super friendly.
People were dressed in anything from tie-dye to all black, from jeans and a t-shirt to something more exotic like harem pants. Even some of the dogs were dressed up in wings and other silly things. But no matter what someone was wearing, they all seemed like genuinely nice people. It felt like at any time during the festival I could have turned to the person next to me and have a great conversation.
I got a great view of how eclectic the whole crowd was when mid-Saturday a huge parade strolled through the festival grounds. Leading the line was man in a giant red mask that looked like it came from Sesame Street playing a washing board. Following him was the most diverse group of people including children dressed like butterflies and fairies, a grown man in a full body superman suit, people who looked like wizards, and clowns. Everyone was dressed real far out!
One thing about the vendors was that they were all real chill and down to Earth. There were a lot of unique items, as well as traditional things you’d see like crystals, wire wraps, hats, tie-dyes, etc. It seemed like most of them were more interested in meeting new people than selling products. I met a man name James who was a vendor I actually met on the dance floor. He was jumping around having a grand ole’ time sharing moonshine and other things.
There were multiple food vendors including Sassy Wraps that made some amazing wraps like a California wrap with black beans, avocado, and other delicious ingredients. They also had some dank smoothies. It was nice seeing more food options than just meat and deep fried food.
The first official set was performed by Herb & Hanson, an acoustic duo that uses their instruments and voices to express their unique life experiences. The way they played together with a guitar, mandolin, and vocal harmonies was very well done. It was a great first performance that opened the weekend.
Next up was Serene Green, a 4 piece bluegrass band with a stand up bass player, guitar, mandolin, and banjo. Their harmonies meshed really well together, but it was the banjo and mandolin solos that kept my attention. Following them was Mountain Ride, a Pennsylvania bluegrass band that played both traditional and progressive styles of bluegrass.
Their feel good lyrics mixed in with the sounds of acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, and fiddle, put the whole audience in a great mood. The fiddle player killed it with great performances from the whole band. I could tell they were having a great time playing. The next act was a band I was very interested in coming into the festival.
When I read one of the bands was going to have a ukulele player, I was automatically looking forward to their set. Cousin Earth came straight from outer space with what they call “Human Music” that consisted of ukulele, bass, drums, guitar, and keys. I got to say that this was my favorite performance out of the whole weekend.
The sun was setting as Cousin Earth started playing a rendition of the cantina song from Star Wars (later I realized it was May the 4th Be With You Day, aka Star Wars Day), and also included some jam versions of Reading Rainbow and Inspector Gadget along with original songs. The lead guitarist Joe Calfa started with the ukulele before switching to an electric guitar near the end of the set.
Before he took off the ukulele, he made sure to fire up the crowd with some insane solos! His energy was flying off the stage as he jumped and bounced around while shredding on his ukulele. It sounded like a banjo, an electric guitar, and ukulele all in one. I got to ask him a few questions backstage about how long he’s been playing ukulele and how even got into it and this is what he said, “Well I’ve playing guitar for 14 years and have been playing the Ukulele for about 7 or 8 years.”
He looked up in thought as if he were imagining himself back in the moment when he first got into ukulele before saying, “I was on a cruise to Hawaii with my family and you had to be 21 to drink and I was a month away from my 21st birthday. So naturally I was in my room playing ukulele the entire time.”
The band was missing one of their main singers Tara Lawton, but Melissa Raye sat in and did a tremendous job. The Brokedown Hustlers were next and did what they do hyping up the crowd with their energizing set. Jeff Austin and his band headlined Friday night and for good reason! The music they played, some improve, was incredible. It was extremely uplifting. Especially at the end when Jeff Austin left with this quote, “If someone needs a friend, be their friend.”
The late night set by the bonfire by one of the more unknown bands was phenomenal. I had seen The Kind Thieves once or twice before thanks to Culturefest in WV, so I knew how amazing they were, but it was definitely a surprise to anyone who hadn’t heard them before. They played with only one half of the full band, but they still had a drummer, bassist, and two electric guitars that would go back and forth with solos and riffs. The harmonies was where the real magic was as each singer really let it out and bared their soul to the crowd. Their rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” gave me chills and had my hair standing on end. It was such a powerful way to end the night.
Mateo Monk kicked off Saturday with a psychedelic set in which he utilized his handy flute, electric guitar, loop pedal, and assortment of other instruments. It was a perfect balance of chill, yet uplifting music. At one point a train roared by and Mateo quickly picked up his synth and made a sound like the horn of a train. I later found out he had been planning that.
Hitting the stage after Mateo was the Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers with some Old Time Americana, The Judy Chops and their “Mountain Swing” tunes, Bluegrass Country Rock group Dead Winter Carpenters, and Black Masala who played New Orleans Rock and totally crushed it! Then lightning struck right before Keller’s Solo set was about to happen. When it was decided to put Keller on hold, most of the crowd went back to their campsites to wait out the storm in the hopes it would pass quickly.
There was a slight breeze early Saturday that got stronger with each passing hour. Eventually it was strong enough to knock over some easy ups and tents. Soon after the rain died down a little it started to sprinkle. The sprinkle turned into heavy, heavy rain and that turned into a thunderstorm which lasted a few hours. There was one point Shannon and I were inside our tent when a huge roar of thunder struck nearby.
“It’s not SpringDig without the rain,” was one phrase I kept hearing. “If you’re not wet, you ain’t doing it right,” I heard one person say.
These people are definitely not afraid of rain. Before it started to thunder and lightning, the crowd was just as fired up and some people were even enjoying it! I was told that if it was just rain, all the bands would still play, but lightning is nothing to mess with and people could get hurt, so Keller had to be put on hold.
Eventually the storm passed and the rain let up and Keller Williams was able to go on. It’s always a pleasure to see him and everyone he collaborates with like More Than a Little. Anyone who was able to last through the cold thunderstorm was rewarded some amazing music. It was a special moment.
By the time Keller finished, it was around 2:30 am and the Dirty Grass Players were closing out the festival with some original bluegrass tunes by the bonfire. After they finished, Shannon and I went and sat in our car and talked until the sun came up. By the time we got packed up, it was raining again. But the feeling I had was one of joy.
There are an incredible amount of bluegrass festivals. But SpringDig, simply, was so much more! There was a great mix of genres without straying too far away from what brings people to the event. They got everyone’s attention with names like Jeff Austin and Keller Williams. But it was the more unknowns like Cousin Earth and The Kind Thieves that really added some essence and spirit to the event. The family and dog friendly venue mixed in with the nostalgia of the train and the incredible production of music was the perfect mixture to create one of the most magical festival experiences I’ve had.