Written by Carly Shields
On April 27th and 28th, some of the best bluegrass players in the country will gather in what some may see as an unlikely place for bluegrass- Baltimore, MD. For the 6th year in a row, The Charm City Bluegrass Festival will once again demonstrate a rich love, support, and connection to the bluegrass and Baltimore communities. Located in Druid Hill Park, and for the first time, spanning two days and three stages, what started as a little afternoon fest in Union Crew Brewing’s parking lot has now been recognized by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IMBA) Momentum Award for Event of the Year and Baltimore Magazine for Best Festival. And as even just this year’s lineup could justify, these are very accurate awards.
Headlined by The Devil Makes Three and The Travelin McCoury’s, the rest of the lineup is filled with veritable headliners if this were any year prior: The Steeldrivers, Jeff Austin Band, Billy Strings, Caleb Stein, Larry Keel Experience, Trout Steak Revival, the list goes on and on. The styles range from traditional folk and bluegrass to newgrass, funkgrass, and Americana. Women are well represented throughout the lineup, and all the other reasons to check out each of these bands and the ones that come before them are too numerous to put in paragraph form:
The Devil Makes Three: Americana blended with aggressive ragtime; selling out stadiums (read: catch them in this intimate setting).
The Travelin’ McCourys: the band of bluegrass icon Del McCoury; sans Del/Dad, now known for their Grateful Ball with Jeff Austin (wonder if anything might happen there…).
The SteelDrivers: true to form bluegrass; Chris Stapleton’s previous band, now lead by Gary Nichols; GRAMMY winning.
Jeff Austin Band (playing the late-night show at The 8×10): former leader of Yonder Mountain String Band; blends psychedelic exploration with evocative licks and lyrics; his bandmate Danny Barnes is like no other banjo player before him.
Billy Strings: new face on the scene with wildly impressive guitar chops and stage antics; 2016 IMBA Momentum Award Instrumentalist of the Year for guitar; (probably) the only gauged ears on that stage.
Caleb Stine: the top listed Baltimore player; collaborated with a stranger from WTMD and created a sonic masterpiece used in a CNN special on Baltimore.
Larry Keel Experience: nitty gritty dirtgrass from the leading flatpicker on the scene; LKE takes no prisoners.
Trout Steak Revival: mountain music mixed with a heavy dose of soul; Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition winners.
Special Consensus: traditional bluegrass band led by former President of the IMBA; internationally desired (which is a rarity for bluegrass bands!).
Front Country: bay-area born roots rock; led by (probably) the only pink hair on that stage.
The Lonely Heartstring Band: traditional bluegrass led by soaring vocal harmonies; 2015 winners of the IMBA Momentum Award.
Rounding it out are Circa Blue, The Honey Dewdrops (Baltimore), Country Current (the United States Navy Band.. no joke.), Blue Stone, Mile Twelve (2 ladies in the band!), Mountain Ride, Haint Blue, Colebrook Road, High and Wides, and Man About A Horse. There is seriously nothing to miss over these two days of fiery, string-pickin’ madness. For the crazy low ticket price they’re asking (2 day GA only $74) and on a gently sloping lawn, perhaps with a low-backed lawn chair, perhaps with a frosty Union Craft brewski, there could be no better way to spend a day or two.
Besides the phenomenal lineup, this year, Charm City will be offering a Baltimore Traditions show at 7:30 on Friday showcasing seven of Baltimore’s most prodigious bluegrass players with the McCoury brothers (Ronnie & Robbie). Warren Blair (fiddle extraordinaire and baritone voice from heaven), Jon Gilik (original fiddle player in Del McCoury’s first band the Dixie Pals), Dee Gunter (picker known for his emotive phrasing and rich vocals), Russ Hooper (dobro player and musical compadre with Jerry Douglass), Jerry McCoury (Del’s bass playing brother), Tom Neal (Baltimore banjo boss), and Dick Smith (mandolin player with toes in all the best players’ histories) will gather to pick and discuss stories of old, reflect on the rich mountain traditions that have spilled into the city, and share memories of moments with the legends who started it all.
The Charm City Bluegrass Festival has come a long way from its beginnings in the parking lot of Union Craft Brewing, but even in that first year, everyone knew this was a special event. In it’s remarkably quick 6-year growth, the festival has changed a lot. But it’s also unwaveringly committed to the mission at its core: to celebrate and perpetuate Baltimore’s rich folk & bluegrass culture, to enjoy the city’s finest craft brews, and to have an affordable experience with family and fellow community members while listening the nation’s top musicians.