The Triangle has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches on behalf of its music-loving citizens in recent years. For the third year in a row, downtown Raleigh has the International Bluegrass Music Association’s events coming up in a few weeks, as well as the annual Hopscotch Festival currently going on. And folks keep flocking to the Bull City for Durham’s Art of Cool jazz offerings throughout the year, along with the recently announced relocation of the Moog Festival.
Outside the Triangle, however, the offerings can be a bit more sparse. Apart from the revered MerleFest in Wilkes County each spring, and some beach music festivals scattered throughout the state, there has been an idea that few are willing to travel to enjoy a weekend of music.
But Greensboro is trying to challenge that conceit by hosting one of the highest regarded folk festivals in the country this weekend.
The National Folk Festival is a large-scale outdoor series that celebrates the roots of American creative culture. Featuring over 300 of the country’s finest traditional musicians and craftspeople, this year marks the first of three that the National Council of the Traditional Arts (NCTA) has granted to Greensboro, the first North Carolina city to host the festival in its history.
Festivals open minds
Perhaps most impressive is that the three-day event is completely free to all visitors.
While most music festivals require day passes or weekend wristband purchases to enjoy all of their offerings, the National Folk Festival’s schedule of over 30 world-class musical artists across seven stages gives guests the opportunity to experience styles of music they otherwise might not encounter. The genres on display run the gamut from old-time and bluegrass to New Orleans piano music to gospel, with the schedule built around the concept of offering as many aspects of American music as possible.
Texas honky-tonk hero Dale Watson is very familiar with the idea of folk festivals touching on offbeat genres. Scheduled to perform all three days of the event, Watson has a history with events like the NFF, and has found they will open the minds of everyone involved.
“What surprised me about the very first one we ever played, with people in the audience that didn’t really know the music that I played, I definitely picked up a few new fans that day,” he says. “And then you had the fans that showed up just to see me. They became fans of the other acts they heard that day on the other stages. It was a great experience, that very first time, and that’s why I’ve been doing it for the past 15 years ever since.”
Building an audience
Watson says the idea of playing a folk festival seemed like an odd fit at first, but now he finds them necessary to building his audience. While his music leans more toward traditional country – the kind of music that would have been at home on country radio in years past – nowadays he is much more likely to be invited to perform at an event with more eclectic offerings than a modern country music festival. An event like the NFF is more open to booking artists like him.
“What I like about the folk festivals is that they’ve always been good about bringing different sounds in,” he says. “It’s not about folk music only, it’s about American music and what influences American music. You’ll see a honky-tonk band, a gospel group and a singer-songwriter playing back-to-back on a schedule. That is what folk music does: It shows you all of the different influences that are out there in the United States.”
Watson has spent the majority of his musical career playing to venues filled with hardcore fans of honky-tonk music, while attempting to gain new fans along the way. His schedule is dotted with gigs at small venues, like the in-store performance he has booked for after the festival on Monday night at Schoolkids Records in Raleigh. At SchoolKids, he’ll highlight his new album, “Call Me Insane,” knowing that the sales of merchandise will net him enough to cover gas to get him to his next stop on the road.
While these smaller venues guarantee packed houses for the Texas troubadour, he is excited to perform for the masses at the NFF as well. Audiences there will have multiple chances to catch him in his natural habitat, and Watson promises to bring the intimacy of a small town beer joint show to the outdoor stages in Greensboro.
“I feel more comfortable in smaller venues,” Watson admits. “You know, music is communication and I don’t go by a setlist, so to be among the audience is always my preference.
“Also, when you have smaller venues they’re easier to fill up, and we’ve been lucky that way. I can’t say I’ve always packed them in, but I’ve been lucky that the audience has always been able to find me.”
What: National Folk Festival
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Various outdoor venues across downtown Greensboro
In addition to Dale Watson, here’s a very small sampling of some of the acts playing this weekend in Greensboro (note that some acts perform on multiple days):
Mavis Staples, Rhiannon Giddens, The Dardanelles, Henry Butler & Jambalaya, Leaf Boys, The Stuart Brothers, John Dee Holeman with Williette Hinton, The Monitors, Bobby Hicks Band