Aiken Bluegrass Festival 2016

by May 18, 2016Adventure, Culture, Music, Reviews

When we imagined Festy GoNuts, we wanted to create a way for us to share the magic of music festivals with others.  It’s not easy to put into words, but it is our hope that by sharing our experiences we are able to inspire newbies to attend their first music festival or help others find ways to improve their future festival experiences. Whether you have been to one or a hundred music festivals, you know that there is more to a music festival than just the music.  Of course, the caliber of musicians and the genre of music on the lineup has a huge impact on the music festival itself; but there are other factors that go into enhancing the total music festival experience.  We define the total festival experience as:  The Music, The Culture and The Adventure

For us, Aiken Bluegrass Festival was that total music festival experience.

The Music

Sure, it’s been said a dozen times.  Music Festivals aren’t all about the music.  However, I’m not going to deny that the music certainly has a pretty important role to play.  When Aiken Bluegrass Festival announced their 2016 lineup, jaws dropped. It was unusual in a way that, if it was successful, it could have an impact on how music festival lineups are created in the future.  The ABF lineup didn’t consist of all the headliner bands in the “bluegrass” scene.  Instead, it was a hand-selected list of incredibly talented musicians that happen to be part of headliner bands.  It was specifically designed to skip over the surprise of unexpected collaborations and just get down to the nitty gritty – putting some insanely talented musicians on the stage together and seeing just what they can lay down.

“Lay down” really turned into “throw down”.  When Larry Keel puts together his personal All-Star Aiken Band, you know that it is going down in the books as something you were incredibly lucky to have been able to see in your lifetime.  Let’s put it this way:  Larry Keel, Jenny Keel, Will Lee, Vince Herman, Mimi Naja, Keller Williams, Travis Book, Paul Hoffman, Anders Beck, and Silas Herman. 10 incredible musicians on stage at one time – and that was just one set!  The rest of the day we were graced with sets featuring more of that crew, plus sets from Fruition and Gipsy Moon.  Heck, Greg Burns even put together a band featuring Jay Cobb, Kellen Asebroek,  (Fruition) and Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass).  And that was all on Saturday! 

I guess I shouldn’t just skip over Friday all together, because it was certainly a day of impressive musical performances as well.  While the day kicked off with some great acts, the highlight was once again the Larry Keel Experience.  The chemistry those three have is something you can’t create out of thin air.  Best friends, a marriage, and a lifetime of experiences all have come together to create this very special group of musicians.  The highlight was the ripping impromptu “Connie Chung” encore that honored the request of a certain group of Festy GoNutters (ahem ahem).  The night ended with a high-energy reunion show from Mountain Express Band that was a jam-heavy rocking good time.

The Culture

To be honest, Aiken Bluegrass Festival isn’t in the best venue.  It’s located in the Aiken County Fairgrounds, which is a big open field on the outskirts of Aiken, SC.  The main road goes right by the fairgrounds. There are no shade trees for music or camping.  It’s not awful, but it’s just nothing to really talk up when you are promoting the festival.  Here’s how the website describes it: The location “provides convenient access for our traveling guests while maintaining the ease of access our local fans have come to expect. Let’s face it, though, ­­it’s really about lots o’ fans, gobs o’ camping, more parking, and a whole lot more fun.”  So, it’s no secret to them either.  Location was not the selling point this time.

What makes Aiken Bluegrass Festival something you should definitely put on your list for next year is that it truly has that magical festival feeling.  The bands feel it – and they send it out to you while you are dancing away the night.  The festival promoters feel it – and you can see it in their hugs and smiles while they are standing on the side of the stage watching their favorite musicians jam together. The locals feel it – and they seem blown away by this musical talent that just rolled through their local fairgrounds for the weekend.  The campers feel it – and they immediately share that feeling with their new festival neighbors who will become their new fest friends for life.  Everyone feels it.  It’s a culture that was created by everyone who was there this year and everyone who was there in the decade of Aiken festivals in the past, and it truly is magical.

The Adventure

Sometimes music festivals aren’t exactly in your backyard.  Heck, they may not even be in the next state.  For us, Aiken Bluegrass Festival was about a 10-hour drive through 4 states.  For others, it took a plane ride and a few Ubers. Half the fun of a music festival can be figuring out how to get there, and that was certainly the case for Aiken Bluegrass. So, we decided to make it a road-trip and planned to visit new towns and old friends along the way. 

We hit the road on Wednesday afternoon and made our first stop Charlottesville, VA.  Splurging on a downtown hotel made it easy to explore the city on foot, and it was conveniently located next to the Whiskey Jar where we caught some live music while we grubbed on some classy bbq and imbibed on even classier whiskey cocktails.  As if the festival gods were sending us a sign of good things to come, Fruition’s “Mountain Annie” ( came on during dinner. Hmmm…I can take a hint. 

Our second stop was Charlotte, NC to visit some Festy Friends – the Shonts. We had gotten to know the Shonts (#ShontTour) at Leftover Salmon’s Estes Park Shindig , and they invited us to crash at their pad if we were every swinging through Charlotte, NC.  Be careful if you offer up your guest room (or couch or floor) to us, because we’ll probably be knocking on your front door at some point!  We got to know our Festy Friends outside of the “music festival bubble”, which is always a most incredible treat.  We even talked them into driving down to Aiken on Saturday (admittedly, it didn’t take too much convincing), so we lucked out with a bonus day of festivities with them!

Friday morning we headed on down to South Carolina and grabbed lunch at the local brewery in Aiken so that we could check out the town, and then anxiously sped off to the fairgrounds to set up camp and get our festival weekend rolling.  Two nights of amazingly good times ensued (read above), and then it was time to continue the road-trip adventure. 

After packing up camp on Sunday morning, we were off to Wilmington, NC to visit a good friend and check out another new-to-us city.  Monday morning, we dined at a riverside restaurant before cruising out to the coast to inhale some fresh, ocean air.  We pocketed some souvenir shells, then jumped on 95-North and were back at the crash pad by bedtime. 

You know how excited you get when you are leaving the house to drive to the festival?  Now, imagine if you could make that excitement stretch out a few days before or even a few days after the festival! A music festival that seems inconvenient or out of the way could easily be turned into something more adventurous and unexpected. Don’t shrug off a music festival that isn’t in your state.  Instead, get out a map and see how you can extend that music festival magical feeling.