By Clay Payne
Bluegrass fans descended on the Ozarks of Arkansas at Mulberry Mountain last week for four days of
ideal camping weather, southern string music and wholesome family fun.
Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Festival, (formerly Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival) began on Thursday in Ozark and continued until Sunday evening with the nation’s top bluegrass acts performing on four separate stages to a crowd of an estimated 5,000-6,0000 campers and music adorners.
Two years ago, Yonder Mountain transformed the festival in hopes of bringing its southern and Midwestern fans together for a “Yonder family” experience. With activities and bands starting up at 10a.m. and continuing through 3 a.m., no dull moments could be found for festival attendants.
By offering a family- oriented atmosphere, Harvest Fest has distinguished itself from other large music festivals such as Bonnaroo, Coachella and Wakarusa.
“Harvest Fest is different from other festivals because of the weather and the laid back attitude,” Adam Beasley, a festival fan from Fort Smith said.
And the nice weather helped too.
“Getting to sleep in past 9 a.m. because you’re not baking in your tent makes everything a little easier.”
For fans who enjoy jam sessions where bands invite musical guests onstage to play with them and add new dimensions to the sound, the festival could not have been more enjoyable.
Yonder Mountain String Band took full advantage of all the great musicians performing at the festival, and constantly invited them to play over the course of their three-show pickin’ and grinnin’ sessions. On Thursday night, Todd Snider and Vince Herman (formerly of Leftover Salmon) joined the band for a version of The Rolling Stones’ “Far Away Eyes” that could have sobered up Keith Richards.
Friday, Danny Barnes (Split Lip Rayfield) closed out the second set with Yonder Mountain for a thumb-droppin’ banjo beat down. At the start of the second set, Yonder was accompanied by legendary Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzman for the Grateful Dead’s “Althea” and “New Speedway Boogie.” Drew Emmit (Emmit-Nershi Band, Leftover Salmon) straddled his mandolin with Yonder Mountain at the end of the show for “Boatman” and “My Gal.”
For a truly momentous occasion during Saturday’s Yonder Mountain show, the band brought up all the members of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to play “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown” and Little Feat’s “Shake Me Up.” The fiddles of Allie Kral (Cornmeal) and Bridget Law (Elephant Revival) hopped on stage to open the second set of Yonder Mountain’s final appearance. Darol Angler played the fiddle with Yonder Mountain for the entire show on Friday and Saturday night.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones joined me for a brief conversation prior to their Saturday evening show.
“I liked the fact that the property is really wide, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. It still feels like you have room. There’s a lot of people but I’m not bumping into anyone. I can walk around and go from stage to stage — I like being able to do that,” Victor Wooten, bass player for The Flecktones said. “I love Bonnaroo, but I get a different feeling from it. This one has a down-home, comfortable, accepting feel. To me, this is a great place to have a festival.”
“What I like about festivals is that you’re playing for the audience, but you’re also playing for the other bands,” Fleck said, “When the other musicians are around, I think everyone steps up their game. It’s not a competitive thing, I just want to show my best because my friends are here.”
“Harvest feels so different than Wakarusa with string instruments floating through the campgrounds,” Emily Ginsberg, Pipeline Productions press and media coordinator said. “… The mountains with the trees changing are magical and mystical during this beautiful time of year, giving off a very nice vibe. Music-wise, there were an epic amount of sit-ins all over the place.”
New additions in the festival’s activity department for this year were extensive, especially for festival attendants who opted to bring the kids along for the ride. The Roost area contained events from early morning yoga to late night drum circles. The Quixotic Fusion School of Performing Arts from Kansas City offered lessons in dance, tumbling, and painting for children to explore their creative sides, as well as face-painting, arts and crafts projects and children’s musical sets from the bands Truckstop Honeymoon and Deep Fried Pickle Project.
“When we were planning the festival, we asked how can we make this festival more family friendly as well as more available and relaxed for people who brought their kids,” Ginsberg said.
Also a first this year were workshops with selected festival highlights. During one, Bela Fleck and
Railroad Earth held intimate Q&A sessions with fans.
“I really enjoyed it,” Fleck said of his banjo workshop. “I felt really comfortable, especially when I’m talking about something I know about. There were a lot of people really curious with cool questions.”
Members of Elephant revival hosted a songwriting workshop, and That One Guy’s “Magic Workshop” taught fans to how to build and play his contraptions — the Magic Pipe, the Magic Boot and the Magic Saw. (Picture a 7-foot tall broken Bowflex making the sounds a full band puts out while one man slaps and plucks away at it.)
“It’s rare to get up close and ask musicians questions that you really want to know,” Emily Ginsberg of Pipeline Productions said.
A partnership between Rock The Earth and Harvest Festival was formed this year to help cleanse the area of trash while still having a good time. Rock the Earth along with river-rafting experts Turner Bend and the Shimon Presents Work Exchange Team led the first ever “Pig Trail Clean Up” on Wednesday, in the vicinity of Mulberry Mountain. Several volunteers, who were granted free early admission for their good deeds, came out early to the Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival to assist in the clean up effort.
“I think the clean up effort was a success,” Brad Wimberly of Turner Bend said. “(We covered) seven miles of Highway 23 from near the Madison County line to the floor of the Mulberry Valley. Three pickup truck loads of trash and some beer cans that had been there so long that they were the type that were opened with a can opener.”
Continuing to give back, the festival also boasted an “Arts That Feeds” food drive by Conscious Alliance. Harvest Fest attendants donated over 3,000 lbs. of canned food to the River Valley Regional Food Bank. Even the tips I gave to the kind folks serving me beer went to the Joplin Relief Fund.