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Written by:  Christopher E. Nelson
Date: April 1, 2012

As warm weather returns, a new season of outdoor music festivals beckons music-loving families to enjoy a diverse range of musical talent in relaxing outdoor settings throughout the state.

A seven-month season with nearly 100 music festivals across North Carolina begins in April, with the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in Silk Hope and MerleFest in Wilkesboro among the month's larger events.

Today's music festivals are not the counter-culture gatherings of a generation ago. Most are well organized and may be backed by name-brand sponsors. Many cater to families by presenting a variety of activities and performances for the younger set, often offering discounted tickets for youths and free admission for the very young.

Activities for kids

Sara Waters, co-coordinator of the semi-annual Shakori Hills festivals, says organizers have always stressed the value of music and art through education, "and to start with the kids is a good place to start."

Shakori Hills — where four days of music may range from bluegrass to rock, jazz, Zydeco and Klezmer — places its Kids' Zone at the center of the festival's 72-acre farm. Beyond storytelling, simple crafts and bubbles for young kids, there are organized games like Capture the Flag and crafts such as tie-dying for older children. In a separate area, teenagers can enjoy poetry, songwriting and instrumental workshops; foosball; and an open mike stage.

A week after Shakori Hills each April, MerleFest takes over the Wilkes Community College campus for four days to present Americana, bluegrass, country and rock music on more than a dozen stages. School groups are admitted free on Friday, bringing about 3,200 kids in grades 5, 8 and 12 to the festival. MerleFest's Little Pickers' Area offers children's games, crafts, storytelling and music. In addition to three Youth Showcase performances during the weekend, which children 16 and younger can apply to perform in, festival coordinators book children's acts for the Little Pickers' Stage.

In mid-May and October, LEAF (Lake Eden Arts Festival) in Black Mountain puts on four days of world music, folk, rock, hip-hop and Americana. Held at Camp Rockmont, a children's camp, the festival focuses on enhancing family experiences, says Jennifer Pickering, festival executive director.

LEAF's Kids' Village has two stages for performances by and for kids, a musical instrument petting zoo, craft and costume play, a climbing wall, roving jugglers, stilt-walkers and more. LEAF also offers day care until late at night and a tent for nursing, changing diapers or simply rocking an unsettled child. At the lake, a "Splash Pass" provides access to canoes, swimming and a zip line that starts on a hillside and splashes down into the water.

The LEAF in Schools & Streets program sends teaching artists into area schools, and youth musicians from the program play at the festival.

"Since the start (16 years ago), we wanted to make it for all ages — an intergenerational experience," Pickering says. "For many, LEAF is a family tradition. Some who come every time, who are now in their teens, have been coming since they were in diapers."

Families at the festival

Kippy Perkins and her husband, Tom, of Chapel Hill have taken their boys, now 16, 14, 12 and 8 years old, to LEAF almost every spring and fall since the festival began. "I've only missed two, and it was because I was having babies," she says.

Her boys "love to hang out. They love to run around and the freedom," she says. "It's safe. It's like camp for all of us."

Anne and Cleve Tanner of Forksville, Va., have been taking their nieces, now 14 and 16, to Shakori Hills for about 10 years. They camp alongside three families from Cary with seven kids among them.

"They're friends and they see each other twice a year, and they catch up and have a great time," Anne Tanner says. "We've never had a situation where we've felt uncomfortable with the kids."

As Tanner's nieces have grown, they have begun to appreciate the festivals' music more and have taken up musical instruments themselves. Perkins' boys enjoy world and hip-hop music at LEAF, she says.

Both women say the festivals' diversity of music and people has offered valuable learning experiences for the kids.

"I think it expands their whole horizons," Tanner says. "They see different people from different countries who dress and think differently. It's just a good experience."

A music-centered community

Attending a multi-day music festival is like vacationing among a culture dedicated to live music. Larger festivals, especially, offer all the amenities you need to immerse yourself in the sounds, sights, people and play.

Festival food vendors typically offer fare ranging from fair food to balanced meals, and festivals usually allow patrons to take in coolers. Some festivals allow or sell alcohol, though many prohibit it. Camp chairs are standard equipment, but some festivals offer reserved seating for higher prices or VIP packages with access to tents and perks such as artists' receptions.

Prepare as you would for any day outdoors that will stretch into the evening. This includes sunscreen, hats and layers of clothing to add after sunset. Don't forget rain gear, either.

Check festival websites for what is allowed, but in general you can take items you normally would to keep children happy when they're not occupied with the festival activities.  n

Christopher E. Nelson is the founder of CarolinaOutdoorsGuide.com, and CarolinaMusicFests.com, a calendar and festival guide to more than 100 (mostly) outdoor music festivals in the state.


N.C. Music Festivals

North Carolina's main music festival season is April through October, with single- and multi-day shows almost every weekend. For a comprehensive calendar and guide, see www.carolinamusicfests.com.

(Ticket prices below are "at the gate.")

Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music & Dance, Silk Hope  •  www.shakorihillsgrassroots.org
April 19-22 and Oct. 4-7
Eclectic range of music from about 50 bands on four stages. Children's activities include arts and crafts, songwriting and instrument workshops, a nature walk and a costume parade.
Four-day pass for adults, $100; ages 13-15, $55; 12 and under, free. Daily pass, $25-$45; ages 13-15, $12-$22; 12 and younger, free. Camping for tents, $10; RVs, $60. Family area available.

Family Style Bluegrass Music Festival, Roxboro  •  www.willowoakpark.com
April 26-28
Four or five bluegrass bands each day play afternoon and evening shows.
Three-day pass, $75; ages 13-16, $45; 12 and under, free. Daily pass, $25-$30; ages 13-16, $15; 12 and under, free. Tent/RV camping, free with ticket; RVs with hookups, $10-$15.

MerleFest, Wilkesboro  •  www.merlefest.org
April 26-29
About 80 bluegrass, country, Americana and rock bands play on
13 stages, some indoors. Kids' area has crafts, games, and musical and non-musical acts.
Four-day pass, $155 general admission; age 12 and under, free; reserved seating, $225-$250. Friday-Sunday general admission; $140; daily; $35-$55; age 12 and under, free. Limited RV camping on campus, $450 (four days). Plentiful camping nearby with shuttle buses.

LEAF, Black Mountain  •  www.theleaf.org
May 10-13 and Oct. 18-21
About 40 world music, blues and Americana bands play on four stages (three indoors). Many activities available, including arts and crafts, canoeing, swimming and organized hiking.
Four-day pass, $169; ages 10-17, $139; 9 and under, free; discounts for local residents. Daily pass $40-$50; ages 10-17 $32-$42; 9 and under free.
Four-day passes include tent camping, with separate family area. Camp Rockmont, the festival site, offers cabins, lodge rooms and lodge bunks at various prices.

Red, White & Bluegrass Festival, Morganton  • www.redwhiteandbluegrassfestival.com
June 30-July 4
About 35 bluegrass bands play at Catawba Meadows Park, which offers playgrounds, walking trails, a zip line and other amenities. The festival also includes fireworks and a youth bluegrass musicians' camp.
Preview night (June 30) presents six bands for free. Four-day pass, $80; age 12 and under, free. Daily pass $30. Camping, $30 for full event, $20 daily.

—   Christopher E. Nelson



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