People from throughout the country will flock to the Kentucky Horse Park this weekend, not for a horse auction or race, but rather old-school bluegrass music.
The Festival of the Bluegrass returns from June 9 through 12 for the 43th consecutive year, and features local and national bluegrass acts.
Lexington acts The Wooks and Restless Leg String Band, along with Louisville’s The 23 String Band lead a strong Kentucky showcase at the renowned festival, which includes bluegrass acts Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway and Town Mountain, among others.
The 23 String Band’s performance at the festival will be their first in nearly 18 months. The group took a hiatus from performing to focus on family, day jobs and other musical endeavors, according to guitarist and founding member Chris Shouse.
“With this tour we just want to get back together and play some of our favorite festivals like Festival of the Bluegrass, ROMP — some meaningful, local festivals," Shouse said. “We wanted to play those, and we really love playing much with each other. We wanted to just play some shows and see how it goes. We might play more next year or we might not. It’s been a while. We’re all chomping at the bit to get back playing together.”
The group will also be performing a hometown show in Louisville at Headliners Music Hall as part of the late-night series for Forecastle Festival in July with local acts The Pass and Niles Foley, which Shouse referred to as the “brainchild” of The 23 String Band’s fiddlist Scott Moore. As for the rest of 23SB, banjoist Curtis Wilson plays in several Louisville musical acts, bassist Mark Stam teaches music in North Carolina, and mandolinist Dave Howard plays in Louisville band Relic and started his own folk music school in Louisville that offers lessons and workshops.
While Shouse’s main focus is with The 23 String Band, he does occasionally sit in with other acts. He’s performed several times with Kati Penn of Newtown and C.J. Cain, formerly of Newtown and currently guitarist for The Wooks. Shouse also played several shows with The Wooks last fall when banjo player Arthur Hancock was sidelined with a back injury. Shouse hinted there may be more of the same this weekend with both bands performing at Festival of the Bluegrass.
“C.J. is always hanging out at our camper or I’m at his playing music together,” Shouse said. “Last year on stage we all got to play a few songs with Town Mountain, the closing act. But as far as doing anything on stage, maybe, maybe not. We like being spur of the moment. It’s one of those things that if it seems like a good idea at the time, we’ll usually end up doing it.”
The rich tradition of Festival of the Bluegrass has curated memories that will last a lifetime, as is expected for any event that has a near half-century history. This ideology hits close to home for Shouse, who has attended Festival of the Bluegrass for 15 years, first performing around campfires to now being part of one of the weekend’s most popular acts.
Music kicks off Thursday night, June 9 with Blue Belles, Hogslop String Band, Lonesome River Band and The Wooks and continues all-day Friday and Saturday. The 23 String Band will perform on Saturday at 2:40 p.m. and again at 10:10 p.m., just before Town Mountain takes the stage.
“I’ve played festivals all over the country, and Festival of the Bluegrass is the best in my opinion,” Shouse said. “The people who run it — AnnaMarie and Roy (Cornett) are great to us… I couldn’t ask for a better place to play.”
Weekend camping passes for Festival of the Bluegrass cost $135 at the gate, with non-camping weekend passes running $115. Individual day passes are also available at discounted prices. Come out to the Kentucky Horse Park this weekend to soak in the sun and make memories, just as music fans have been doing at Festival of the Bluegrass since the 1970's. To view the full festival lineup, purchase tickets and more, visit festivalofthebluegrass.com.
"Long Hot Summer Days" by The 23 String Band