For many, American music has become synonymous with ponderosa pine. And for 10 years, Flagstaff Friends of Traditional Music’s Pickin’ in the Pines Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Festival has offered visitors from far and wide an intimate sampling of bluegrass, blues, old-time and folk pathways.
As the festival weekend enters its 11th year, we spoke with Pickin’ in the Pines director Julie Sullivan, who also spoke on behalf of directors Linda Mack and Teresa Wayne, about the festival’s high points and what’s to come.
Pickin’ in the Pines takes place at Pepsi Amphitheater at Fort Tuthill Friday-Sunday, Sept. 16-18. Ticket prices vary. Purchase tickets and see a full lineup of music and workshops at www.pickininthepines.org.
DIANDRA MARKGRAF: When you look back at the last 10 years of Pickin’ in the Pines, what were some of your stand-out moments?
JULIE SULLIVAN: My ultimate favorite moment was the launching of year one, and just how exciting it was to have spent all that time preparing for it. With a few bumps in the road, we actually launched a real festival.
None of us started out as festival promoters, we became festival promoters, and in that moment we realized this dream has come true and it really has become a gigantic gift of music to the community.
Another standout moment was when we had the Carolina Chocolate Drops . We saw this huge swell in our audience — bigger, different age groups. Dom Flemmons [of the CCD] was a member of FFOTM and has roots here. That was just thrilling to be able to bring them here.
DM: How has the original intent of the festival, and that of FFOTM, expanded and been preserved considering all facets of programming?
JS: We’re very conscious of not having the tail wagging the dog, seeing as the festival is so much bigger than the organization. We even changed our mission statement slightly for FFOTM to make sure the word ‘bluegrass’ was mentioned more prominently.
That speaks to the festival and its sub-name — the prime focus is on bluegrass and its many chameleon forms and other forms of traditional-based music. We have had gypsy swing, some Celtic, progressive strings and others to mix it up. That happened kind of organically.
We really do look at those surveys and see what people say. The workshops are reflected more as the heart of FFOTM. The purpose of the program is more in the education realm in that we want to share and pass down this music and these techniques to keep this music alive.
I would hope that would always continue … That’s why we get [grant] funding — to preserve a rare form of American music.
DM: What is the general MO when it comes to booking acts for such a large music festival? Who are you excited to see perform this year?
JS: I loved when we had the SteelDrivers the first time , and I’m thrilled we’re going to bring them back again … The Earls of Leicester, they’re iconic in that they are Flatt and Scruggs tribute band — there’s your traditional type of music right there.
A huge change for us, too, was to move toward having night shows. That’s when we have a more progressive act that maybe leans even more toward a rock sound, which is what’s reflected in Sam Bush’s band.
That’s the thing we’re maybe the most proud of: we have a diverse lineup that appeals to a lot of people. Because it’s over three days there’s a lot of opportunities to see different music and hopefully learn about it, too.
DM: Moving into the second decade, how do you see the festival growing while satisfying the attendance base?
JS: You’re walking that fine line all the time: keeping true to the music and appealing to the diversity of our audiences’ taste. Looking back and forward, we have a team that feels like it’s coalesced, and that’s taken a long time to happen. There’s still a lot to do and tweak for the future to make it more efficient because we are still all-volunteer based, and there are a lot of challenges with that.
The goal is for the festival to continue and to still have these amazing acts while still keeping this smaller, intimate flavor… We all are doing this for the pleasure of the audience so they can unplug from the stresses in their worlds, be together and listen to music and have that common ground — to be inspired and maybe educated, also.