Moonshiner’s Ball helping revitalize the love for Kentucky music

By Matt Wickstrom

For the last three years, Travis Young of Lexington band Blind Corn Liquor Pickers has been hard at work helping his bandmates organize the Moonshiner’s Ball, a grass roots festival hosted by BCLP that emphasizes Kentucky artists, while also featuring several prominent out-of-state acts. Last week I sat down with Young to discuss the biggest difficulties in organizing a festival, his vision for the Moonshiner’s Ball, Kentucky artists lacking on the festival scene, and much more. Read the full interview after the break.

Matt Wickstrom: “What’s your process like for finding bands to bring to the Moonshiner’s Ball?”

Travis Young: “It becomes an obsession, trying to find the next big band. We don’t have the money to go out and get a made band that everyone instantly knows, so you just comb. You listen to podcasts, read music blogs. Every Friday when new CDs drop on Spotify you’re downloading and making new playlists. Constant searching — going out and scouting. It sounds more sophisticated than it really is; it’s really just going out to other festivals and shows and seeing bands live, because for a lot of bands, especially those that are still undercover, you can’t get a solid grasp of what they sound like live from the few Youtube clips and stuff that’s out there of them.”

“I love that stuff. Scouting has become an obsession for me in many ways. Even though I wasn’t sure from the start the direction the festival was going to take, I know now that I don’t ever want the festival to have a bunch of bands you already know. That doesn’t interest me. I’m much more interested in having a festival full of bands you’ve never heard of, some you’ve heard of and some you haven’t, but that are all sought after and discovered. Well, not discovered, but cobbled together and curated by people that play music, know music and love music. Not just myself, but the other people on the board like Joel Serdenis who I bounce band ideas off of that have slightly different perspectives on music than I do. When there’s consensus, when we all agree that this is a killer band even though nobody knows who they are.”

“Take Darlingside out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, who brings these amazing four-part harmonies and writes these super clever songs and play with such extreme polish for young touring musicians.”

MW: “I actually just heard one of Darlingside’s songs earlier today on WUKY (91.3 FM Lexington). They do sound amazing, and I loved their harmonies. I can’t wait to see them up close at the Ball!”

TY: “Yeah, they’re great man! They won best artists earlier this year at the International Folk Music Awards, which is sort of an international music conference similar to South by Southwest (SXSW), but specifically for the folk genre.”

MW: “Going back to booking bands, would you say that’s the toughest part about putting the festival on?

TY: “There are a lot of challenges. In many ways it might be the most time consuming part. Your ears are open, you’re listening for the next big band year-round, but then there’s a really intense period of trying to book bands between September on the early end to January on the late end, and it’s all a process of negotiation. For one it’s like I want this band, but will they come play for what I can pay them to play? It depends on their routing. Are they coming through the area or not? Do they want to play this festival? Does it fit into their bigger plans? Am I paying them what they want to be paid? Are they willing to play for a little bit less because they think it’s cool, small, funky, and will help get their name out there in a big way? Then a lot of times the band’s agent wants you to wait. They’re like “Well, why don’t you just hang on for a little bit?”. They want to see if anything better will come along, and then maybe they’ll agree in the end. You’re also trying to avoid those situations yourself, so you always have to have a backup plan. It can get pretty hectic.”

“The other big thing is making sure everything runs smoothly and goes according to plan at the festival. We’re gonna try to not grow the festival as much this time around. Last year our attendance doubled from year one. With a bump up in attendance, we’ve found it creates a bunch of additional problems, a whole new level of drama. This year, rather than doubling it again we’re going to grow it just a little bit, by maybe 30 or 40 percent, but really hone in on trying to get the organization right and trying to make it smooth. We’re going to have a medical tent set up and run by the U of L Medical School. We’re going to have a bigger volunteer staff. We’re going to try to park people properly so nobody is prohibiting anyone else from leaving the scene early if necessary. We’ve got all sorts of contingency plans in place. Overall, the logistics of the festival are getting a lot more attention this year.”

MW: “With how the festival has been expanding year after year, do you envision having to look for a host site other than Homegrown Hideaways in years to come?”

TY: “It’s definitely a possibility in years to come, but I also think it’s possible to keep numbers small and raise the profile of the festival, get some bigger bands, but then that means charging more. That’s the other option. If we were going to stay there we would probably max out as far as capacity goes. We could keep capacity the same and raise the price, because we don’t want the festival to stay how it is; we want it to be growing every year. That’s part of our long-term strategy, so to grow it there we would have to keep the numbers stable, but raise the level of the performers and that would mean the cost goes up slightly for everybody.”

MW: “What new stuff do you have ready for the Moonshiner’s Ball this year? I remember last year you debuted a late-night stage in the woods.”

TY: “The one thing that we’re doing more of this year, which was born by a happy accident, you remember when the power went out on the main stage last year on Saturday morning? Well, the power didn’t come back on until around 2 p.m.. We finally figured out it was a breaker, and sent somebody out to grab a new one. While that was happening we had to move the bands scheduled on the main stage onto the lawn. That was a crazy, challenging and stressful moment, but like I mentioned it was like a happy accident because having bands out there on the lawn with people sitting in the grass and no overhead cover is a beautiful thing. The main stage roof does protect you from the rain and sun, but it also hides the amazing view that you get at Homegrown Hideaways.”

“You put a band on the lawn, and you can just sit in the grass and you’re looking out at all the mountains. The creek is right down below you and the band is playing right in front of you. It makes for a beautiful setting, so this year we decided to do more performances on the lawn, and WRFL (88.1 FM Lexington) agreed to sponsor the stage. It’s going to be called the WondeRFuL stage. In future years they may work with us to do curating of that stage, but for now we’ve got a great slate of local area bands playing there between the main stage acts. We’ve got Johnny Conqueroo on that; Sheisty Khrist is doing a set there with Long Jumper. Warren Byrom and The Rooster’s Crow are doing sets out there too. Then Saturday morning Tyler Childers is going to do a full set out on the lawn.”

MW: “You do a great job at the Moonshiner’s Ball of promoting and booking Kentucky artists and musicians. With Kentucky having such a rich musical tradition, why do you think many bigger festivals don’t seek out Kentucky musicians more often?”

TY: “To me you’ve got Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton; they’re clearly at the top of the heap of Kentucky bands who have made it significantly. However, if you go down one tier you’ve got Joan Shelley, who’s had an amazing breakthrough year. She’s hit NPR’s top ten albums of the year list and she’s been on “All Songs Considered”. She’s also playing the Newport Folk Festival. She’ll also be playing Forecastle, but a lot of people in Kentucky still don’t know who she is. That’s one example of where I think Kentucky misses the boat with regards to their own artists. Vandaveer is another one. Their new album is as good as you’ll find anywhere.”

MW: “I’ve heard the name, but can’t say I’m too familiar with Joan Shelley either, but I can’t wait to see her perform at the Ball. I saw recently where you are almost sold out of Tier II priced tickets (Now sold out) for the festival. Can you give me your best sales pitch directed at those still on the fence about making it to Berea for the Ball?”

TY: “What I see happening with the Moonshiner’s Ball is it’s still small, it’s still a growing festival, and I’m seeing that the same people come back every year, but those people that are coming back are bringing more friends with them each year. All those people form little festival communities. It’s growing organically in that way, so people that haven’t been out yet still have a chance to get in on the ground floor. You can still come in and put your stamp on it, because ultimately the identity of the festival goes beyond the organizer, the person who conceives the music, the person who makes the logistics work, and the person that grooms the venue.”

“The festival’s soul lies in all the little communities that form in the campground. All the people that decide they’re going to hitch their wagon to this every year, and bring their friends out too. For them it becomes a reunion. Those communities to some degree know each other, and there becomes a core of people who know each other year-to-year, and maybe they didn’t know each other before they started coming here.”

“In our case a lot of these people are artists and musicians, and a lot are just really smart professionals. We have a lot of really interesting people that come out, and it’s beyond the music, camping and all that. The really beautiful thing about it is the community. You will leave that weekend knowing people you didn’t know going in, and if you go back the next year you’ll see them again and remember them. That’s what Moonshiner’s is going to have that I don’t think any other Kentucky festivals really have.”

MW: “Thank you so much for your time Travis!”

The Moonshiner’s Ball will be held from May 20-22, 2016, at Homegrown Hideaways in Berea, Kentucky. To find out more about the festival, including purchasing tickets, visit themoonshinersball.com.

RELATED: Region’s best readying for Moonshiner’s Ball music festival

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