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Pickin' on Nashville

Nashville Music Classic hosts its third annual bluegrass festival

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“Everyone thinks you just open the gates and people pour in, but we work 10 months out of the year,” Lester Armistead says of the Nashville Music Classic Festival. There’s a mingling of mirth and exasperation in his voice, and it’s totally understandable. Though Nashville is the birthplace of bluegrass and home to far more than its share of the music’s stars, it’s never been an especially hospitable area for a bluegrass festival—those gatherings of faithful fans, determined jam-session hounds and curious newcomers that are still the foundation of the music’s economy and community. So it’s all the more remarkable that the Classic, which opens for its third year on Sept. 30 at nearby Ridgetop’s Smiley Hollow, looks like it will at least hold its own in this season of elevated fuel prices. (Fans frequently drive hundreds of miles to attend a favorite festival, as do the artists who entertain them.) And for those who live in the Nashville area, the NMC offers an unrivaled opportunity to catch not only a well-conceived assortment of bluegrass artists, but country favorites, too, including Dierks Bentley, who will head straight from Smiley Hollow to the Grand Ole Opry for his induction into the venerable show’s cast. Given Bentley’s long association with Nashville’s bluegrass community—he spent countless hours hanging out at the Station Inn in the years before he signed with Capitol Records, and a considerable number since—that journey is so appropriate as to seem providential. Indeed, Lester’s son and co-conspirator, Mike Armistead, was privy to the news of Bentley’s induction long before the star himself. “His booking guy sent me an e-mail about five months ago saying that they needed to bump his time all the way back to 1 in the afternoon,” Armistead says. “But I wanted him in a prime spot, so we went back and forth a few times, and I finally said, ‘What’s the special deal? Is it his mother’s birthday? You’ve got to come clean with me.’ And then he told me—but he said I couldn’t tell anybody, that there were only six people who knew, and if word got out, they would know it came from me. I didn’t tell Lester for a good while; I didn’t even tell my wife.” Yet if Bentley is, under these circumstances, the main attraction at the two-day festival, he’s hardly the only one. A panoply of top-notch bluegrass artists will be on hand, including IBMA award winners and current nominees like The Grascals, IIIrd Tyme Out, James King, Ronnie Reno and the Cherryholmes Family, as well as country and Americana favorites Cowboy Jack Clement and Gail Davies, among others. “It’s not just a bluegrass festival, it’s a music festival,” Mike Armistead says, and he’s right. While most of the artists on the bill perform in and around the city on at least a semi-regular basis, the combination offers an unusual opportunity to hear them together in one long (but not too long!) and comfortably priced sitting. Beyond that, the Classic brings to the area an all too rare taste of an essential bluegrass experience, for a bluegrass festival doesn’t revolve only (or sometimes even mainly) around what’s happening onstage. Wander out among the campsites, and you’ll hear old friends and strangers who have never played a note with each other come together for jam session performances that can sound as if they’ve all been lifelong musical partners. It’s a scene with a charm, beauty and power all its own—and right now, Smiley Hollow is the only place in the Nashville area where it can be found. For more information, visit www.nashvillemusicclassic.com.

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