by David Lewis
The hills were alive with the sound of banjos.
The Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival turned pastoral Mulberry Mountain into a non-stop string-pickin’ newgrass jam Oct. 13-16. Think of it as a smaller, tamer version of its cousin, Wakarusa, which occupies the same Ozark hillside space in the middle of summer. Not that Yonder Mountain is either small or tame.
The Yonder Mountain festival is 60-plus national touring artists playing 100 or so sets on four stages over four days. Mulberry Mountain is a 650-acre lodging and event resort on Highway 23 (The Pig Trail) about five miles north of Turner Bend. On most days Mulberry Mountain is a huge open field with a couple of buildings near the entry and a permanent covered stage at the far end of the property. In mid-October, though, it transforms into a community of about 7,000 music lovers listening and dancing to high-energy acoustic tunes and sleeping — when they sleep at all — in tents and RVs.
Guests are young and not-so-young, although I’d estimate the median age at about 24. The dreadlocked, pierced and tattooed demographic dominates, but then there were numerous empty nesters re-visiting their youth and even young families with children.
Bluegrass is a good starting point to describe the music, but you don’t hear many Flatt & Scruggs cover tunes. Festival director Brett Mosiman calls it “Americana, jam grass, mountain grass.” Think banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, the headliner Saturday night. From there, the list goes on and on, including the namesake of the festival, the Yonder Mountain String Band out of Colorado. Other crowd favorites: Split Lip Rayfield, Railroad Earth, James McMurtry, Cory Smith, The Travelin’ McCourys and Todd Snider.
Most bands’ instrumentation is basic bluegrass: banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar and stand-up bass. In the case of Split Lip Rayfield, the bass is a single-stringed 1970 Ford Mercury gas tank with a fretless neck bolted on. And how Jeff Eaton thumps so many notes out of that contraption so fast is one of many musical wonders to behold at this festival.
“The vibe is a little different from Wakarusa,” said Mosiman. “More laid back. This has a Telluride [Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Colorado] or Winfield [Walnut Valley Festival, Kansas] feel.”
This was the sixth year for the festival, the second under the current name. Before that it went by “Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival.” The line-up and the crowd have grown each year, up by 25 percent this year, Mosiman said. About 70 percent of the guests are from Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, another 20 percent or so are from Texas and Louisiana, and the rest from just about anywhere, including a dedicated pack of fans from Colorado that follow the Yonder Mountain String Band concert to concert around the country.
It’s no wonder the Harvest Festival is growing in popularity as word gets out. Just being outdoors anywhere in the Ozarks in October is a proposition irresistible to many. Add great music and a big party in an open field, and they will come. The production company, Pipeline Productions of Lawrence, Kansas, runs a tight ship. High-quality PA systems fill the open air with plentiful decibels, campers have space to kick back and relax, vendors supply a steady diet of tasty morsels and hippie fashions and accessories, and staff and volunteers stay on top of it all.
Price for four days, including camping space, is $175, with discounts available for early purchase. Get on their mailing list at http://www.yonderharvestfestival.com for news of plans for 2012.