Annual Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival welcomes crowds to Martin Park

By Frances Taylor - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Fri., Aug. 5, 2011
Mac McHale and the Old Time Radio Gang performed on the first night of the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival in East Hartford. Photos by Frances Taylor.
Mac McHale and the Old Time Radio Gang performed on the first night of the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival in East Hartford. Photos by Frances Taylor.

The campers and recreational vehicles rolled into Martin Park on Aug. 4, forming a small city of bluegrass music enthusiasts who came from across the region for four days of music and family fun.

Over the years, the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival, East Hartford's biggest annual event, has grown into a major destination for those who love bluegrass music. Organizers say attendance at last year's festival set a new record, and the same could happen this year. The festival was the winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2010 award.

Bluegrass music is an American art form that began in the southeastern U.S. that is played on banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. It's also known as “mountain music,” and the songs reflect the daily lives and culture of the people there.

Festival performers this year include the Dixie Beeliners, the Travelin' McCrory's, Dan Paisley and Southern Grass, Fitzmaurice and Steep Canyon Rangers.

Town council member Marc Weinberg has been a volunteer at the festival for years, and he was at the visitors table, handing out brochures. “I've been coming here for years because of music and because of the very nice people you meet here,” Weinberg said. “Over the years, people came from around the region, then they started coming from across the country. We've even had people from across the world. A family came here from Australia last year.”

Some of the most popular names in bluegrass music have appeared at the festival, he added. “We've had the McCrory brothers, Doc Watson, Rhonda Vincent,” he said.

A feature of the festival is not just the talent on stage, but off-stage as well. ''When you walk through the camping area, you can find people picking and playing into the night,” he said. “There's a lot of talent out there, and we want people to come and listen.”

Cathy Ward, another longtime volunteer, said she has seen the event grow from a one-day event on the town green to the four-day festival it is today. “It’s a time to see old friends, people you haven't seen all winter, and it’s a place where you can hear all types of music, not just one kind,” she said. “And the festival is about families – it’s really a family event. We have lots of activities here for kids, and they're free. It's also about passing the music on to the next generation to keep it going.”

The festival includes workshops for players at various levels, as well as the Kid's Academy, where youngsters learn songs to sing and play and present them onstage on the last day of the festival.

Jennifer Rolfe, an East Hartford resident, brought her two young daughters to the festival. They were having fun at the musical instrument “petting zoo,” where a range of musical instruments from banjos and mandolins to harps were on display and available to be picked up and played.

"We've come for the last few years. I like the music, I grew up with it through my parents - my father is a musician - and we're letting my daughters see what kind of instrument they might like to play,” said Rolfe.

Anton Prenneis, from Brimfield, Mass., was enjoying the festival for the first time. “We've heard about the festival, and we decided to come and camp out over the next few days, and play music until the sun comes up,” he said.

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