If events such as this past weekend’s Kutztown Arts and Music Festival are to serve as a criterion, then the summer of 1976 may well become known as a time when the contemporary outdoor music festival successfully re-emerged.
A few years back, the mere rumor of such an event was enough to send almost any community running for cover and court injunctions. After the media veneration paid to Woodstock, and the violence of Altamont, festivals fell upon hard times. Things reached a low point several years back when the Newport Festivals, probably the best known throughout the world, were forced out of the city of Newport.
Perhaps the major reason for the recent successful string of festivals is the fact that “rock,” either in word or deed, is no longer a particularly welcome part of the proceedings. True, many of the musicians and bands appearing at these events were at one time on at least the fringe of the genre — and the festivals themselves have incorporated most of the sound, lighting and crowd-control techniques garnered from years of “rock festival” trial and error — mostly error. But events such as the highly successful (financially, aesthetically and legally) Kutztown affair bode well for the “non-rock” music festival of future summers.
The talent lineup at Kutztown was quite unique also. For the first time in recent memory, some 60,000 listeners between the ages of 15 and 70 shared a music festival, due in no small part to the fact that the bookings were as multigenerational as the crowd. Progressive, youth-oriented acts the likes of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt vied for at least the grudging attention of the audience elders, and frequently won a good portion of them over.
Concurrently, the Nashville-oriented acts, such as Tammy Wynette, Ferlin Huskey, Donna Fargo and Freddy Fender, to name but a few, drew considerable response from those . . . under 40?
Highlights of the three-day affair were numerous. Aside from the excellent facilities, seldom even approached by any other such festival, the crafts, workshops and spontaneous music-making of all types throughout the Kutztown Fairgrounds showed remarkable vitality and diversity.
For this, credit would have to be given to the artistic and logistical foresight shown by those in the Kutztown State College Alumni Association, who more or less planned the entire event from a drawing board that goes back to the beginning of the year.
But it was the performers who graced the main stage in non-stop fashion, day and night, who would make or break the festival, and, perhaps sensing much of the special flavor of the event, they gave performances that, in some cases, transcended even their own abilities.
Over 30 of the finest progenitors of country-rock, bluegrass, traditional “old time” music and Nashville “Opry” style shows brought various factions of the 56,000 ticket buyers to their feet numerous times.
Fiddler Vassar Clements showed up with a band of scintillating “pickers,” and the Earl Scruggs Revue found a way to perform even the oldest Earl Scruggs’ original, some dating back to the 40s and 50s, with a newfound flair and high-energy style.
Bluegrass virtuoso Don Reno, along with Bill Harrell and the fervent fiddling of Buck Ryan, proved almost unbelievably “hot” for this performance. Bonnie Raitt, always a crowd-pleaser, delivered a particularly emotive and sensitive set, and the crystalline voice of new country-rock star Emmylou Harris was matched only by her exquisite and finely matched band.
Finally, as festival closers, a more symbolic or all-encompassing act than the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band could not have been found. Perhaps the most feverish response was garnered by the eclectic and educationally entertaining NGDB of the entire festival. But then, as a closing act for so memorable a three-day event as the Kutztown Festival, the band was undoubtably receiving its tumultuous response as much for its performance as for the entire event itself.