By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer
With a deafening cheer rising from the record-setting crowd at Festival Field Saturday night, Willie Nelson stepped out onto the stage and raised his arms to the sky, then immediately put his hand to his guitar strings and started into “Whiskey River.”
It would be several songs later before Nelson — the much-anticipated 20th anniversary Master Musicians Festival headliner — finally addressed the crowd with the only words one might have expected for a country crooner before a Kentucky crowd:
“How y’all doin’?”
Now that Nelson was on stage, the mighty congregation of festivalgoers was doin’ fine indeed.
Nelson — the legendary country music artist active with six decades of experience under his belt, 25 chart-topping hits, and numerous business and activism endeavors — proved a financial boon for the non-profit Master Musicians Festival (MMF) organization.
Approximately 4,600 people showed up to the festival’s site at Somerset Community College for the all-day event Saturday; 6,000 attended the festival over the two-day duration. That beat the previous total by about 2,000 visitors, set in 2011, when singer Steve Earle was the headliner. It wasn’t a sell-out crowd, but it was close.
And although MMF doesn’t provide exact dollar amounts of revenue, board president Tiffany Bourne said that they were “definitely able to pay all of the bills and have a sustainable festival,” plus “able to put some more into the festival for next year and keep making it better.”
Every MMF features a big-name act at the top of the ticket, but Nelson was unusually huge, meaning increased security, a new stage (one large platform instead of two side-by-side), and increased prices.
“We had no idea if people would buy into it and love the idea,” said Bourne. “We couldn’t have been more pleased.”
Nor could she have been any happier with the weather — the rain that was predicted by meteorologists stayed away throughout the weekend — or the efforts of her fellow board members, all the volunteers that make MMF possible, and others in the community who were invaluable to the cause.
“I’m so proud of all the volunteers and vendors, and I want to give a shout-out to the City of Somerset, to the police department and EMS; we couldn’t have done it without them,” said Bourne. “Mayor (Eddie) Girdler gave us a lot of support, and we’re very thankful. ... Dr. (Jo) Marshall (SCC president) was there and was so pleased with how the festival represented the college.”
And the college impressed the visitors too. Bourne said that Nelson’s band used the Hal Rogers Commons facility as a green room, and raved about how nice the college was to Dr. Marshall and festival staff.
“They went on and on about how they do several festivals a week, and how beautiful SCC was — the perfect place to have an outdoor festival,” said Bourne. “It was the best set-up, with the trees and the intimate setting.”
If there was any “hiccup” at all, as Bourne put it, it was unexpectedly running out of beer — with Somerset’s new “wet” status, festivalgoers had to buy their alcohol on the premises, and Bourne admitted that organizers didn’t anticipate not having enough to last the weekend. It simply amounts to a lesson learned for next year.
Even the other artists enjoyed getting to share a stage with Willie Nelson. Brandon Roush and Zach Grider of the Dirty Grindstones said they wanted a picture taken with Nelson. Mountain Heart played right before Nelson — they later got the chance to come up on stage with him and perform late in the night.
“It’s one of the things I love about MMF, when the local and regional bands share the stage with great artists,” said Bourne. “We didn’t know what capacity it would happen in, but we knew (Mountain Heart) would join Willie on stage. ... Just to see their faces, like little boys at Christmas, and they’re national artists in their own right. We’re so proud we made that moment happen for them as well.”
Mountain Heart was one of the most popular acts of the festival, said Bourne — after playing in front of a thousand-person crowd on Friday a couple of years ago, Bourne knew they deserved a bigger audience this time, and got it on Saturday night. But even though they got upstaged for a brief moment by Willie Nelson’s arriving motorcoach — the whole crowd stopped to scream and take pictures of the vehicle — the band embraced the unique moment.
“That was my favorite part of the whole festival,” said Bourne, “when (Mountain Heart) stopped and said, ‘Everyone say hello to Willie.’”
Kevin Dalton, front man for the band Faubush Hill, said that MMF was “a little bit more special this year” because of Nelson, the selection of Tommy Minton as this year’s honored Master Musician, and the 20th anniversary milestone, and he was proud to be a part of it.
“I think it’s been the best line-up in years; it’s kind of the ‘best of the best,’” said Dalton. “It’s definitely an honor to be a part of it. Even all the other local bands we play with all the time, they’re unbelievable. The talent here is as good as anywhere. You could put the Dirty Grindstones, the Flint Ridge Millers, even One Way up against anybody.”
David Mayfield of the aptly-named David Mayfield Parade made his second appearance, bringing an energetic brand of folksy rock — “almost vaudevillian at times,” as he put it — to the MMF stage. He was happy to be back, just as the crowd was happy to have him.
“I was really bummed that we didn’t come back last year, but I think it’s worth the wait; anticipation has built up,” said Mayfield. “We’ve been suffering through this heat wave the last few days. It’s hot, but it’s beautiful (at Festival Field). There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
Perhaps the most special homecoming of all was for Gabrielle Gray, the woman who first founded MMF, way back in 1994. The festival honored her with a “lifetime achievement award,” and even though Gray said she makes a point of coming to the festival every year despite living in western Kentucky now, this time was especially meaningful for her.
“Somerset’s my hometown,” she said. “It’s a huge part of my heart that is completely captured by the landscape and people here. It will never be any different. To have all that love returned is a really wonderful thing.”
Gray now runs the International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, as well as the ever-growing ROMP festival there. She’s happy to see that the festival she left behind is still going strong, even two decades after its inception.
“I’m really thrilled to see it growing and thriving and flourishing,” she said. “The community has embraced MMF in the best possible way by attending and sponsoring and being cheerleaders for it. There’s no better thing to come together (as a community) than music because it transcends boundaries.”