MMF family comes back together for year 26

Courtesy of Master Musicians Festival

Set-up of the stage at Festival Field behind Somerset Community College was underway Tuesday, in preparation for this weekend's 26th annual Master Musicians Festival. One-and-a-half days full of live music, headlined by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, will take place on these grounds.

Master Musicians Festival, like most things, evolves. It is no longer merely an outdoor concert.

It's a family.

That is perhaps a subtle if unintended theme this year -- spouses pop up throughout the line-up, such as Chris and Jenn Shouse, Michael and Tanya Trotter of the War and Treaty, and even headliner Jason Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, part of his band the 400 Unit. There are also siblings, like Chelsea and Josh Nolan.

But it is also a signifier of how long MMF has been around, becoming part of the very fabric of local life.

"We're realizing all the kids who used to come as children are now the people running the festival or part of the festival, or are bringing their children to the festival," said MMF Board President Tiffany Finley. "It's really neat to see what the festival has become in 26 years."

This year's edition takes place this Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20, at the familiar environs of Festival Field, situated in a grassy clearing behind Somerset Community College.

"Everything is on track," said Finley on Tuesday. "We've already started putting up on stage, got everything planned out. (The weather) looks good so far. It's going to be hot, but that's better than rain."

This year's headlining act is Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Isbell is making his return to Somerset after appearing at MMF in 2012. A huge name in the world of "Americana" music, which MMF has made its stock-in-trade, Isbell is one of those MMF names that has blown up since first visiting the festival -- much like the Avett Brothers, a name organizers always point to as MMF getting in on the ground floor early on someone -- but apparently MMF made just as big an impression on Isbell as he made on the festivalgoers.

"The cool thing is, he really does appreciate that we keep our ticket prices low," said Finley. "He had another offer on the table and he chose us because of those factors. It's a pretty cool thing to hear, and it makes us feel like what we're doing matters."

The reputation of MMF is growing strong, especially here in the Bluegrass State. Finley referenced the first interview she did with the Commonwealth Journal about coming on on the MMF board, back 10 years ago, to show how far festival organizers have come and what they've managed to accomplish.

"We had a lot of goals set out," she said. "We wanted to bring in Kentucky acts and really showcase what Kentucky has to offer. We wanted to make sure we have a strong board."

Check and check.

"Our board is so good at making these connections throughout the state," said Finley. "Daniel (Stroud) at Jarfly Brewing Co. is bringing in artists that we have in our line-up and they tell their friends. And with Nate (Isaac) doing SomerSessions (music recordings and promotion), we're really becoming a hotspot for Kentucky mysic.

"Not only (in state), but we have artists from all over writing us and asking to come to Somerset now and what other opportunities there are to play," she added. "They just kind of fall in love with Somerset when they get here."

Additionally, the board has taken shape into something Finley could have only dreamed of when she took the helm as president a decade ago.

"I have learned over the years to trust my board members, to delegate and let people take ownership of their departments," she said. "Now it's gotten to the point where there are directors for each section and I'm just kind of over all those directors.

"We've learned to work smarter, not harder," she added. "We've learned to utilize the community more and more each year."

For instance, the Southwestern High School football team in volunteering Thursday to help get things set up, and the Pulaski County High gridders are due to pitch in with cleaning up on Sunday. The Somerset High School band has provided a collective hand in driving the golf carts transporting people from the gate and back; "It used to be a pain trying to find volunteers to drive the carts," said Finley. "Now we've turned it over to the band to give them the opportunity to make money toward their booster club."

Meanwhile, Somer City Roller Derby will be bartending during the event to help raise funds for their organization. It's what Finley calls an opportunity to "be seen and branded in the community" but one that also makes for a real financial benefit.

The festival itself continues to evolve as well. Last year, MMF introduced the Eastwood Records Stage, a second performing venue located down in the artists' valley area of Festival Field that featured its own line-up of performers.

"We didn't know how that would do, but it was a huge hit," said Finley. "I remember seeing droves of people going down the hill after the main act ended. I didn't know if people would come out for it but it worked out so well. People hung out there all day. It extended our footprint significantly and gives us another way of showcasing probably 10 more local and regional bands."

This year, there will be a third dimension -- the SomerSessions tent. This allows for "more private, intimate performances," said Finley.

"You can listen to artists tell stories, sing songs, special performances that you can't see anywhere else," she said. "Plus, (Isaac) is working out how to livestream those performances so people at home who can't make it to the festival can enjoy a little piece of MMF."

Then there's the "Southern Hospitality Gang," as they'll likely come to be known.

"Somerset Community College has always been a huge sponsor of ours. They donate the land to use for the festival, they've volunteered in certain ways. We've always talked about them becoming a bigger part of the festival," said Finley.

"This year, they are introducing the SCC Festival Welcome Center," she continued. "It's close to the kettle corn (vendor) in the middle of the field. It has all of the information youy could want about the festival."

That includes, where the kids activities are, information on the schuedle, how to locate a lost child. They'll also provide "festival necessities," like fans to cool off or sunscreen.

"In the past, if you wanted information, you had to flag down one of the board members in staff shirts, but we never had that place to go to get the info that you need," said Finley.

Oh, and there's one more "necessity" MMF has on tap this year -- water.

"For years and years, one of the biggest complaints we've goten is that we don't have a refillable water bottle station; most festivals have that," said Finley. "I've talked to our new mayor (Alan Keck). He has come up with a hydration station that works off of a tank, and the City of Somerset is bringing that in for us to use.

"I would encourage everyone to bring an empty water bottle that they can fill up for free all day," she added. "I think it will make a huge impact on the safety of our festival."

The 2019 Master Musicians Festival, presented by the Don Franklin Family of Dealerships, gets underway Friday at 4 p.m., and at 11:30 a.m. Saturday and runs all day. Tickets are $25 for Friday's session, $50 for Saturday, and $70 for a two-day pass. Children 12 and under are admitted free. Tickets can be purchased at the gate or at www.mastermusiciansfestival.org.

Finley said that 10 years ago when she first started, she never dreamed MMF would be "this big," not that she'd be still running it 10 years later, "but it's awesome and it brings a lot of joy to my life," she said. She's thankful for the opportunity to be involved with it, and would like to still be part of the MMF family long after her time on the board is up -- much like all those others who have experienced the festival from different vantage points over the years, as both audience members and volunteers, young and further along in life.

"I can't wait to see what it becomes in 25 of 40 years, when I'm old and gray," she said. "Hopefully I'm still in the crowd, enjoying it."

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