Country Music Festivals in California

This will be of limited interest to our readers outside of California, but I wanted to compile all the festival information I wish I had been able to find in one place. Maybe it’ll be useful to someone.

One state. Four multi-day country music festivals. Too much? If the festivals are sufficiently different from one another and the state is 850 miles from top to bottom, maybe not.

The festival you hear the most about is Goldenvoice’s Stagecoach Festival, country cousin to Coachella, held in the Southern California desert each May or April. With 2012 marking its sixth year, the festival draws mainstream country headliners like Alabama, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Martina McBride, and Luke Bryan on the Mane Stage. Meanwhile, fans with more eclectic or historical tastes can plant themselves in front of the tented side stages to enjoy the likes of The Mavericks, Chris Isaak, JD Souther, Steve Martin, Ralph Stanley, the Del McCoury Band, Roy Clark, and Sara Watkins. With a line-up diverse enough to please the whole range of country fans, it’s no wonder the most recent festival convinced about 55,000 people to drive out into the desert for some entertainment.

Some 660 miles away from Indio, in the forgotten upper reaches of the state, the first Jukebox Music Festival is set for July 20-22 at the Shasta District Fairgrounds in Anderson, California. The inaugural line-up includes Mark Chesnutt, Asleep at the Wheel, Scotty McCreery, Kellie Pickler, Joe Nichols, Brett Eldredge, Pam Tillis, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson in the evening shows, with the earlier part of each day filled out by a host of local and regional acts. Since nobody has yet attended a Jukebox Music Festival, this one’s still a bit of a wild card. But it should be a treat for country fans and a boon to the local economy in the northern part of the state. Here’s hoping they have a solid first year and return with even more big acts in 2013.

The most thoroughly Californian of all festivals might be Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free roots/Americana lovefest that takes over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park every October. Paid for by a wealthy, banjo-playing investment banker and staffed by volunteers, it’s a gift to the more than half a million fans that turn out each year. The line-up is always impressive. Last year, you could find Guy Clark, Earl Scruggs, Jason Isbell, Patty Griffin, Kris Kristofferson & Merle Haggard, Ruthie Foster, Ryan Bingham, and Hugh Laurie performing on various stages – and that was just between the hours of 1 and 3 on Saturday afternoon. Well-paid performers hanging out among peers and free admittance for fans tend to put everyone in a great mood, making for strong sets to appreciative, easygoing crowds. The 2012 event (October 5-7) will be the first without founder/funder Warren Hellman, who passed away last December.

Running continuously since 1982, the Strawberry Music Festival is a quirky, family-oriented music festival and campout that happens twice annually near Yosemite National Park. The upcoming Fall Festival – August 30 through September 2 – will feature John Hiatt, The Trishas, Band of Heathens, Marley’s Ghost, Greensky Bluegrass, O’Brien Party of 7, and more. Neither as audacious nor as crowded as Hardly Strictly, Strawberry has quietly attracted most of the major roots music figures of the past 30 years to its stage. Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Robert Earl Keen joined forces for a set there in 1991.

That’s four. One more? Well, kinda.

Although not a festival per se, the annual Golf & Guitars Charity Concert at Haggin Oaks Golf Course in Sacramento deserves mention for packing a festival’s worth of entertainment into one afternoon. Held annually in May, this year’s event boasted short acoustic sets from 18 national acts, including Kix Brooks, Jack Ingram, and such up-and-comers as Jerrod Niemann, David Nail, James Wesley, Jana Kramer, and Dustin Lynch. All proceeds benefit children’s charities. Since it’s put on in conjunction with the local CBS-owned country station, the list of performers tends to be heavy on new and mid-level acts with which the station has a good working relationship. It’s like a sampler of what’s new and rising on the Billboard charts. With stripped-down sets such as you might find at a fan club party and most performers available for casual photos and autographs throughout the day, it’s almost like California’s answer to CMA Fest.

Bluegrass fan? You’ll also be interested in the California Bluegrass Association’s annual Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley, which tends to feature a nice mix of national and regional bluegrass acts. This one has been running even longer than the Strawberry, having begun in 1976.

Between these and the continually-updated list of dates on our Concert Calendar, no country or roots music fan should be hurting for entertainment in the Golden State.

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