By Matt Wickstrom
As we leave the dark days of winter behind and blossom into spring, some Kentuckians are beginning to open their calendars to May in anticipation of not the Kentucky Derby, but the Moonshiner’s Ball — a grass roots festival in Berea chock-full of the best musical talent from throughout the Bluegrass State and beyond. Lexington’s Blind Corn Liquor Pickers will host the ball, celebrating its third year, from May 20-22.
This year’s lineup features the festival’s best lineup to date, with eight musical acts from outside Kentucky and 19 acts from within. New York’s Moon Hooch returns to Homegrown Hideaways this year, their dueling saxophones having rocked late into the night at last year’s Ball. Other out-of-state acts include Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Darlingside, and The Ragbirds. Kentucky acts, 12 of which hail from Lexington, include Driftwood Gypsy, Restless Leg String Band, Born Cross Eyed, DeBraun Thomas Trio, Trucker Hat Coalition and others.
In charge of curating the lineups for the Moonshiner’s Ball is Blind Corn Liquor Pickers’ banjoist Travis Young. Young prides himself on is discovering and turning people on to new bands they’ve never heard.
“It becomes an obsession trying to find the next big band,” Young said. “We don’t have the money to go out and get a made band that everyone instantly knows, so you just comb. You listen to podcasts, read music blogs, and every Friday when new CDs drop on Spotify you’re downloading and making new playlists.”
Shortly after Young booked Cambridge, Massachusetts quartet Darlingside, they won Artist of the Year at the 2016 International Folk Music Awards. Young also largely credits his Blind Corn bandmates, especially mandolinist Joel Serdenis, for helping find somewhat undercover bands to knock people’s socks off come festival time.
Young’s knack at finding great music in unfamiliar places led to a near doubling of patrons at last year’s second Moonshiner’s Ball compared to attendance in the festival’s inaugural gathering. According to Young, the influx of people has helped make him and the festival staff far more prepared to handle anything thrown at them at this year’s festival.
New to the Ball in 2016 is a new lawn stage sponsored by 88.1 WRFL FM, and is dubbed the Wonderful stage, which is an abbreviation of WRFL. The idea for the stage came about by accident last year, when rain wiped out a circuit breaker on the festival’s main stage on Saturday morning. As a result, several mainstage acts moved out to perform on the lawn.
The new perspective of watching music with the backdrop of the holler led to the lawn having official performances scheduled on it this year, including Lexington artists Johnny Conqueroo, Sheisty Khrist with Long Jumper, Warren Byrom and the Fabled Canelands, and The Rooster’s Crow.
“You put a band on the lawn, and you can just sit on the grass and you’re looking out at all the mountains,” Young said. “The creek is right down below you and the band’s are playing right in front of you. It makes for a beautiful setting.”
Those at the Ball on Saturday will also see Tyler Childers and his band The Foodstamps take the reigns of the WRFL stage for an intimate morning set. Childers and company are also performing next Wednesday, April 20, at Willie’s Locally Known in Lexington. The show is being filmed live by Shaker Steps Productions, who also produce the television show “Music Anywhere” on KET.
According to Young, few tickets remain at Tier II pricing for the festival weekend, which are $70. Tickets can be bought online or at Cosmic Charlie’s this Friday, where Moonshiner’s Ball participants Driftwood Gypsy and Blind Corn Liquor Pickers share the stage with Mojoflo, headliner of the first Ball.
“The really beautiful thing about it is the community,” Young said. “You will leave that weekend knowing people you didn’t know going in, and if you go back the next year you’ll see them all over again. That’s what Moonshiner’s is going to have that I don’t think any other Kentucky festivals really have.”