Three free summer festivals worth visiting

PUTTIN’ ON THE FRITZ: Local funk band The Fritz will take the stage at Xpand Fest on June 10. Other performers include indie-rocker Ian Ridenhour and 1960s-inspired Carpal Tullar. Photo by Joshua Marc Levy

What’s better than a summer festival? A free summer festival. This season, two new events — the Better Dads Festival and Xpand Fest — are launching in downtown Asheville. A little farther out in Hot Springs, ballad singers and hikers are coming together to celebrate the Bluff Mountain Festival’s 22nd year.

Xpand Fest

Asheville’s first Xpand Fest is slated for Saturday, June 10, in the South Slope district. Johanna Hagarty, executive director and founder of Xpand Your Vision, says the entertainment lineup is as eclectic as its host city. More than 30 performing groups have been culled from genres such as theater, poetry, music and even aerial arts. There will be dozens of art and food vendors, too. Plus, folks can sip on a signature ale created by Bhramari Brewhouse.

“I want people to walk away with a superwarm and fuzzy feeling,” says Hagarty. “I want there to be an intrinsic sense of excitement in giving back to the community.”

Good vibes are sure to radiate from the Nonprofit Arts Arcade, which is like a big informational booth without the yawn factor. Participating organizations present an engaging and creative activity relevant to their missions. So, rather than walking away with a brochure, patrons engage in an experience. A composting company, for instance, might use Whack-a-Mole to discuss the benefits of saving food scraps. Or a farm school might allow kids to plant a seed.

The whole idea is to get people talking about Asheville’s expansion. “We’re growing like a weed,” says Hagarty. But it’s hard to say if that progress is actually sustainable. Inspired by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan released by world leaders in 2015, Hagarty wants local residents to address issues like poverty, climate change and gender equality. What better way than with art and beer?

WHAT: Xpand Fest
WHERE: Banks and Buxton avenues,
WHEN: Saturday, June 10, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Free.

Bluff Mountain Festival

The Madison County Arts Council will hold Hot Springs’ annual Bluff Mountain Festival on Saturday, June 10. Now in its 22nd year, the event celebrates fellowship and song. “The festival brings talent and visitors from throughout Western North Carolina to celebrate local heritage,” says arts council Executive Director Laura Boosinger. “There is a strong emphasis on traditional mountain music — fiddles, ballads, banjos, string bands and more.”

JUST FOLKS: Ballad singer Betty Smith is one of the Bluff Mountain Festival’s original organizers. In 1996, she used vocals and guitar riffs to save Madison County’s treasured peak. Photo by Pat Franklin
JUST FOLKS: Ballad singer Betty Smith is one of the Bluff Mountain Festival’s original organizers. In 1996, she used vocals and guitar riffs to save Madison County’s treasured peak. Photo by Pat Franklin

Headlining is Nashville-based singer-songwriter Kate Campbell. Her folkloric melodies carry narratives straight from the Mississippi Delta, where she spent her childhood watching the civil rights movement unfold. Performances by ballad singers such as Betty Smith and Joe Penland follow. These “love songs,” as old pioneers once called them, attest to a timeless custom.

“The original songcatcher, Cecil Sharp, came to Madison County for the first time in 1916. He said the people here ‘were as likely to sing as to talk,’” says Boosinger. “These ballads are hundreds of years old and date back to settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland.”

Families share these songs knee-to-knee each June. But as Boosinger explains, the Bluff Mountain Festival hasn’t always been rooted in harmony. Circa 1996, musicians organized the gathering to raise awareness about a logging road proposed for Bluff Mountain, a 4,686-foot peak in Pisgah. Patrick Cash, a history instructor at Mars Hill University, says the U.S. Forest Service wanted to build 6.9 miles of new roadways stretching from Catpen Gap to the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. Concerned that development would threaten wildlife populations, locals mobilized.

“They were able to save their mountain from destruction,” says Cash. “It’s an encouraging and powerful story of a small community and their fight for something they loved dearly.”

Today, Bluff Mountain is still standing, and folks are still singing.

WHAT: Bluff Mountain Festival
WHERE: Hot Springs Resort and Spa, 315 Bridge St.,
WHEN: Saturday, June 10, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free.

Better Dads Festival

Celebrate Father’s Day weekend at the inaugural Better Dads Festival on Saturday, June 17. Organizer Alan Kay welcomes all to attend, even if they don’t fit the 1950s, Ward Cleaver sort of ideal. “It’s [about] more than men who have children,” he says. “We’re looking at fatherhood in all its forms.”

PLAY NICE: The Billy Jonas Band uses music to make very adult issues like religion and rush-hour traffic palatable to children. The quartet will play the Better Dads Festival on June 17. Photo by Steve Mann
PLAY NICE: The Billy Jonas Band uses music to make very adult issues like religion and rush-hour traffic palatable to children. The quartet will play the Better Dads Festival on June 17. Photo by Steve Mann

That means Ashevilleans of all genders, sexual orientations, races and backgrounds — even those without offspring — can join in. Activities include drumming, games, costumes, storytelling, crafts and poetry. Local artists Lyric (whose dad is in her band), David LaMotte and the Billy Jonas Band (both fronted by fathers) will perform live. Vendors such as the Corner Kitchen Catering, Ghan Shan Station, Flat Rock Bakery Pizza and Highland Brewing Co. will also be serving snacks and drinks.

Of course, there is a deeper element, too. Kay is involved with the ManKind Project, an international movement designed to build healthy male role models. “It began as a response to the women’s movement,” he says. “Men started asking, ‘How can we show up in the world in powerful ways?’” Thirty-some years ago, organizers started holding support groups and hero’s journeys, or initiation rituals.

The goal has always been to change one man at a time, “but I got impatient,” says Kay. The Better Dads Festival is his way of reaching multiple community members at once. And connecting is key. Though challenges differ for every father, most ManKind Project members agree that being emotionally available is their biggest hurdle.

“It’s a challenge for them to openly feel love for their children,” says Kay. “But men need to become more vulnerable to show up. They need to admit that they don’t have all the answers and that they need support.”

That can be as simple as dancing around Pack Square Park or dressing up for the photo booth. Dads can also volunteer at the event by filling out the online contact form. All volunteers get a free T-shirt.

WHAT: Better Dads Festival
WHERE: Roger McGuire Green, Pack Square Park,
WHEN: Saturday, June 17, noon-9:30 p.m. Free.


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About Lauren Stepp
Lauren Stepp is an award-winning writer with bylines here in these mountains and out yonder, too.

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