Whether you love bluegrass, rap, indie or jazz, outdoor music experiences abound — here are a few across the state to put on your list.
by David Menconi
Springtime in North Carolina means college basketball madness, azaleas blooming — and the earliest days of outdoor music. Our state has a staggering array of A-list music festivals spanning numerous genres from now until fall. Here’s some of what you should be making plans for.
Between apocalyptic weather and the Coronavirus pandemic, rapper J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival has had a rocky existence in its short history. But in spite of multiple postponements, Dreamville has been a huge success, starting with 2019’s sold-out debut at downtown Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park that immediately established it as one of the nation’s top hip-hop festivals. Dreamville’s second edition in 2022 expanded from one day to two with an onstage lineup featuring the entire roster of Cole’s Dreamville Records label, and it also sold out. Round three returns to Dix Park the first weekend of April as another multiday affair. It should be another big success, with Cole himself in the headline slot.
April 1 – 2, Raleigh; dreamvillefest.com
Centered on the varied “traditional plus” music played and loved by its late, great founder, Doc Watson, MerleFest has been a tradition at Wilkes Community College since 1988. The venerable rootsmusic festival is a signpost event on the Americana circuit. And after the same problems that every other live-music event faced in recent years, it’s back with an impressive lineup featuring The Avett Brothers, Maren Morris, Little Feat, Tanya Tucker and more.
April 27 – 30, Wilkesboro; merlefest.org
The mountains of the far Western corner of North Carolina are the setting for this springtime festival, which happens the same weekend as MerleFest. First conceived in 2021, this year’s model has a first-rate alternative-leaning lineup featuring Spoon, The Head and the Heart, Jason Isbell and Amythyst Kiah.
April 28 – 30, The Highlands Plateau; bearshadownc.com
Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance
Started in 2003 as a nonprofit music and dance festival, Shakori Hills takes place on a bucolic 9,000-acre spread in rural Chatham County. It’s probably the top camping festival in the greater Triangle region. Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Malian singer/guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, beach legends Chairmen of the Board and festival regulars Donna the Buffalo are this year’s main headliners. There’s also a fall version, which happens every October.
May 4 – 7, Pittsboro; shakorihillsgrassroots.org
Festival for the Eno
The granddaddy of music festivals in the Triangle, Festival for the Eno dates back to 1980 and happens on the grounds of Durham’s West Point Park. Started as a fundraiser for the Eno River Association, the festival — which also offers a craft and food market — has hosted a who’s who of Americana-adjacent and roots artists including Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson and Loudon Wainwright III. Recent years have featured rising regional acts including Mipso, Rainbow Kitten Surprise and Indigo De Souza.
July 1 & 4, Durham; enofest.org
Mountain Dance and Folk Festival
Reputedly the first event in America to be called a “folk festival,” Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was founded in 1928 by the folk-music legend Bascom Lamar Lunsford. It remains the longest continuously running folk festival in the country, and it’s as much about the folk-dance traditions of Western North Carolina as the music.
Aug. 3 – 5, Asheville; folkheritage.org
Earl Scruggs Music Festival
A newcomer to the North Carolina festival circuit, the Earl Scruggs Music Festival debuted last year at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring. As you’d expect for a festival named after the man who invented the three-finger style of bluegrass banjo, the lineup trends toward classic bluegrass and Americana.
Sept. 1-3, Mill Spring; earlscruggsmusicfest.com
John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival
Although he made his mark as an artist elsewhere, John Coltrane was born and raised in Hamlet, North Carolina. He was one of the towering figures of 20th century jazz, a key collaborator with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and his fellow North Carolina native Thelonious Monk. The John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival has been paying tribute to his legacy every Labor Day weekend since 2011 with solid lineups — 2022 featured trumpeter Chris Botti, singer Patti LaBelle and saxophonist Kirk Whalum, among others.
Sept. 2 – 3, High Point; coltranejazzfest.com
Hopscotch Music Festival
Downtown Raleigh has a well-earned reputation for doing music festivals right, and one of the events that helped pave the way is the alternative-slanted Hopscotch. Originally started in 2010 under the auspices of the Indy Week newspaper, it showed off Raleigh’s walkable grid of downtown nightclubs and outdoor stages to fantastic effect. Past headliners have included Flaming Lips, The Roots, Solange Knowles and St. Vincent. Hopscotch director Nathan Price reports that this year’s model should feature “an expanded lineup closer to pre-Covid size.” Here’s hoping.
Sept. 7 – 9, Raleigh; hopscotchmusicfest.com
North Carolina Folk Festival
In 2015, the National Council for the Traditional Arts brought the long-running National Folk Festival (which has been around since 1934) to Greensboro for a three-year run. It was such a success that, after the national festival’s Greensboro run ended, the city opted to keep it going as the rebranded North Carolina Folk Festival. Last year’s lineup was typically eclectic, featuring everything from George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars to the Winston-Salem Symphony String Quartet. Expect more of the same in 2023.
Sept. 8 – 10, Greensboro; ncfolkfestival.com
World of Bluegrass
The International Bluegrass Music Association moved its annual business convention and festival to Raleigh in 2013, where it has been a huge success. Between the convention, trade show, “Bluegrass Ramble” nightclub showcases, awards show and street festival, total attendance can top 200,000 when the weather’s good. Past headliners have included Steve Martin, Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck and just about every notable picker and singer in the genre. Year in and year out, it’s downtown Raleigh’s biggest music festival.
Sept. 26-30, Raleigh; worldofbluegrass.org
That Music Festival
Sponsored by Raleigh’s Americana/roots radio station That Station, 95.7 FM, That Music Festival made its debut in June 2022 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park with an all-North Carolina lineup featuring American Aquarium, Steep Canyon Rangers, Mountain Goats, Rissi Palmer and more. The sophomore edition is tentatively scheduled for October, most likely in Durham again.
October, Durham; thatstation.net/that-music-fest/
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.