Feverous fiddles filled the fleeing summer air at 2019’s Hot Strings and Cool Breezes Minifest, a bluegrass and americana festival held at Orkney Springs, Virginia on September 1st. The minifest was the closing night of the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival, a concert series held in the lush landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains for four weekends each summer. The series attracts an eclectic blend of artists and audiences, from classical to rock ‘n’ roll to a capella to country.
The mood for the evening was largely a product of the setting. Shrine Mont, the festival’s host venue, is a site that just screams of authenticity for old-time and bluegrass music. The concerts are held in an open-air pavilion converted from a pole barn. For this particular concert however, a large portion of the audience chose to sit in the open lawn area. The pavilion is located on the grounds of a large hotel complex built in the mid-late 19th century, adding an extra layer of ambiance to the event. Orkney Springs sits right on the West Virginia border, directly across the mountain from vast expanses of wilderness. Overall, it is a more-than-ideal setting for a bluegrass festival.
The minifest featured three acts: The Becky Buller Band, Sierra Hull and Justin Moses, and headlining the show was Grammy-Award winning group the Travelin’ McCourys. Before the first set of the evening, Sierra Hull led a free mandolin workshop with 35+ people in attendance. Many brought their instruments to play with the acclaimed picker and IBMA winner, while others simply came to watch an expert teacher and performer in her element.
The Becky Buller Band kicked off the evening with a set that ranged from fast-paced stompers to slow ballads. Every song the band played was made complete by Becky’s expert fiddle playing, a sight and sound that must be experienced live to truly appreciate. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses were next, with their duo performance providing a nice change of pace between two full-band setups. The two played each other’s compositions, with a few instrumentals and many changes of instrumentation. Sierra’s song “Daybreak” stood out to me the most, with Justin playing tasteful dobro under her acoustic guitar performance. When the Travelin’ McCourys took the stage, one could feel the star power in the air. Playing a set of their original tunes and creative reworkings of popular songs both old and new, the McCourys demonstrated their immense skill and talent to the 600+ in attendance.
One of the most striking things about the evening to me was how accessible the performers were. Without being overbearing or intrusive, I was able to speak to almost every single performer who went on stage that night. Interactions ranged from a simple “great performance!” directed to Sierra and Justin, to a long conversation with Becky Buller where she showed me photos of her daughter and Judy Collins together and told a story about her great-grandfather’s fiddle. Even Rob and Ronnie McCoury, well known and respected figureheads in the bluegrass community, were standing at the entrance talking with fans after the show.
The Hot Strings and Cool Breezes Minifest was more than a concert, but a full experience. Featuring top-of-the-line acts performing at a historic site nestled in the beautiful mountain landscape, the event is any bluegrass fan’s dream. Keep an eye out for next year’s lineup at musicfest.org.