Master Musicians Festival 2022
MMF is ran via an all- volunteer board headed by executive director, Tiffany Finley and board president, Julie Harris. The board is filled by Somerset area business leaders, some of whom are also musicians and have graced the MMF stages over the years. Attendance since 1994 has ranged from 3000-6500. MMF takes great pride in providing the best in multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-racial music across three stages each year.
MMF29 featured headliners Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives (Friday) and Grace Potter (Saturday) as part of a total of thirty artists and bands spread across three stages over the course of three days. Unfortunately, three stages and overlapping set times makes it hard to catch every act. Day one I managed to catch all ten acts that performed beginning with Multi-Ultra who opened the festival through Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives who closed out the night headlining the main stage.
Saturday I was not so lucky but still managed to start the day with the ‘Young Songwriters Panel’ which kicked off day two on the mainstage and catch most of the acts until near heat exhaustion caused us to leave after Boy Named Banjo’s set on the main stage. I hated to miss S.G. Goodman, The Wood Brothers, John R Miller and Grace Potter’s sets but I overheated and had to retreat to air conditioning.
MMF has a history of supporting Kentucky and the surrounding region’s up and coming independent artists and MMF 29 continued that tradition. In addition to the ‘Master Musicians’ (Tee Dee Young and Marty Stuart) and national acts, all three stages were full of local and regional talent.
I love finding new (to me artists) and MMF offered several very pleasant surprises this year. Multi Ultra was a name I had not heard until they appeared on the festival poster. A four-piece Indie Rock outfit out of Nashville, Multi Ultra kicked off the weekend with the first performance on the main stage (Horse Soldier Bourbon Stage). They are a very high energy group and had the crowd on their feet and moving toward the rail. They had played several originals before slipping in a riotous rendition of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.”
Next up on the main stage was one of the ‘Master Musicians’ for which the festival takes its name. Lexington, Kentucky based Tee Dee Young is a Kentucky treasure and living blues legend whose career has spanned across the last fifty-four years. Young took the stage with a six-piece unit (the smaller version of his band, minus horns) and proceeded to tear through blues standards and his own originals. Ever the showman, Young is well-known for coming off the stage and wandering through the crowd while continuing to play. The way the stage, photographer’s pit, and barricades were laid out, I wondered how he would manage to do so, but he managed much to the audience’s delight.
Once Young’s set was finished on the main stage, music on the two smaller stages kicked off with The Minks opening up the day on the second stage (Citizens National Bank Stage) and Sydney Adams kicking off live music in the Somersessions acoustic performance tent. Music would alternate the rest of the evening between the main stage and the two satellite stages. The Minks are a ‘psychedelic-blues’ band from Nashville and were one of the most talked about day one performances in the crowd day two. Sydney Adams is a Corbin, KY based country singer. Adams most often performs with a full band or at minimum her guitar player, however for her MMF performance, it was just her and a guitar. She quickly grabbed the crowd and held them throughout her set, with her originals such as “Always Home to Me.”
Another rising star on the country music scene was up next on the main stage, Sandy Hook, KY (Home of Keith Whitley) native, Leah Blevins took the main stage and held the crowd in her hands as she belted out songs from her first album including “Beautiful Disaster” and “Magnolias.” Blevins set was still being talked about in the crowd on day two. If you have not seen Blevins live, put it on your to do list, especially if you can catch her in a small venue, your chances to do that are going to be limited in the very near future.
Next on the second stage was another artist that folks are running out of chances to see and hear in the small, intimate venues. Catlettsburg, KY native Cole Chaney performed a solo set. Opening up with “Silver Run,” and moving through “Humble Enough to Hear,” “Charlene” and “Mercy” among others, Chaney showcased why he is one of the region’s fastest rising stars. Catching Chaney either solo (as at MMF) or with bluegrass supergroup, Wolfpen Branch backing him is always a treat and well worth a few hours’ drive to see.
As badly as I hated to leave Chaney’s performance, I pulled myself away and headed over the hill to catch Daniel Stroud’s Sleeping Dogs in the acoustic performance tent. Stroud is a MMF board member and local business owner in addition to a multi-instrument musician. The ‘Sleeping Dogs’ were comprised of Cody Lee Meece and Kenny Williams (Ciggy Tuna). The acoustic tent was filled, and the crowd was at least twenty feet deep outside the tent as people gathered to watch the local guys.
Rayland Baxter taking to the main stage brought the crowd to the rail in numbers that had not been reached through the heat of the day. Baxter kept the railing packed from the start of his set to finish. I honestly was not as familiar with Baxter as I could have been before the festival, but he and his band performed a highly energetic and entertaining set that kept the crowd going. Definitely a day one fan favorite.
Closing out day one on the second stage was Bendigo Fletcher, who kept the crowd on their feet and dancing. Bendigo Fletcher is one of those bands that I knew their name and not much else prior to catching part of their set at MMF. Musically these guys are tight and feed off each other giving their audience a super fun show.
The second ‘Master Musician’ of the festival closed out day one on the main stage. Marty Stuart has always been a showman, from his early bluegrass days, to being the leader of Johnny Cash’s band to his lengthy solo career. His band ‘The Fabulous Superlatives’ are all top-notch musicians. Stuart’s long-time guitarist, Kenny Vaughn is in my opinion one of the most under-rated, under-appreciated guitarist in music. Stuart is a showman, and his playing, interaction with his band and the crowd illustrated why his career has the staying power it does. From his classic “Tempted” through his set to a classic Bill Monroe cover, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Stuart worked the crowd in ways only he can.
Day two of MMF opened up with a ‘Young Songwriters Panel’ which showed everyone there that the future of the region’s music scene is in some very capable hands. The young songwriters panel featured six artists ranging in age from fifteen to nineteen. Jayce Turley, Cara Bishop, Logan Purcell, Vivian Leigh, Kara Wilder, and Jake Kohn performed their originals mixed with a couple of covers. If you are not familiar with these young up and comers, I highly recommend checking them out.
Jeremy Short brought an amazing ensemble of musicians to the stage for what he labeled the ‘last Short & Company performance. Short has had a revolving cast of characters over the past several years for the ‘& Company’. He is dropping the ‘& Company’ moving forward and will be performing as ‘Jeremy Short.’ He brought a stellar lineup for the finale… Chris Justice (bass), ‘Kentucky’ John Clay (drums) and John Looney (guitar) the three of whom are best known for being the ‘Engine Lights’, John R Miller’s backing band (and they pulled double duty, performing with John R Miller later in the day), and ‘The Voice’ participant, Holly Forbes. Short is an award-winning blues musician and demonstrated why throughout his set with songs such as “Fast Eddie” and “Midnight Train to Glasgow.” Forbes took over lead vocal duty for a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,”
Justin Wells was next up on the main stage, where he delivered what had to be the most emotionally charged set of the weekend. Opening his set with crowd pleasers such as “The Dogs,” Wells performed a few songs before pausing and pointing to a line of trees stage left and telling the audience, “The one time my grandparents from Louisiana got to see me play live, was the first time I played here at Master Musicians Festival. They were sitting right over there”. Wells then told the crowd who had braved the 90 degree+ day to witness his 4:20-5:20 set that he was glad that it was hot, and he was sweating so badly as it hid his tears. If that was enough emotion for one one-hour set, Wells was later joined onstage by both his daughters who joined him in the band on ‘It Will All Work Out”. Well’s band for the set also featured Aaron and Wes Smith (Brother Smith) on bass and keyboard.
Wells’ Lexingtonian neighbor, Eric Bolander performed on the second stage. Eric Bolander is one of my favorite musicians and people on this rock. While an amazing songwriter, Bolander doesn’t take himself or much else too seriously. From naming his backing band, “These Assholes” to helping a venue owner cool down by pouring a bottle of water over his head onstage (previous show, not MMF), catching Bolander live is always super fun. I didn’t personally witness any shenanigans from him during his MMF set, just great songs. I have grown accustomed to seeing him perform as a trio, however for something as special as MMF, he added a couple of extra players. I am sure history will look back on Bolander as a trend setter in Americana music for his cello player, Seth Murphy. The cello adds a depth and volume to the beauty of Bolander’s music.
Dark Moon Hollow, a bluegrass/jamgrass group played ‘How many people can fit in a Volkswagen Beetle by cramming five members into the tiny space that made up the ‘stage’ in the acoustic tent. Five members with instruments including a stand-up bass! Where space was limited, the sounds were not as Dark Moon Hollow entertaining the capacity plus standing room only crowd surrounding the tent. Whether it was Trigger Trey or Riley Logan as they swapped lead vocals back and forth throughout their set, Dark Moon Hollow brought their signature licks and harmonies to the crowd’s enjoyment.
It’s funny that two of my favorite performances throughout the weekend ended up being the first set I caught and the last set I was able to attend. Both were by bands who I was unfamiliar with, actually the first time I heard the names Multi Ultra or Boy Named Banjo before they showed up on the MMF schedule. Boy Named Banjo took the main stage by force and played one of the top sets of the weekend. Boy Named Banjo whether it was a slower song or a fast one, they built off each other throughout their set, delivering in my mind one of the top five performances of the weekend.
Unfortunately, by the middle of Boy Named Banjo’s set, I was bordering on heat exhaustion so made to call to retreat to air conditioning.
Due to health concerns, I ended up missing S.G. Goodman, The Wood Brothers, John R Miller, Hunter Flynn and Grace Potter’s sets. Hunter Flynn worked his way onto the MMF lineup by winning a performance contest which won him a one song performance before Friday Night’s headliner (Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives). Flynn, a Somerset native won the crowd over with his single song performance to the point of near riot due to him only getting to perform one song. The crowd got more of Flynn on Saturday night when If Birds Could Fly could not make their slot due to transportation issues. Flynn stepped up and performed the final set of the festival in the acoustic tent.
MMF is one of those events that everyone should attend! Mark your calendar for next year when MMF turns 30. I am sure Tiffany Finley, Julie Harris and the rest of the board are already planning on how to make MMF30 top the other 29 years.