Front & Center: Strictly Bluegrass Festival Moves To New Albany

By Victoria Austen Moon

It's become a nine-year tradition around here: the second weekend in September, a caravan of campers, cars and RVs descends on Iroquois Amphitheater for a weekend of arts and crafts, children's activities and, most importantly, the best of the best bluegrass musicians, playing intimate workshops and jamming with each other onstage. The largest free bluegrass festival in the country has seen the likes of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and NewGrass Revival on its stages, and, of course, there's Wayne "Lil Stretch" Brewer, the Guinness Book of World Records youngest recording artist - and festival host Gary Brewer's son.

It's a formula that has worked: a family-hosted, family-run, family-friendly event every year at the Amphitheater, every September. Fans could set their clocks by it, setting their vacation vehicles to autopilot as they headed straight to the park for a weekend of camping and music.

Well, wake up all you bluegrass lovers out there, and pay attention to where you're going: the Strictly Bluegrass Festival is no longer a Louisville tradition - it's moved across the river into southern Indiana.

Now don't panic: it's still the same family-friendly, alcohol-free, bluegrass-packed event it's always been. The same impressive lineup of stars are slated to play, the arts and crafts booths will still be there and it's still very much a Brewer family labor of love. In fact, it's even grown a little, with a car show and a 30-minute fireworks finale by the Zambelli Brothers (who bring you the over-the-top "Thunder Over Louisville" every year). It's just at the New Albany Amphitheater, that's all (you can resume normal breathing).

The reason for the change of venue, says Gary Brewer - front man of the renowned bluegrass band Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers - was necessity.

"The reason we left Iroquois was because Iroquois Park was under construction, and it will be under construction for at least three years. There's bulldozers and orange construction fence everywhere, and one of the main things we want to project to our fans is a safe environment for our event," he said.

He went on to explain that the festival had started outgrowing the park in past years as well.

"We have so many people attend our event at Iroquois that we were running into problems with parking anyway, and with all this construction going on over there, it's going to be worse."

The park had tried to work with Brewer to still keep the event, offering to move them into the park itself and set up a temporary stage for the festival's use over the next two years, but he reluctantly had to decline.

"That just wouldn't work for an event our size - you can't just go into the park somewhere and say 'hey, here's a big shade three, let's build a stage'. Where are the fans going to go? All the parking will be torn out, and our event has been based around an amphitheater."

So Brewer worked with New Albany's mayor and the New Albany Amphitheater staff to move the venue there - and thinks the change will make the festival even better.

"It's a 100% better than where we were in a lot of ways - first of all, there's the river, which is a big magnet to people and the stage is right on the river, which opens up a lot of options. And there's a lot more space to grow here, as well as the parking situation being a whole lot better than it was at Iroquois. We also have adequate space available for more and more camping facilities. Before people just had to pull into wherever they could, and now we'll areas specifically available for camping."

Brewer also pointed out that a KOA Campground is also nearby for those who prefer that option, and that all the facilities were wheelchair accessible.

"It's all just super - the stage is super, the amphitheater is super," he enthused.

Besides the music lineup and fireworks, an impressive new exhibit will be part of the festival this year.

"We added a classic car and truck show, and there's already over 100 entrants," said Brewer. "The cars are coming from everywhere across the country, and the benefits from the car show are going to the Southern Indiana Traumatic Brain Injury Foundation. The show will be Saturday, and people entering cars in the show will pay an entry fee, which will go to the Foundation, but anyone can view the cars for free."

"The car show's been held on the riverfront now for a couple of years, and when I was setting up the deal to move the event, I thought it would be neat to have the car show at the festival because I'm a car buff myself and I like to have other things at the festival besides just the music."

A few other new activities and attractions will be added to the festival as well, according to Brewer.

"We'll have activities for the kids - including a brand-new playground for the kids and a skateboard park for those into extreme sports - and square dancers this year. September is National Square Dancers month, so they'll be there to celebrate that."

Despite the changes, though, Brewer insisted that it was still the same Strictly Bluegrass Festival fans have come to know and love over the past ten years.

"Like always, we'll have two stages - the workshop stage for an intimate session with the stars, and the main concert stage. The event will be alcohol-free and ticket-free. We're staying with our very same format and not changing anything."

Headliners for this year's festival include: J.D. Crowe and the New South, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, the Reno Brothers, The Legendary Sullivan Family, James Monroe and the Midnight Ramblers, Continental Divide, and Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers, and Wayne Brewer.

The Strictly Bluegrass Festival will be held rain or shineSeptember 8 and 9 this year. Friday's activities will be from 5 p.m. to 10:0 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Picnic baskets, coolers, blankets and lawn chairs are all welcome, but alcoholic beverages are not permitted. For further information, contact Gary Brewer at (502) 448-9107.