As Travis Young headed to the Berea festival site last year that would be the home of the inaugural Moonshiner's Ball, his attitude was considerably sunnier than the weather.
"I remember leaving on Friday to go out to the venue and it was raining so hard that cars were pulled over on the side of the road. I was like, 'What bad karma have I created?' When I pulled up to the site, the rain had pretty much stopped. I got out of my car and there was a slight drizzle. I asked around, saying, 'What about that rain?' Everyone said, 'Didn't rain here. This is as bad as it's been.'"
As thunderstorms slammed the entire state that weekend, Berea ended up, by Young's estimation, with one hour of rain for the duration of the festival.
"Even that was a cool moment. Everyone gathered under the cover of the stage and enjoyed the music. We had this dreamy alternative folk band playing with cellos and violins, and it all fit nicely with the atmosphere."
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Of course, more was riding on the first Moonshiner's Ball than the weather. As a homegrown festival hosted by the progressive Central Kentucky bluegrass band Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, for which Young plays banjo, survival also was part of the game. Specifically, could a new music festival pass one of its most arduous hurdles: to remain financially and creatively solvent enough to be staged for a second year?
"Year one was a break-even scenario for us," said Young, one of The Moonshiner's Ball's principal organizers. "We had 500 people out there. That included all the artists and vendors and everyone else. But we were able to cover all of our costs. We thought that for the first year, that was pretty good.
"Going into year two, we decided that we were going to try to double the operating budget and, hopefully, double the attendance. We got permission from the venue to open up a new field for camping, so we're hoping to draw a crowd of 1,000 this time."
A beefed-up budget means, among other things, a greater wealth of national acts, which this year includes the first full local concert performance in nearly a decade by the upstart Canadian folk-roots music troupe The Duhks and a set by the New York subway-bred jazz-dance trio Moon Hooch.
Young insists that the festival's growth doesn't detract from what he hopes will be a blend of national and local talent that will ultimately give the latter a creative leg up. He cites the programming at the Austin City Limits Festival in Texas as an example and an inspiration of what he hopes to eventually achieve with The Moonshiner's Ball.
"If you look at the schedule at the Austin City Limits Festival, you will see these enormous national acts. But right before, say, Wilco plays, you'll find this band you've never heard of. These are inevitably Austin bands, so these kinds of festivals value their best local bands to such a degree that they literally put them side by side with household name acts. In doing so, they afford them more status.
"That never happens here. What you see all the time are local bands being used as filler or as acts that can be slotted into less savory spots on a festival bill. I don't see the biggest stages, the biggest platforms helping our bands and our artists make a name for themselves. Because of that, people don't always view Kentucky bands as having as much value as bands from other places."
Then there are local artists playing the festival that maintain strong national appeal, notably cellist Ben Sollee, who will collaborate with several acts on this weekend's bill and will reach over into other, non-musical performances planned for The Moonshiner's Ball — specifically, readings by Frank X. Walker, Bianca Spriggs and Eric Sutherland on the Holler Poets Stage.
There also will be a main-stage area, a smaller stage named after the New Orleans-based band Yes Ma'am ("They utilize washboard, gypsy fiddle and resonator guitar and have an energy that is just amazing") and a fourth stage that will take the festival, quite literally, into the woods.
"There is a short but small path that leads from the main stage up into the woods to a small clearing," Young said. "We have a lighting design expert that will basically illuminate the woods there. There is a small stage we're going to use for DJs, so that's an exciting new addition."
Ultimately, what Young hopes for — outside of decent weather — is the kind of attendance, recognition and artistic unity that will send The Moonshiner's Ball into its third year.
"We still aspire to do more by growing the festival in a way that we don't flame out along the way. We really do hope to be the next big festival in the state."