Bring a chair to the square for bluegrass
EAST TROY — If you're a fan of bluegrass, you know exactly where you'll be come Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 9 and Sept. 10: listening to the sweet blend of guitars, banjos, mandolins and fiddles at East Troy's 24th annual Bluegrass Festival. Take a moment while you're there to stop and thank the woman behind the festival — she'll be mingling with bluegrass lovers on the square — award-winning composer Melissa Sherman.
In 1994, Sherman was a single mom with three young children and a business, Melissa's Country Baskets and a Touch of Heart, located across from the village square in East Troy. She was also a bluegrass guitarist and upright bass player looking to play, but busy with life.
“I didn't have time to go out to shows, but I enjoy jamming,” Sherman said in a phone call from her home in Toronto. “I thought the square in East Troy, which people have described as a Norman Rockwell setting, is such a perfect place to bring my music to the public.”
She turned to friends. With help from Lee and Barb Lorentz, local bluegrass musicians with connections, she rounded up bands to perform for free. She secured insurance for the event, sponsored by the Village of East Troy Parks and Recreation Department. And through a combination of fundraising and money from her own pocket, she raised cash prizes for contests.
Municipal officials were suspicious at the beginning because no one knew what kind of music bluegrass was, let alone audiences it would draw, Sherman said. She convinced them there would be no hippies smoking pot. The fest wouldn't sell alcohol — if someone wanted a beer, there were bars on the square to go to. No security would be needed to close off a venue entryway. Instead of rowdy crowds, there would be contented bluegrass fans, watching acts.
And there were.
“Bands were performing on top of the gazebo and by the end of the day, everybody's neck was nearly broken from looking up all the time,” Sherman laughingly recalled of the first festival.
Around 100 people showed up, and that was enough to spark an annual event that is now organized by the East Troy Area Chamber of Commerce, with donations coming from local sponsors and help from countless volunteers.
Vanessa Lenz, executive director of the chamber, sees the festival as a celebration not only of bluegrass, but of community, staying true to Sherman's original vision of a laid-back, family-friendly event.
“Our East Troy area and extended bluegrass community support this event year after year and it has grown to where it attracts attendees from across the state and Midwest,” Lenz wrote in an email. “Bluegrass fans are truly loyal followers. Attendance has increased from less than 200 the first weekend to 1,800 attendees expected on Sept. 9 and 10.
“We get some of the best players in the state, region and nation at our festival,” Lenz said, noting this year's lineup is headlined by national acts, including Larry Efaw and the Bluegrass Mountaineers, known for their traditional sounds, and Becky Buller, a young but well-decorated bluegrass performer.
Besides musical acts there also will be jamming and contests, food vendors and a marketplace to shop for artisan goods, specialty items, crafts and more, Lenz said.
Sherman is now living in Canada, where she not only won Central Canada Bluegrass Awards' 2012 Composer of the Year award, but is in CCBA's Hall of Fame. But she's returned to East Troy for every single festival save one. She's always booked the shows and found the musicians, seeking out new bands, booking deals with legendary performers like Ralph Stanley to provide a good mix onstage every year.
She can tally the early contestants who stay connected, like the 6-year-old fiddle player who's grown up to become a doctor, the annoying 5-year-old struggling to carry — let alone play — a banjo, who now comes back to jam, or the musical family whose members include a concert violinist, a cello player and an opera singer.
“People call it my party,” Sherman said. “People used to ask me, 'Why do you do this? Are you making money?' No, it's the hugs and greetings. It's the old man who walks up with a cane, saying, 'Thanks for doing what you do.'”
Sherman, 61, concedes the demographics of bluegrass fans are changing. None of her three children share her musical passion, although she said one of her 4-year-old granddaughter's favorite songs is “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
“Hey, I lived through high school with platform heels and Alice Cooper, but there was always bluegrass. too,” Sherman said. “Bluegrass is American music, and everyone needs to know what it is.
“My main mission is keeping bluegrass alive.”