Me, to friend in rock band: "It's cool that you're playing Strawberry again. I didn't think a bluegrass festival would have rockers like you back."

Rock band friend: "What bluegrass festival?"

Calling California's Strawberry Music Festival a bluegrass festival is like calling the Olympics a competition for wrestlers and foot racers-- you wouldn't be wrong, but you'd be leaving out some modern changes.

Held each Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend at Camp Mather in the Sierra Nevada, just outside the north gate of Yosemite National Park, the Strawberry Music Festival is four days of acoustic music outdoors, rain or shine, onstage and off. Since the festival started in 1983, bluegrass artists like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury, Hot Rize, and the Dry Branch Fire Squad have played there, and continue to draw bluegrass aficionados. But it is possible to go the entire weekend without hearing any mountain music. (Difficult to be sure, as the entire concert is broadcast throughout the campgrounds on FM radio-- to the delight of tape traders).

As other acoustic artists, from John Prine to Richard Thompson to R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Seranaders have been invited into the line up, the sounds on the Strawberry stage have changed. You might see Emmylou Harris, Dan Hicks, the Flatlanders, or Marcia Ball --and if they want to bring a full band, and play electric instruments, for goodness' sake-- well, once they allowed the Austin Lounge Lizards to play whatever they call their genre of music, there was no going back. Hardcore bluegrass fans may duck out of the cajun, blues, ragtime, folk, old-timey, swing, or dawg music sets, but the skinny white kids with the rastafarian hats playing hackysack don't seem to mind what genre David Grisman is playing in this year. Besides, there's usually always a jam going on in the campground to sit in on. (You're likely to see more banjos and mandolins around the camp than onstage).

Other activities at Strawberry: acoustic music workshops (from the performers), storytelling and crafts for the kids, and you're a short hike away from the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

In addition to its music jams and its radio, Strawberry has a distinctive seating policy known as the "Strawberry Stroll." You can get in line for seats no earlier than midnight. (The doors open at 7:00 AM). The doors open and a mad dash begins to place your 4 chairs (none higher than 30 inches, to protect sightlines) on the Strawberry Tarp (the front row seating areas). Once you've placed them-- you leave them there, whether you plan to use them at 10:30 AM for the first set or 7:00 PM for the headline act. In the meantime, Any chair not occupied is open for use by anyone until the owner arrives. Which means you can usually catch an excellent set from a local bluegrass band or La Boutine Souriante sitting in the third row thanks to the Junior Brown fan who won't show up till suppertime. Meanwhile, of course, you woke up around noon, strolled in and placed your chairs near the rear exits, so that you'll have a seat in the evening close to the hot chocolate stand.

Two tips if you plan to go:

  1. Dress warmly. You're in the mountains, at 4000 feet elevation, and the evening get chilly. Unfortunately, you're also in a dangerous fire zone, so you won't be sitting around the campfire picking out "Wildwood Flower"-- more likely you'll be gathered around a Coleman lantern.
  2. Ask at the gate where the quietest areas will be to set up camp. The music jams do go all night, and "Worried Man Blues" doesn't sound so pretty at 3 AM when the fiddle player is standing next to your tent.
The mosh pit for the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Strawberry, Saturday, May 25, 1996.

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