Spring marks the beginning of Georgia’s festival season, a parade of wonderful opportunities to venture outdoors and sample local arts and flavors. Near the top of the calendar is Dahlonega’s Bear on the Square Festival, which celebrates its 20th year this weekend (April 16-17, 2016).
As a North Georgia mountain gateway and onetime gold rush town, Dahlonega hardly needs another calling card, but Bear on the Square really ups the ante with its heartfelt dedication to traditional Southern Appalachian music. The festival attracts nearly 50,000 attendees stretching well beyond adjoining states. “We heard from folks in England who wanted to attend a bluegrass festival and after doing their research decided this was the one,” marvels festival organizer Glenda Pender.
Dahlonega has long served as a musical hub, playing host to fiddle conventions as far back as the early 1900s. While Pender draws a distinction between bluegrass and old-time music, Bear on the Square does justice to both. Check out this YouTube video of the original Skillet Lickers for an early example of the genre. The Georgia Crackers, on this year’s main stage bill, draw a direct line to the authentic North Georgia sound. (A bit of trivia for rock fans: Georgia Cracker Evan Kinney is the brother of Kevn Kinney, from Atlanta’s legendary Drivin’ N’ Cryin’.)
“Official” festival music runs from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, but that’s just the start of the fun. “Probably a quarter of folks show up with their own instruments,” estimates organizer Jimmy Booth. “People start rolling in by Thursday night,” and impromptu jam sessions begin cropping up all along the town square, often with the professionals joining in. An unscientific poll on the festival site reveals these pickup jams to be the most popular aspect of the event. Free workshops (no experience necessary) are also offered throughout the weekend. Storytelling — another Appalachian tradition — has been added to the program, as well.
Another audience favorite is the Sunday morning Gospel Jam. “It’s not a religious thing, but it’s the most moving, foot-stomping, inspiring time,” explains Pender. “People sing their hearts out, the energy level is so high,” in this homage to mountain gospel tradition. Originally conceived as an open mic, performances are now scheduled in advance due to high demand. “One year (Indigo Girl) Amy Ray showed up, and some folks in the crowd recognized her and cajoled her into doing a song.”
The main stage also features performers like Bluegrass Songwriter of the Year winner Becky Buller. And after hours, several of the musicians retire to the Crimson Moon Café, a classic listening room in the Eddie’s Attic/ Bluebird Café vein, for a paid set in an intimate setting.
Festival organizers proudly emphasize that all activities are free, to the point that they downplay an open-to-the-public Friday night kickoff fundraiser with live music and an auction. The princely sum of $5 includes samplings from local wineries and Dahlonega’s best restaurants.
The juried art booths also feature plenty of local of flavor; in the fest’s early years, a local moonshiner used to display his wares. All perfectly legal, Pender assures me. “If moonshining isn’t a part of traditional Appalachian culture, what is?” she laughs.
Glen Sarvady is Georgia’s official Music Explorer. He has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and has written about music both locally and nationally for at least as long. More recently, he has written regularly for the music/arts publication Stomp & Stammer as well as GeorgiaMusic.org.