25 years of bluegrass

Gabe Dettinger, of Sun Prairie, competes in the banjo division during the 2017 East Troy Bluegrass Festival. Dettinger won both the mandolin and banjo contests. (Eric Kramer file photo)

East Troy’s annual music festival returns this weekend

By Vanessa Lenz


Thousands have gathered from near and far for the celebration that happens during the second weekend in September at East Troy Village Square Park.

This year the gathering will be extra special as the East Troy Bluegrass Festival celebrates 25 years on Saturday, Sept. 8, and Sunday, Sep 9. The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. each day

Now considered one of the top bluegrass events in the region, the East Troy Bluegrass Festival was started from scratch back in 1994, and today (along with the famous Alpine Valley Music Theatre) is credited for making music deeply rooted in the local community.

The festival morphed out of founder Melissa Sherman’s love for bluegrass music.

“It started because I’m a bluegrasser,” Sherman said.

With help from local bluegrass musicians Lee and Barb Lorentz, who she loving calls “Dad” and “Mom,” and Linnea Loesch, who served on the Village of East Troy Parks and Recreation Committee at the time, Sherman held the first event, then called East Troy’s Bluegrass Funfest.

Sherman, who was drawn into Bluegrass as a young girl, wanted to hold her own festival after she found that running her business Melissa’s Country Baskets and a Touch of Heart in East Troy left her little time to jam on her guitar and upright bass and go to bluegrass shows.

That changed when Milwaukee resident and fiddle player John Losiniecki came into her store and chatted about how the Village Square would be a nice spot to play bluegrass.

“I was fresh off having three kids and I missed the music,” Sherman said. “I decided to bring bluegrass to East Troy. I thought it was a perfect place for a little bluegrass festival.”

Sherman followed through with her idea by raising money for prizes and asking her friends who were in bands to play for nothing.

Today, the East Troy Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored event isn’t so small and is slowly and surely becoming a fixture in the regional and national bluegrass festival scene.

Dedicated crowds have increased from less than 200 the first weekend to more than 2,000 attendees expected for the festival’s 25th anniversary event.

Sherman said the third annual event put the East Troy Bluegrass Festival on the map when a private donation brought in the “Doctor of Bluegrass” Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys. The performance set high standards for the festival and Sherman has worked to in-crease the quality of the bands each year.

“We had to up the ante and come up with the money to get somebody as good as him,” she said.

Sherman, who currently serves as artistic director, has been successful in hiring headliners for each subsequent event.

Many top artists have graced the East Troy stage through the years, including Bobby Osborne, J.D. Crowe and Jim and Jesse McReynolds.

This year’s headliners include Carson Peters & Iron Mountain and Volume 5.

Staying true to the festival’s roots, local, emerging and popular regional bands will pepper each day’s lineup.

Staying true to blue

The East Troy Bluegrass Festival continues because of the generosity of local sponsors with many key volunteers contributing over the years.

Robin Hudec joined on as co-chair of the festival in 2002 after Sherman moved to Canada where she composes award-winning bluegrass music.

Unlike larger music festivals, the event showcases local food and entertainment while keeping costs down for attendees.

Sherman said there have been a few pop culture occurrences that have sparked more interest in bluegrass through the years.

The genre’s fast tempos and high vocals hit the mainstream with the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and triple platinum selling soundtrack.

Sherman said celebrity banjo player Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers have also given bluegrass a huge amount of press.   She said this type of growth in popularity helps attract younger fans to the music, which usually has a fan base of 60- to 80-year-olds.

The lowdown

In addition to the musical entertainment, other festival highlights include a popular food court featuring local fare and a Marketplace featuring local crafters, artisans and farmers market vendors.

Admission is $10 per person. Children 15 and younger are admitted free.

Attendees should bring their own lawn chairs. No alcohol is allowed at this family event.

The rain location is East Troy Middle School, 3143 Graydon Ave.

For more information, call (262) 642-3770 or email vanessa@easttroy.org.

      Vanessa Lenz is the executive director of the East Troy Area Chamber of Commerce.

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