While most attendees of the Charm City Bluegrass Festival arrive as full-fledged fans of the music, co-founder Phil Chorney still sees his fair share of conversion cases during the annual event.
“People often [wrongly] associate bluegrass with ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” Chorney said. “But coming to the festival, a lot of times they leave getting it. They start to embrace it, and find the little pieces of that world that relate to them.”
That’s one of the many reasons Charm City Bluegrass Festival continues to grow. Saturday’s iteration is expected to draw its largest audience — nearly 4,000 people, Chorney said — with a lineup headlined by Brooklyn, N.Y., quartet the Lone Bellow. As the festival enters its fifth year, its organizers are expanding the single-day celebration into a brand that promotes and educates others on bluegrass music throughout the year.
“It’s really cool to see it grow year after year,” Chorney said. “Now we’re really trying to do events every month that keep the audiences engaged.”
For Chorney, this spirit of sharing and spreading bluegrass is why the festival exists.
The initial idea for the festival was born on a Hampden porch, where Chorney and his friend Jordan August hosted impromptu bluegrass jam sessions for friends. Not long after, in 2013, they partnered with Union Craft Brewing to host the inaugural event in the Hampden brewery’s parking lot.
The festival sold out a month in advance, and Chorney realized there was a greater demand for bluegrass in Baltimore than he initially knew. He and August — along with another organizer, Adam Kirr — soon began brainstorming how to improve it.
“The biggest comment to us was, ‘How can you have a bluegrass festival without grass?’” Chorney, of White Marsh, said with a laugh.
Since 2014, the festival has been held outside of the Rawlings Conservatory and Botanical Gardens at Druid Hill Park.
While the event has booked A-list acts within the genre — including Ricky Skaggs, the Wood Brothers and Noam Pikelny in previous years — it has also provided unique educational opportunities via deep dives into bluegrass music and its culture.
Last year, the festival had a workshop tent where fans could talk instruments and songwriting with artists. This year, organizers are expanding the tent into a stage, where attendees will be able to hear old road stories from festival performers.
“They bring their instruments. They ask questions,” Chorney said of the fans. “All of these things give concertgoers something different.”
Cris Jacobs, the Reisterstown-based singer-songwriter who has performed at each Charm City Bluegrass Festival, said these fan-driven experiences enrich the community. (He plans to participate in the sessions.) Jacobs said he’s excited to see where organizers take the brand next, because he believes in their intentions.
“These guys are truly in it to educate people and just share their passion for the music,” Jacobs said. “That’s what’s going to separate them from some of these other festivals that just come and go.”
While intimate interactions like these are a dream come true for diehard fans, Chorney is just as interested in turning new listeners onto bluegrass.
That’s why the festival partnered with the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the Westminster Preservation Trust last year to host the “Live at Westminster Hall” concert series. The festival published live performance footage featuring bluegrass greats like Dan Tyminski and Ronnie Bowman on its YouTube page. They also began co-sponsoring a monthly bluegrass show at the 8x10.
Building off that momentum, Chorney, August and Kirr recently organized their first happy-hour fundraiser for the Rawlings Conservatory centered on bluegrass jam sessions. They were surprised by the positive response, and hope to do one each month during the summer.
“We had no expectations for the pop-up bluegrass happy hour, and I’d estimate 200 to 250 people showed up and sat on their blankets,” Chorney said. “It’s something we’ll continue to do as a way to bring people together at this beautiful place.”
The idea is to make Charm City Bluegrass a brand synonymous with local, live music throughout the year, so the festival can feel like “the pinnacle,” Chorney said.
The festival is still the brand’s premier event, and Chorney hopes to expand it to more days and sections of the park. Ultimately, he wants the festival to become Baltimore’s version of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, an event that draws huge crowds from outside the city while showcasing the beauty and culture inside of it.
“We have so many festivals and street fairs. Being a part of that community and really showing the best of Baltimore, to me, means the world,” Chorney said. “Not everyone loves our city, but I do, and I think everyone who comes to our festival appreciates the real beauty of Baltimore.”