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Jamming with roots-music stars at the 2014 Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival
Locals camp out with notables like Dom Flemons and the Tillers
The festival is a picking party.

The Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival is as much a pop-up community as it is a concert.

When the 11th annual event comes to Lake Farm County Park Aug. 1-2, there will be performances, workshops, discussions and jam sessions that migrate to the camping area before each night ends.

Jeff Kunkle, bassist for local bluegrass act Oak Street Ramblers, belongs to the volunteer board that helps put on the show. He originally worked a stand at the fest, but his responsibilities grew. Now he helps book the bands that play each year.

Kunkle says the organizers try to bring in as many new-to-the-festival artists as possible when building each year's lineup. The Tillers, who'll return to play a set Friday night, and the Cajun Strangers, who'll open the main stage on Saturday, are the only Sugar Maple veterans returning this year.

In particular, Kunkle is excited about curating a special section of the fest with Dr. Charles Hughes, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who specializes in African American history (and has contributed to Isthmus.

Dom Flemons, a founding and former member of old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, will play in a duo during a set representing several African American musical traditions. Before his show on Saturday, he'll take part in a moderated panel discussion.

Joining him on the panel is Blind Boy Paxton, a young singer and guitarist from Los Angeles who performs traditional blues.

"[Paxton's] got a lot of energy and buzz going. He's exploring these old blues idioms that not too many people are doing anymore," Kunkle says.

Paxton and Flemons will talk with Madison educator Jeff Burkhart, as well as Wisconsin Public Radio's Stephanie Elkins.

Madison country-folk favorites Count This Penny, Iowa City's the Awful Purdies, and New Orleans jazz and folk outfit the Drunken Catfish Ramblers will also grace the main stage.

Next to the main stage, the Roots and Reasons stage gets attendees thinking about the history of traditional American music through discussions and workshops where musical ideas and techniques are shared. It's part of the festival's mission to educate visitors about different musical styles and traditional instruments.

There will be an accordion workshop, a beginner’s course on roots fiddling and a ukulele workshop with Milwaukee's Lil' Rev, a dedicated student and teacher of the instrument.

Anyone whose image of the uke is based on its portrayal in popular culture might not instantly associate the little instrument with the guitar family.

"In terms of traditional music, the ukulele has a super-rich history," Rev says. "Unfortunately, a lot of people think of Tiny Tim. He didn't do a whole lot to uplift the instrument."

Rev says the ukulele has a Hawaiian and Portuguese heritage, as well as roots in Tin Pan Alley, country music, jug bands and 1920s string bands.

After his set Saturday, Rev will share some of the finer points of traditional ukulele music. He'll focus on strumming techniques during a workshop designed to help players explore the rhythmic side of the instrument.

"Learning to play the ukulele... has been one of my lifelong endeavors," he says.

While the scheduled events unfold, something more improvisational will happen in the Jam Tent. There'll be an old-time jam led by fiddler Chirps Smith, a Cajun jam led by the Cajun Strangers, and a bluegrass jam led by the Bluegrass Playboys.

"We'll have these national, elite-level musicians who are there to lead jams with whoever wants to bring an instrument," Kunkle says.

After the formal jam sessions, a picking circle happens around the fire in the camping area adjacent to the festival, he adds.

"I have a lot of great memories of playing music with performers who would come down after the festival's over to hang out around the fire," Kunkle says. "That goes back to the sense of community. There really is a sense of people coming together, united by music."

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