The Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival, taking place July 31 and Aug. 1, deals with tradition in two senses of the word. Its featured artists come from roots-music genres such as Delta blues, Cajun and bluegrass, and it's become a yearly ritual for folks who like to camp out, take in concerts and learn an instrument at the same time.
The festival didn't begin as a celebration of traditional forms of American music. The event's coordinating committee, the Four Lakes Traditional Music Collective, formed nearly seven years ago when a group of local bluegrass aficionados, including members of the Cork n' Bottle String Band, saw a need for a festival more focused on music than drinking. They began looking for fests that modeled the kind of vibe they hoped to create - one where people could bring their kids, toss back a brewski and listen to some live music - and found the Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"Having more variety just felt right, and [Hiawatha's] scene and culture was very inclusive and family-friendly," says Evan Murdock, one of the festival's founders and president of the Four Lakes board. "You'd see teenagers walking around talking about how awesome traditional music is and little kids running around. It just seemed like the kind of thing that ought to exist in Madison."
In crafting a festival for Madison and beyond, Four Lakes sought to avoid some of the street-festival clichés - large crowds, smoldering asphalt, incense vendor overload - by holding the event at Lake Farm County Park and encouraging attendees to camp.
The sleepover factor added another element to the experience: impromptu jam sessions. Not just the kind you watch, but the kind you take part in.
"For me, where it really happens is at night, gathered around the campfire," says Murdock. "Sometimes the artists who have been performing will play, and everybody will join in. Some people stay up until 6 in the morning, or you fall asleep listening to this really good music happening 15 feet from your tent."
It's these fireside gatherings - plus the Q&A sessions and instrument tutorials at many of the performances - that help build community among concertgoers, something that rarely happens at a rock 'n' roll show in a club. Perhaps more important, they ensure that traditional music and the stories that accompany it are carefully transferred to the next generation of musicians and listeners.
"Whether you're 8 or 38, and even if you're picking up a banjo for the first time, learning the tunes and the history of this music from the greats is how the tradition lives on," Murdock says. "Without these kinds of interactions, this kind of music probably wouldn't exist, so we're helping to keep it alive."
This year's list of greats includes the Savoy Family Band, which plays Cajun music; six-time national fiddle champion Megan Lynch; storied banjo teacher and performer Bill Evans; alt-country favorites Robbie Fulks and Nora O'Connor; country bluesman Joel Paterson; and Grammy winners Bill Miller and JD Crowe, among others. There will be old-time dancing on Friday, a cowboy tunes showcase and lasso tricks demonstration on Saturday, and a show for kids by Dave Landau on both days. One of the Savoys, who also happens to be a master accordion builder, will present a special workshop on the squeezebox.
"I'm most excited about the Savoy Family," Murdock says, "mostly because I like to dance, and the Cajun crowd always turns out to dance up a storm. But overall, I think this year is the best lineup we've ever had. These folks are really steeped in the history of the music and know how to have a good time, too."
Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival
Lake Farm County Park, Friday & Saturday, July 31 & Aug. 1