By Joanna Dodder Nellans
If Goldilocks is a bluegrass and acoustic music fan, she surely would choose the annual Pickin’ in the Pines Bluegrass & Acoustic Music Festival in Flagstaff.
The comparison may sound trite, but Pickin’ in the Pines truly has evolved into a spot that’s just right in the world of music festivals. It’s big enough to attract national bluegrass acts, yet small enough that you can hang out in the grass for a few sets and then stroll right down near the stage to experience your favorite band up close and personal.
“It’s not so big that you feel lost or overwhelmed, and not so small that you don’t feel a lot of great energy,” relates 21-year-old Johan Glidden, lead vocalist for Prescott’s young up-and-coming Sugar & the Mint band that won the 2016 Pickin’ in the Pines (PIP) band contest and returns again this year.
This year’s headliners Sept. 13-15 include Sam Bush, Del McCoury, and David Grisman, all legendary in the bluegrass world. Festivalgoers also will catch sprinkles of everything from Hawaiian slack key guitar to gypsy jazz. Now in its 14th year, locals named it their best annual event/festival the last two years (Arizona Daily Sun newspaper poll).
Alongside the diverse lineup, the festival setting at Fort Tuthill County Park is ideal. The amphitheater is nestled in the ponderosa pines with a gently sloping grassy expanse above it. Pickers and grinners gather around campfires in the nearby wooded campground to jam the night away. In between, the Commercial Building hosts workshops and community dances.
Flagstaff Friends of Traditional Music (FFOTM) is the brainchild behind this increasingly popular family-friendly festival, which experienced its first sold-out day last year when ticket sales hit the 3,500-person maximum capacity (including about 500 spots reserved for kids, who get in free).
Julie Sullivan Brace, Linda Mack, and Teresa Wayne lead more than 240 festival volunteers who make the festival a success.
“We have a very diverse audience, and it has a really nice bluegrass festival vibe,” Wayne related.
“It’s fun and everybody is having a good time,” Mack added. “We hear that all the time from people.”
Brace, fellow FFOTM members, and a county supervisor hatched the festival idea in her living room about a year after the county constructed its amphitheater. The trio has spent the past decade refining the festival quality and vision, Brace said. While the county might expand the 800-capacity campground in the future, the festival crowd will stay about the same and organizers strive to preserve the vibe.
“I can’t see it ever being like Telluride (Bluegrass Festival) where you have to line up to get your spot,” said Brace, a guitarist who plays in a local duo.