Music on the Mountaintop 2012: A Retrospective

Music on the Mountaintop has come and gone but crew are left with some of our fondest memories of the year so far. The relatively new festival, started in 2008, quickly became one of the most talked about events in Western North Carolina and was the first of it’s kind in the area. We missed out on attending the Railroad Earth-curated fest last year, but we’re thrilled to have a new group of writers on board, who actually attend nearby Appalachian State, who were able to make the trek up Grandfather Mountain and report on this growing event that takes place in an area that would make most Wakarusa-goers jealous. The festival took place the last full weekend in August but due to school starting back for everyone, we were a bit caught up in the mix of things and are finally getting this up. One thing’s for sure, we’ll definitely be back next year. 

Music on the Mountaintop 2012: Ilona Hartwig

Despite a bit of poor weather the opening day of the festival, the beautiful setting made up for just about any inconvenience the rain caused. Grandfather Mountain is possibly the most picturesque setting for a music festival that we could think of; an icon of Western North Carolina, Grandfather soars to almost 6,000 feet in elevation, and is a major peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Keeping with the core mission of the festival ( “to provide top notch musical talent from the local and national scene as well as interactive educational exhibits promoting environmental stewardship” ), the area was well-kept and the audience needed almost no instruction or reminder of how to respect the space they were occupying. This was definitely one of the cleanest grounds we’ve been to and that’s just as important to us as a stacked lineup if you’re going to spend an entire weekend in tent city.

Dr. Dog at Music on the Mountaintop 2012: Ilona Hartwig

App State (and alums River Whyless pleased an early crowd with their harmony-heavy, downhome ballads that Macon has become more than familiar with. After a packed house at Bragg Jam in late July, the group solidified themselves among the out-of-town acts that can call Macon a “home away from home”. They’ll be back at The Hummingbird on September 27th with Sterling Waite & the Cotton Ave Hustlers, so if you’re around that area at the time, do yourself the favor.

J.J. Grey & Mofro fit in perfectly with the general vibe of the first day and were a perfect segway into the fuzz-drenched old-time pop songs of Dr. Dog. It made for quite the scene as evening started to fall and we really felt perfectly at home, singing and dancing  with what felt like 5000+ new friends. We’re not sure exactly how many people actually came, but the 2011 festival hosted nearly 5500. Dr. Dog was the ideal act to get the audience in-tune for the first set from festival curators and headliners, Railroad Earth. An obvious favorite in the area, the band treated us to a full set of foot stompin’ folk and bluegrass that would make your grandpa proud. Night one was far from over following Railroad’s set and the festival grounds quickly became alive with improv music sessions, circles of storytelling, cooking, drinking, and the occasional disoriented visitor to our campsite.

Futurebirds at Music on the Mountaintop 2012: Ilona Hartwig

Morning came much sooner than we expected, but there was already a large crowd milling about, doing yoga, throwing frisbee..those sort of things. We spent a better part of the morning and afternoon walking around the grounds and talking with the vendors and various booths set up. Holy Ghost Tent Revival and Monroeville set the perfect tone for an easy day in the mountains. We’re incredibly lucky to live in this area and have access to the mountain and surrounding trails whenever we would like to go, but it was great to see the response from the out-of-town attendees who were visiting the area for the first time. There were probably as many photos taken of the bands playing as the landscape around us and every few minutes we would pass someone making a remark about the blue-gray tones of the nearby hills and vallies.

Futurebirds showed up and thrilled a crowd that was half full with what appeared to be devote fans and half first-timers, but by the time they closed out everyone was on their feet, swaying and side-stepping along with the band. Like Dr. Dog, they stood out from most of the bands on the MOTM 2012 bill, particularly for their reverb and distortion heavy highs and lows, but they kept things tied together with one of the most solid pedal steel guitarists I’ve ever seen. Plus, these guys know how to work a crowd and they want a crowd to work them. Energy developed over their set, just as during Dr. Dog’s the previous day and the crowd was quickly pepped up and alive in time for the soul and funk of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and eventually on to Railroad’s second set of the weekend.

Day three came just as quickly as the previous and but we were far from ready to leave. Being our first experience here, we were truly impressed by the cohesiveness of all the different aspects of the festival. It’s very easy to have one certain thing taint a festival, whether a rude staff or a dirty grounds or disrespectful neighbors, but for the size and production value, the MOTM crew have got it right and are headed in a direction that could easily see them having to pick up camp and move to a new, larger location should they want to expand. We want to see their continued success but the seclusiveness of the Grandfather Mountain location was again, one of the major selling points of this festival.

Railroad Earth at Music on the Mountaintop: Ilona Hartwig

Sunday closed out with sets from area-favorites Salem Speaks and a few other regional acts, but the closing highlight of the entire weekend came from bluegrass legend Sam Bush as he delivered an impressive full band set before joining Railroad Earth and a cast that included Larry & Jenny Keel and Monroeville for a “super-jam”, ending the weekend in the most appropriate way.

For those of you in the South East who didn’t make it to MOTM, mark your calendars for a tentative weekend in late August 2013 and plan accordingly. The crew behind the festival have wholesomely crafted a loving and supportive community that wants to see the event succeed just as much as they do and we wouldn’t be surprised if 2013 brings the addition of many more bands, vendors, fans, and memories. Thanks again, MOTM!

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– Hinson Hays & Ethan Hollbrook