The weather has finally warmed up and it’s time to get down. The summer music festival landscape has exploded with seemingly unlimited choices for fans—whether it’s jazz, blues, country, rock, or sometimes all of them rolled up together. Of course, there are the big boys: Manchester, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this June, and with its perfect location on the Gulf coast, Alabama’s Hangout Fest has quickly become a staple. But if you’re looking for something a little more off the radar, these seven Southern festivals, from a Mississippi Hill Country blues blowout to a Blue Ridge Mountain jam in Virginia, will keep your summer rocking through Labor Day.
April 28–May 1
Get your yodel on at the largest roots and Americana festival in the country, named after Merle Watson, son of the legendary musician Doc Watson. Spread over 13 stages on the campus of Wilkes Community College, the line-up is a murderers’ row of players and pickers, including John Prine, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, and Old Crow Medicine Show, along with curveballs, such as John Oates, who will bust out acoustic versions of Hall & Oates classics. If you’re a budding singer/songwriter (and fearless), you can sign up for a four-minute slot to wow the audience at the onsite Coffee House. I, however, can’t go for that.
Jacksonville Jazz Festival
May 26–May 29
Jazz Fest New Orleans gets the attention, but jazz freaks also know that Jacksonville Jazz Festival is the real deal. The air is festive, with the event taking place throughout downtown and as far as the banks of the St. Johns River. Rising stars, including Jon Batiste and Kem, along with such giants as pianist McCoy Tyner and Dr. John perform during the day, but the energy kicks into another gear when the sun goes down with more than 60 acts performing on ten stages.
North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic
A Mississippi festival in late June? Absolutely, because the only thing hotter than the temperature is the mesmerizing, greasy guitar licks coming from some of the region’s top Hill Country blues artists, such as Kenny Brown, North Mississippi Allstars, RL Boyce, and various members of the RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough families. This is a bare-bones event, with primitive camping available (pro tip: stay in Holly Springs or Oxford, both about 15 minutes away), so bring your own coolers and chairs (a VIP ticket gets you a tent with shade and fans), an anything-goes attitude, sun block, and your dancing shoes.
Located at Louisville’s Waterfront Park on the banks of the Ohio River, Forecastle has become one of the South’s premier festivals. The line up is killer—Alabama Shakes, Avett Brothers, Gary Clark Jr., and Shakey Graves, among many others—but the show-stealer is the Bourbon Lodge, where you can sample offerings from Maker’s Mark and Four Roses as well as craft distillers like Michter’s. And don’t miss the Gonzo Bar, a lounge inspired by Louisville’s own Hunter S. Thompson, where bartenders will whip up bourbon and specialty cocktails. The Good Doctor would approve.
Sloss Music & Arts Festival
Held at the last remaining blast furnace site in the U.S.—now being preserved as a historic industrial site—the music at Sloss is red-hot with the likes of Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, The Arcs (side project of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys), and Shovels & Rope. Tickets are reasonable at $125 for a two-day pass. And if you want a break from the music, you can take part in live iron-pouring demonstrations.
If you’re looking for music with a healthy dose of outdoor adventure, check out Floydfest. The timber-frame stage and tree-lined backdrop of the Dreaming Creek Main Stage is one of the most gorgeous settings anywhere for a live show and is perfect for headliners Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes (don’t rule out an Allman Brothers mini-reunion), as well as Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. In between sets you can explore the Blue Ridge Mountains on foot, on bike, and on water with a float down the Little River. And don’t miss the festival’s substantial World Music talent, such as African guitar wizard Bombino and Ghanaian reggae star Selasee and the Fafa Family.
Muddy Roots calls itself “a backyard party that got out of hand” and that couldn’t be more accurate. This is a smashing weekend of traditional country, psychobilly, gutbucket blues, and a dash of punk rock. Located on June Bug Boogie Ranch outside of town, nearly all guests will camp on the free campgrounds (hot showers are available) and there’s no barrier between performers on stage and the crowd, creating a healthy we’re-all-in-this-together vibe, fueled by late-night jam sessions, vintage hot rods, and plenty of PBR tall boys. If you’re looking to step outside your comfort zone, Muddy Roots is the one to hit.