The festival express

The festival express

This isn’t the best place for arguing semantics, but what the heck is a festival, anyway?

We have our fair share, to be sure—the Dogwood Festival and the Charlottesville Vegetarian Festival come to mind, as do the annual Virginia Film Festival, the Festival of the Photograph and, my personal favorite, the Fall Fiber Festival and Montpelier Sheepdog Trials. Of course, we also have parties, mobs, clubs, groups, carnivals and fairs. (By the way, if you haven’t yet, make plans for the Albemarle County Fair, which opens on Tuesday.)

A festival, however, carves a more specific place for itself. Festivals seem to look over a shoulder at some history or tradition as they move forward in celebration—neither as aimless as an aggregation nor as solemn as a congregation.

Traveling carnival: Matt Burris (left) and Ross McDermott will spend a year on the road, documenting offbeat festivals around America and funding their trip through selling their photographs.

Yet to hear photographers Ross McDermott and Matt Burris speak about festivals is to realize just how antiquated or provocative, how damned bizarre, such events can be. The pair, former roommates during their undergraduate days at the Pratt Institute, came up with the idea of roadtripping to a handful of American festivals and documenting their travels more than a year ago. Now, with a bit of funding, a Dodge Ram converted to run on waste vegetable oil and a 1969 Airstream trailer transformed into a darkroom, the pair plans to hit their own circuit of events, dubbed “The American Festivals Project,” in the middle of September to turn out the country’s forgotten pockets.

“We’ve planned for about 60 festivals at this time,” says McDermott, who previously presented The Generations Project, a photo-and-audio documentary in which local high school students interviewed residents of local nursing homes, at The Bridge/Progressive Arts Initiative. “I imagine we’ll hear about some more through word of mouth.”
Stringing together a network of fests in a Dodge is a quick way to run up costs. McDermott and Burris received a “Young Explorers Grant” from National Geographic in December, a fund that awards between $2,000-5,000 to projects created by anyone between the ages of 18 and 25. The National Geographic website, however, makes it clear that the fund is set up as a supplemental grant; McDermott says that the money is supposed to fund a three-month project, but that he and Burris would like for their trip to last a year.

To extend their trip and encourage a bit of interactivity, the pair plans to sell prints from their travels on the project’s website ( Starting on August 1, the website will launch and begin accepting pre-orders for photographs to be taken by McDermott and Burris and developed in the homemade darkroom in the belly of their silver Airstream; prices, says McDermott, will range from $100 for an 8" by 10" print, and $200 for an 11" by 17" print.

“If people are paying money for a print,” says McDermott, “they’ll be watching the website throughout the year to see where we’ve been and what we’re shooting.” McDermott and Burris plan to accept pre-orders from August 1 until mid-September, and mail the prints at the completion of their project.

C-VILLE Playlist
What we’ve been listening to

“Mercy,” by Duffy (from Rockferry)

“Constructive Summer,” by The Hold Steady (from Stay Positive) — Like driving a ’79 Chevy Nova down a Western Pennsylvania back road, with a bottle of whiskey on your breath, a full tank of gas and the principal’s daughter strewn in the passenger seat.

The Rite of Spring, by Igor Stravinsky

“No Quarter,” by Led Zeppelin (Live at Sports Arena, San Diego, March 14, 1975)

“Shake Appeal,” by Iggy Pop and the Stooges (from Raw Power)

So, what does the itinerary look like so far? How about starting with the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in Alabama? That’s where a collection of nearly 200 buried coon dogs are commemorated with a celebration, a liar’s contest and, maybe, a reading of William Ramsey’s official “Coon Dog Eulogy.” (Sample line: “If you have known the music of coon hounds on a trail…you know there has to be a God to make an animal like that.” Full text at

Burris and McDermott name a few more festivals: the world’s largest Machine Gun Shootout, in Knob Creek, Kentucky; the annual Rattlesnake Round-Up in Sweetwater, Texas, including a rattlesnake parade and a snake charmers pageant; Ocean City, New Jersey’s Quiet Festival; the Little People of America convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and, a bit closer to home, the International Water Tasting Competition in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

“There’s the Middle of Nowhere Fest,” adds McDermott. He pauses. “I don’t really know what that consists of.”

McDermott says that the first few months of the project are the most demanding, schedule-wise; the pair plans to leave plenty of time to follow tips on other, lesser known festivals. In the meantime, check out the American Festivals Project website starting August 1.

Speaking of festivals…

It should be noted that the fellows in Sons of Bill are some of the most charismatic dudes to pick up Telecasters. What you may not know is that these guys manage to translate their front porch scholar magnetism into writing. (Find their travelogue for C-VILLE Weekly on While looking for more info on local festivals, I found a link to the band’s brief review of sets by Metallica and Kanye West at Bonnaroo, the music festival produced by associates of Starr Hill Presents. Also worth a read: the short tale of how former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell nearly hustled SoB bassist Seth Green.

Sons of Bill guitarist Sam Wilson played a scorcher of a show with Paul Curreri at Gravity Lounge recently. For photos of the event, check the Feedback music blog.

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