The Tico Time Bluegrass Festival on May 11th-14th, was officially the start of Festival season at the Tico Time River Resort. It boasted a lineup of bands from modern bluegrass ensembles to jam bands to old dust bowl supergroups. You could feel the energy from the minute we arrived on Thursday evening. Attendees came ready for four days on Tico Time.
Day 1: Pickin’ a Spot
For any camping festival, day one is about a single choice: where to camp. Tico Time Bluegrass Festival was officially my first River Resort festival. It had a lot of what you might expect from a camping festival with a few modern additions. The resort had a long row of food trucks, guided tours, a zipline, a general store, showers, bathrooms, and an on-site marijuana dispensary.
There were three official choices of where to camp this weekend. First was car camping in a beautiful spot in the valley overlooking the river as you walked down into the festival grounds. Our second option was RV camping, up towards the parking lot in its hideaway with electrical and water hookups.
The third option, which was the one we picked, was camping the old-fashioned way. This required you to cross the river and go into the magical woods to find the spot that worked best for you since that would be your home for the duration of the festival.
We wandered around for a bit and noticed many people already set up in the valley and along the river, finding a spot at the end of the campgrounds along a beach. It was there that we could hear the beautiful sounds of the running river all weekend long.
After quickly setting up and getting a feel for what we were about to experience, we finally made our way to the main stage for the lively and powerful music.
Highlights of day one included opening acts The Blue Moon Ramblers, then The Foggy Memory Boys, followed by a compelling and commanding performance by Big Richard at sunset. The four-member group then displayed something seen all weekend long: three or more people singing in harmony, each member playing a different instrument.
In most genres of music, the multi-person harmony is a thing of the past. In the bluegrass circuit, it’s still considered mandatory. The two and three-part harmony is a style made incredibly popular during the ’60s by bands like The Beatles, but for the most part, it has died out during these modern times. It was nice to hear it return wonderfully throughout the weekend from beginning to end, onstage and off.
After them, the headliners of the first night, the Yonder Mountain String Band, took the stage for two hours of a modern take on bluegrass music. The band made for quite a sight surrounded by nature as each musician took power over every song played that night. It was clear from the jump that intent and joy in playing this music were just as important as who was playing it.
They closed with a slow cover of the great Lou Reed song, “Walk on the Wild Side,” and you could feel the energy in the crowd, not just for the music but also for the moment. We slowly found our way back to our tents and crept deeply into a heavy sleep as the river crashed and flowed with neverending movement outside our mesh windows.
Day 2- Jammin’ by the River
It was hot from the minute we woke up Friday morning, but the music did not pick up until 2:00 PM, so the idea was simple: Find ways to keep cool. Thankfully, Tico Time had multiple options to keep us busy. We walked back into the center of the resort, and you could already see families playing in the two beautiful lakes surrounding the main stage.
I have often said that music is the excuse but not always the reason, and these daytime moments were a perfect example of what I mean. In the absence of music, the environment takes control. We spent all day sitting by the river, hiking the small trails around the resort, and of course, enjoying the food trucks parked at the top of the bridge open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They made for a great spot to catch a bite as the music began to carry over the river and up to our waiting and hungry ears.
Day one was about the three and four-part harmonies, so day two would be devoted to the jam band style similar to famous groups like the Grateful Dead and Phish. Most bands from day two included a drummer, somewhat rare at a bluegrass event, and even a few electric guitars.
The Tierro Band with Bridget Law, already consisting of at least six members, brought out two other performers during their performance. Gracing the stage were singer Lindsay Lou and rising banjo star Kyle Tuttle, who would later play with their bands but added great joy to a jam session that carried well into the sunset.
The night ended with a full-on jam session by the Kyle Hollingsworth Band, showing the other styles championed by the festival. The electric instruments howled into the night as people throughout the venue danced without a care in the world. Surviving the heat made the night breeze feel even better just as the festival reached its halfway point. We had no idea what was on the horizon for Saturday, though.
Day 3- A Hard Rain Falls
When a festival states it will continue through rain or shine, you naturally assume it’s always going to shine — but in the back of your mind, you know to prepare for the worst. When that happens, you can either leave or just power through it, which we were left to decide on day three. The cool early morning breeze turned into a heavy and powerful thunderstorm that lasted at least six hours straight.
We enjoyed the cool reprieve from the heat but also found ourselves trapped in our tent with nothing to do but wait it out. After a while, we decided to bundle up and go out into the rain to see what we could find.
First, at the main stage, we found Lindsay Lou and her three-person band gliding through a fun performance of a mix of modern bluegrass and blues. Three-person bands have always been so good at playing the blues in any setting, and this was a perfect example. They finished with loud applause and giant hugs from all included, setting things up perfectly for Mighty Poplar, who took the stage just as the rain finally stopped.
Mighty Poplar is considered a supergroup within the bluegrass world, and from the first note played you could see why. The cold rain gave way to a chilling end of the night, but it didn’t keep the biggest crowd all weekend from hearing the group power through some of the best dust bowl songs with precision, surrounded by nothing but nature and the stars.
The dust bowl was a period during the 1930s when massive sandstorms would overtake large amounts of the Midwestern U.S., destroying crops, killing livestock, and forcing families from their homes and into the unknown. It was a disaster that lasted years and created a refugee crisis that caused many people to leave their family farms for good.
As with any crisis or disaster, large amounts of art and music emerged from this cold, depressing life on the road so far from home. It’s hard to find a band that plays that proper dust bowl sound because it has to be taught by people who play it. That is exactly what the Mighty Poplar delivered.
One man was on banjo, one on a mandolin, another on the acoustic guitar, one on the fiddle, and one on the bass fiddle. There were no drummers, featured guests, or pyrotechnics or lasers — just five musicians onstage improvising in unison, impassioned by the music they played.
The experience reminded me of the Traveling Music Reviews in the South during the mid-1900s. They were like the circus with trapeze artists, dancers, and fire breathers, but it all revolved around the music. Those two hours listening to the Mighty Poplar were as close to the dustbowl as I will ever get. They were so amazingly authentic that I could practically feel the dust in my lungs!
Mighty Poplar’s encore included no words, only the five artists jamming and alternating instrumental solos with great delight to each other and the crowd. What this festival has shown me is not just the beauty in the music but also in the people who love and keep it alive. Every person in that crowd loved bluegrass, and you could feel it. The supergroup delivered as we went to bed, soaked from the rain and very happy.
Day 4: On to the Next One
Throughout the weekend, talking with the many food truck owners and vendors, volunteers helping at the festival, the musicians, or even the campers themselves, there seemed to be a great understanding that the Tico Time Bluegrass festival was just the beginning.
We stood at the forefront of a magical summer filled with memories out in the unknown. All through that final day, it carried us through the work of taking down our campsite and loading up for the eventual drive home. It also helped that there was a return to that classic bluegrass sound with one of my favorite bands of the weekend, Brandy Wine & the Mighty Fines.
I loved their setup of including an electric guitar next to a fiddle. I will never forget how I could hear that southern violin being played throughout the resort grounds and along the river all weekend. One of the most memorable attractions was walking around the camp, enjoying how much it became a village in the mountains by the final day. Every tent was decorated in its own style, with many sprouting groups of musicians sitting by the fire and singing together.
By the time the Travelin McCourys began, the festival was considered a great success, and the Tico Time River Resort was perfect for all conditions and situations needed over those four days. The food, the camping, the river, the lakes, and the music were all top of the line and unique to this moment in time.
I never planned for the Tico Time Bluegrass Festival, but that’s the joy of this life: The unexpected will always lead to the unforgettable.