Downrigging adds bluegrass music festival

Downrigging Weekend visitors climb aboard host vessel schooner Sultana last year at the Port of Chestertown Marina during an open house of participating tall ships. While the tall ships will continue to be the main attraction at this year’s event, organizers have added a series of bluegrass concerts to the weekend festivities.

CHESTERTOWN — Downrigging Weekend is going to look — and sound — a bit different this year.

Those wary of change need not worry — the historic ships will still be offering trips down the Chester River, the Carla Massoni Gallery will still have Marc Castelli’s watermen in watercolor on display and there will still be plenty of oysters.

While Downrigging, held from Nov. 1 to 3, will be somewhat of a similar organizational structure as in years past, this year there will be a mid-sized bluegrass music festival added to the lineup of events.

“It has been totally re-envisioned, I think it’s safe to say,” said Drew McMullen, president of the Sultana Education Foundation, which hosts the festival, in an interview Oct. 10. “This is a much bigger event than it has been — and it’s been a big event.”

Much of the bluegrass music will be played in the new Waterfront Festival Village — located within the marina. McMullen described the space as a place to “bring the town together” with fire pits, three days of music, food vendors, craft beer and more.

McMullen said the decision to host bluegrass players came from a number of factors including the music genre’s appeal to a range of ages and the fact that it’s not necessarily extremely loud music.

“We eventually settled on bluegrass for a number of reasons that are sort of all over the place,” McMullen said.

He said that bluegrass also is historically rooted in a range of culture meaning the festival can expand on that diversity.

“Bluegrass is like the most widest range term ever. It really covers folk music, Americana and it’s pretty diverse,” McMullen said. “We really are excited to explore that in future years.”

McMullen said additionally because the Eastern Shore has a fairly active bluegrass music scene, much of the performers are regional. He said Kent County’s own bluegrass group, The High & Wides, also helped festival organizers find bands to perform.

Bands scheduled to play are the 2018 FreshGrass Award winners, Man About a Horse, 2017 Charm City Bluegrass Festival Band Competition winners, The Dirty Grass Players and the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band Country Current.

Also scheduled to appear are locals Betty and the Bullet, Apache Trails, Mtn Lion String Band, Flatland Drive, The Simmons Family, Gray and Bluegrass and No Part of Nothin’.

According to McMullen, adding a music festival element is something that’s been in the works for a few years. He said the previous state of Chestertown’s marina prevented the festival from growing. He also hopes these changes will turn the festival into more of a fundraiser for the Sultana’s educational programs.

With renovations to the Port of Chestertown, as the marina is now called, completed, the festival was free to be re-created. McMullen called the marina being functional “a whole new game” for the festival.

“Until 10 months ago the waterfront was a disaster. It flooded. Every Downrigging, it flooded up on to that parking lot, so you couldn’t schedule anything,” McMullen said. “The marina not being functional really limited what we could do.”

While Downrigging is one of the largest public sailing events on the East Coast, McMullen acknowledge the cost of tickets for rides on the ships can be costly. He hopes that by adding the bluegrass music festival element means more people can enjoy the festival.

“It cost a lot of money to go out on those boats. And it’s great, it’s great for the town. We get people from (Washington) D.C. and Baltimore and (Philadelphia) coming to go out on the boats. It’s good for local businesses, but unless you have $100 or $200 to drop, you might not be able to do that,” McMullen said. “We wanted to have a festival that had a bit more of a broader appeal.”

The lineup of tall ships and historic schooners are Delaware’s Kalmar Nyckel, the Virginia, Pride of Baltimore II, Sultana and the Lady Maryland. McMullen said those planning to sail on a tall ship should consider booking a ticket soon as some of the ships are already selling out.

Information and a schedule of sails can be found at downrigging.org.

Free tall ship deck tours also are available each day of the festival.

Another change this year, the fireworks display with the tall ships in the foreground has been moved to dusk Saturday, Nov. 2.

In addition to the Waterfront Festival Village, Downrigging will feature free lectures in venues around Chestertown. NPR reporter, regional journalist and author Tom Pelton will present “The Chesapeake in Focus,” which provides a tour of the histories of the Chesapeake area, a news release states.

“Bluegrass in Baltimore” author Tim Newby will present a talk based on interviews he’s completed with players from the “golden age of Baltimore Bluegrass.”

Former Scottish Maritime Museum Director Jim Tidesley will present his biography of John Inglis, a commander of the Royal Navy schooner with a name familiar to those living in Chestertown: Sultana.

The festival also will see the return of exhibits of classic and traditional boats with the Antique and Classic Boat Society and the log canoe Silver Heel; appearances by the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Ranger and Maryland DNR’s Scales and Tales; cruises on the local Chester River Packet; model boats; digital presentations; and activities for children at the Sultana Education Foundation’s Holt Center, a release states.

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