Spring festivals are back, breaking the chill from the pandemic’s isolation and warming the soul with music, food and fun. After a two-year hibernation, a North Georgia favorite, the Bear on the Square Mountain Festival returns April 23-24 with a line-up of musicians, storytellers and artists sure to bring the mountain folks out of the hills and metro dwellers up to Dahlonega.
In its 24th year, the celebration of mountain culture has evolved from local pickers jamming around the square to a two-day festival complete with music workshops, food trucks, and a Bear’s Den serving beer, wine and mead. “After two years away, we feel like a baby bear emerging from hibernation,” said Glenda Pender, founder and festival chair. “We are so excited to be back. We have top-notch bluegrass and old-time music,” she said, plus folk art and Appalachian storytelling. But, it’s still really all about old-time mountain music, which remains relevant to today’s music scene and loved by generations.
“Old-time is still very influential in modern music, especially among the alternative rock bands like Mumford and Sons and the Dave Matthews Band,” said Renee Conaway, long time member of the festival executive board. She posited that people still want to hear it “because it’s not the manufactured pre-packaged pop that’s generated by machines.” She mentioned that popular southern rock/country star Zac Brown grew up in the Dahlonega area playing old-time and bluegrass in jam sessions around the square.
One of Brown’s early bandmates, Radford Windham, a fixture at hometown concerts, is excited about performing with his five-piece string band, Step Back Cadillac, in the main stage tent on Saturday. “I have traveled to 48 states and seen beautiful scenery, but I can honestly say that Dahlonega is my favorite place to live and play music. Dahlonega has always had a music scene that is slowly being recognized by the world, and I am always honored to play in this little piece of heaven,” he said.
Expect lots of head bobbing and foot stomping to rollicking fiddle and banjo pickin’. Then be moved nearly to tears by high and lonely heart-rending ballads. “Old-time and bluegrass are played by real musicians with feelings that come through in the music and connect on a deeper level,” Conaway said. “This music can bring people to tears or get them on their feet and dancing, and everything in between,” she added. Windham said he’s not sure why people like his homespun tunes, but he thinks it’s the storytelling. “I write from the heart, I like to tell stories in my songs and I guess people love a good story,” he said.
On Saturday and Sunday, the MainStage tent next to Hancock Park features an extensive line-up of free concerts. But fingers get warmed up a day earlier at the historic source of it all. Beginning Friday afternoon, musicians start gathering throughout the Historic Downtown Square, ready to jam in groups that range from two to 10 or more. Folks gather up with their guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, bass, dulcimers, autoharps, harmonicas, whatever else they can play and join in with others. The jam goes on through Sunday, as does an Artist Market with juried crafts including fiber and textiles, folk arts, furniture/woodworking, glass and metal, jewelry, mixed media, drawing and painting, photography, pottery, and more.
The Southern Appalachian oral art of storytelling always has a significant presence at the festival. Professional storytellers will let fly the tall tales, moral lessons, riddles and history that shape mountain communities and build backbones today. Attendees also get a chance to learn how to sing, dance, blow a penny whistle or pick in free workshops. “Several of the workshops are very popular – harmony singing with The Solstice Sisters is a great one. A chance to learn old-time fiddle from John Grimm is a can’t-miss,” Conaway said.
The Bear’s Den is back with a venue for festivalgoers to relax and enjoy a brew or a glass of wine or cider. Located across the street from the Mainstage Tent, adjacent to the Food Court and Hancock Park, this venue is open to all ages, although anyone wishing to partake of alcoholic beverages must be carded before ordering.
The Bear festival traditionally brings in a slew of out-of-towners, but the homegrown tone resounds strong. “Bear on the Square is definitely a locals’ festival,” Conaway said. “So many Dahlonega residents play bluegrass and old-time, so you’ll see them jamming around the square or performing at the Gospel Jam, as well as just enjoying the festival. We also have regular attendees from all over the Southeast as well as from South America and Germany.”
See www.bearonthesquare.org for schedule. See Lakeside’s Outdoor Calendar for information about other festivals this month.
Cover photo: by Lamar Bates, other photos by Bard Wrisley