Mike Headrick, of the Desert Bluegrass Association (DBA)—the sponsor of this weekend's 11th annual Desert Bluegrass Festival—will be the first to tell you that he covets the huge crowds and attendant publicity that come with Tucson's big annual blues and folk festivals.
"Of course, at times, I'm envious of the support and publicity these (other festivals) receive," he said. "But we certainly put on a great show."
Unless you are an active participant in one or more of the DBA's many workshops, jams or events, this exceptionally user-friendly organization may be one of the best-kept secrets in Tucson. As such, it's no wonder each Desert Bluegrass Festival day is more likely to draw hundreds rather than thousands.
Granted, Headrick would love to see the festival grow. "It could be twice as big and still be manageable," he said.
Yet he and the other members of the association know that bigger doesn't always equate with better. But don't be fooled into thinking the DBA is preaching a philosophy of less is more; a cursory glance at the DBA website indicates anything but.
In contrast to the aforementioned festivals, whose parent organizations present just a handful of periodic fundraisers and events throughout the year, the DBA sponsors no fewer than eight jams and/or workshops per month, every month, at a variety of locales. Those who come to support these events are mostly non-professionals (of all ages) who either love to play or are still learning to play.
Although the DBA receives festival funding from a couple of grants and sponsorships, plus admissions, Headrick summed it up best when he said: "We fund this mostly by doing what we love to do—playing music."
Veteran bass player Brian Davies, of the Crystal Ridge Bluegrass Band, has fond memories of performing at the first few festivals when they were at the Pima County Fairgrounds. "The last year there, we had to compete with the monster-truck run!" he recalled. But he was quick to acknowledge that the festival is neither the focus nor the strength of the organization.
"Besides being such a great group of people, (the) DBA is really good about working with beginners, walking them through songs and helping them get to the next level," he said. He also noted that several different local bands grew out of these jams, including Degrees Plato and Bear Canyon Ramblers.
That said, the festival remains the DBA's big annual celebration, and for the fourth consecutive year, it will begin with the Friday night Band Contest. This part of the festival is free and features mostly amateur bands competing for $1,000 in prize money and a featured performance slot on Sunday's schedule. There is no pre-application process, and bands can sign up as late as Friday evening.
"One year," Headrick said, "we had a band that formed in the parking lot!"
On Saturday morning, the festival will begin with a set from the Jam Pak Blues 'n' Grass Neighborhood Band. A constantly evolving group out of Chandler, Jam Pak helps kids and adults experience bluegrass and other forms of traditional music first hand.
They will be followed by five other groups, most of which will play two full sets, each separated by several hours and the other groups. In addition to providing variety, the schedule allows the performers to experience the festival as both music-lovers and performers.
This year's lineup features award-winning vocalists Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out; Palmer Divide, a group formed out of several other successful bluegrass ensembles that plays mostly original material; Special Consensus, a four-piece band that loves bringing its music into the schools as much as it does to the stage; Tangled Strings, last year's festival Band Contest winner; and X Train, featuring local guitar hero Peter McLaughlin and banjo legend/former Tucsonan Ross Nickerson.
Desert Bluegrass will also feature several workshops, covering autoharp, banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle, songwriting and harmony singing.
This year's festival will mark its inaugural visit to the AVA Amphitheater at Casino del Sol. This on-the-edge-of-town location, like the previous festival locations, lends itself not only to weekend camping, but also the post-festival jams that are as much a part of the festival as the official performances.