Our opinion: Bluegrass fest caps special summer of art, music

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More than a few times over the weekend at the Green Mountain Bluegrass & Roots Music Festival, locals were heard to say "this is exactly what this town needed."

That's correct.

The festival weathered the storm, quite literally, and made a positive first impression in its inaugural go-around last weekend in the fields of Hunter Park. For a first-time event, and for one directly impacted by Mother Nature's recent run of temper tantrums, it seemed a success, the likes of which can be built upon going forward.

As newcomers to our region, Jill and John Turpin have continuously hailed the warm welcome they've received since deciding to put on this event. The word Jill Turpin chose five minutes after the final note rang out Sunday was "gratitude," and we hope this community returns that sentiment with its own gratitude, and support, going forward.

A music festival can be a lot like life itself: Unpredictable. You can plan all you want, and sometimes it throws you a curveball you didn't expect — like the line of powerful thunderstorms that sent everyone scurrying for shelter Friday night.

But sometimes it's sweet, too. The clouds eventually parted, the show went on, and the crowds returned and showed their love for the musicians. While we were talking to Jill Turpin on Sunday, many of those musicians approached her to say goodbye, expressed their thanks for a wonderful time, and pledged to return next summer.

Bluegrass, we were reminded, is an uplifting, subtly spiritual genre of folk music, one that has seen old-time tradition enlivened by youthful energy but not lost its close-knit sense of community. On Sunday, in one moment we saw red-hot fiddle playing make adults and children of all ages get up and boogie; not five minutes later, in the next song, a sweet romantic melody had couples slow-dancing or holding hands. It goes to show how powerful the music can be.

As an art form, the intricacy of bluegrass — the interplay between multiple stringed instruments and close harmonies — invites careful listening. It's not unlike classical chamber music that way. And chamber music has been a staple here for decades. Why shouldn't Manchester become a must-see stop on the summer bluegrass circuit, a place where fans of all ages come to appreciate the music at its very best?

It all got us thinking, while showing a visitor to town around Manchester Village on Monday afternoon, about how central hospitality has been to this region for nearly two centuries, and what that could look (and sound) like moving forward.

Our magical history tour didn't have to go far: Right outside the front door of our office at the First Congregational Church is the Equinox Resort, with all its history and 19th century grandeur. Next door is the Charles Orvis Inn, a direct link to the town's fly-fishing heritage and history. Down Main Street, inns and hotels and shops and restaurants invite guests; and beyond in both directions, the mountains draw the eye upward and beckon as they stand silent watch.

That should be enough, right? For decades, it was. And for those searching for the perfect simplicity that Vermont embodies, it still is.

But we know from charting the Manchester Business Association's birth and growth over the past two years that tourism marketing has become a good deal more sophisticated in world with an increasingly short attention span. We're told a new generation of visitors is chasing experiences when they choose to travel — events they can't find anywhere else, and memories that will last a lifetime.

In the past few years, we've seen how art, music and drama can each be significant drivers in drawing a new generation of visitors in search of those memorable experiences. Just think about how that had already played out locally this summer, before the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Music Festival struck its first note:

Music: Southern Vermont Arts Center added a concert series on Friday nights, with both local and nationally known musicians drawing listeners up the hill to Arkell Pavilion. Community-based music flourished, from Manchester's concerts at Factory Point Town Green to a brand-new series at the Bondville Fairgrounds. Earth Sky Time Farm hosted several world music stars. Stratton featured the likes of the Marshall Tucker Band and Big Sam's Funky Nation. And Manchester remained awash in chamber music from June to August thanks to Taconic Music and MMF, and their dedicated, talented students.

Drama: Dorset and Weston continued to outdo themselves, with crowd-pleasers such as "West Side Story" hitting all the right notes and cutting edge new works such as "Skeleton Crew" challenging audiences. The 4 Freedoms Festival turned July into a Norman Rockwell tribute and a history lesson on the artist's deep connection to Arlington, complete with a Broadway cast delivering three sold-out performances of the musical "Perfect Picture."

Visual art: New galleries and temporary pop-up gallery spaces sprouted throughout Manchester, broadening the town's long-established visual art scene. The photography of George Kalinsky and the mixed media art of brother and sister Susan and Peter Hoffman were among the highlights at SVAC. And the summer-long abstract art show at stART Space and the raucous energy of "Goons" at Helmholz Fine Art showed there's room for risks alongside the traditional Vermont-inspired oils, watercolors and photographs.

Don't forget the authors who visited the Northshire Bookstore, the artists featured at local libraries, and the bands who entertained guests at restaurants and taverns. We could continue, and we apologize in advance if we left anyone out; there's just too much to list here.

And it's not over; in two months ITVFest will be back, with more than 1,000 guests presenting the best ideas that independent television writers, directors and actors have to offer.

This is what Manchester's future can look and sound like — a place that's always busy and alive with creative energy. And what's good for putting "heads in beds," as local hoteliers like to say, is even better for making this an undeniably great place to live.


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