In their enduring mission to continue the legacy of bluegrass music, the Desert Bluegrass Association is hoping to make the 2020 Marana Bluegrass Festival its largest event ever. This eighth annual festival, which runs from March 12 to 15 at Gladden Farms Community Park, will feature more events than ever before, including an expansion into arts and crafts, as well as events for kids. Of course, the core of the festival remains being an open space where the community can listen to and even participate in music.
"One of our missions as the Desert Bluegrass Association is to preserve and promote bluegrass music. It's a true American music form," said Dave Polston, president of the Desert Bluegrass Association. "A lot of people who are into bluegrass can be surprised that Tucson has such a large bluegrass association."
This year's festival features 13 bands from both Tucson and interstate, including the local Sonoran Dogs, who play classic bluegrass but are also known to include disparate instruments like dobro and accordion; High Lonesome, with more than 200 years of combined experience playing bluegrass steeped in Appalachian culture; and Jam Pak, a near-orchestra of children performing bluegrass from Chandler.
"We're really trying to make it a more family-friendly and family-oriented type of festival," Polston said. "So, we've added a kids' zone that has crafts and arts and games. And in conjunction with that we'll have an instrument petting zoo, so kids can get their hands on a guitar or a banjo, and there's other kids showing them how to play, so they won't feel as intimidated as with adults."
While this year's festival has 13 confirmed bands thus far, that doesn't include the large amount of community members invited to show their skills in impromptu jams and instrument contests that will also be held throughout the weekend.
"There are a lot of instrument contests that are for people who are at a really high-caliber, professional level. So what I decided to do was to have an instrument contest for beginners and intermediates," Polston said. "It will be for guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. And while the judges are tallying the scores, we'll have a band scramble."
The "band scramble" randomly assigns players to groups. They only have a few minutes to pick a band name and a song before performing on stage.
"The cool thing about bluegrass music is that you can go up to a jam, not know anyone, and still be able to start playing with them," Polston said.
The Desert Bluegrass Association expects 500 to 600 festival attendees on Saturday, March 14 during the height of the event. They hope for even more than that on Friday, which includes free entry for the kick-off.
"One of the reasons we stick with local and regional bands is to promote these bands and give them an audience to play to and develop a fanbase," Polston said. "We have a lot of older members who are steeped in traditional bluegrass, so one thing I'd like to see in our bluegrass community is more 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds coming in and bringing those subgenres of Americana or string band."
Beyond the music, the festival will include local arts and crafts vendors, as well as food trucks. As the festival takes place at Gladden Farms Community Park, there will also be opportunities for RV and tent camping. Campers are free to jam at any time.
"It's all for fun, and really that's what bluegrass and jamming is all about," Polston said.
The 2020 Marana Bluegrass Festival takes place 3 to 6 p.m. Friday, March 12; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 14; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, March 15. At Gladden Farms Community Park, 12205 N. Tangerine Farms Road. Friday is free, $20 per day on Saturday and Sunday, or $30 for a full weekend pass. Ages under 14 are free with a paid adult. For more information, visit desertbluegrass.org