When I decided to join friends at last year’s Red Wing Roots Music Festival, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially in the middle of a pandemic. But I was definitely ready for some fun, and this festival hit all the right notes: music, nature, camping, and plenty of chill time with my pals. I packed my things and headed to Natural Chimneys Park in Mt. Solon, Virginia, not far from Harrisonburg.
After parking, I climbed aboard a tractor-towed wagon for the journey up to Chimney Ridge camping, one of four lots where you can camp at the festival and, unfortunately, the farthest from the stages at Music Meadow. But my college buddy and passionate music festival attendee, Emily, set up a screen tent and a cot for me next to her van, and the campsite was comfy and cozy.
A quintessential camper, Emily offered me some fabulous food she’d stashed in her cooler—think smoked salmon and chicken salad from Sam’s. Well fortified, we hiked down a steep path through the woods to the festival. I couldn’t wait to hear live music in this idyllic mountain setting.
American Roots Music
Presented by The Steel Wheels
Red Wing Roots got its start a decade ago when a Harrisonburg-based roots band, The Steel Wheels, dreamed up the idea for a family-friendly festival focused on American roots music. They shared their plans with friends Michael Weaver and Jeremiah Jenkins, who agreed to help organize it. Augusta County officials liked the concept and let them hold the festival at the county-owned Natural Chimneys Park, which already had a campground and plenty more space for additional camping.
The first Red Wing Roots Festival, held in 2013, was a big success, and the event has grown in popularity ever since. “The vision was to create a positive, inclusive, family-friendly environment to celebrate roots music, camping. and outdoor activities,” said co-founder Michael Weaver.
“We do our best to set the stage for an even better year every year, but really the festival is what we all bring to it,” he continued. “It’s about each person coming together to create something special. Whether you come as a volunteer, a musician, a vendor, or a spectator, we are all creating the Red Wing Roots experience.”
After the festival was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, everyone was excited to attend the 2021 festival. Like Red Wing’s big brother, FloydFest, attendees are passionate about music festivals, buying tickets well in advance, inviting friends, and organizing camping gear. A couple from church attend Red Wing Roots every year, so I was looking forward to seeing them. Plus another college buddy, Robin, would be here, camping with a friend, Mary Jo. Emily and I headed toward Music Meadow, where we hoped to find our tribe.
The Natural Chimney Formations
At Natural Chimneys Park in Augusta County
So what is American roots music? It’s a broad category of music with roots in North America. Sometimes called “alternative country,” roots music is much more than country-western and can include influences such as Appalachian folk, bluegrass, zydeco, Latino, funk, jazz, protest, gospel, and the blues. I wasn’t too familiar with the genre, but I was looking forward to learning more about it.
Emily and I found a shady spot on Music Meadow, plopped our chairs down, and waited for the music to begin. Before long, the Hogslop String Band from Nashville started playing old-time music with a twist, and the crowd went wild. It didn’t take long for me to discover that American roots is my kind of music. While it can be slow, heartfelt, and full of emotion, it can also be high energy, perfect to dance to. We bumped into Robin and Mary Jo, and soon they wound their way to the stage area with Emily to kick up their heels. Me, I loved sitting in the shade, listening to the bands, and watching people.
Towering beside Music Meadow, the Natural Chimney formations rose up like friendly giants. The seven awe-inspiring chimneys, etched by nature eons ago, seemed to exude a magical energy, and as day turned to dusk, they started to glow, reflecting the colors of the sunset. The rock formations looked almost like sentries, keeping watch over the festival goers and making sure we all got back to our tents safely each night.
For Emily and me, this was quite a challenge, especially after dark. Thankfully, our flashlights helped us find our way up the steep slope to our camping area. Emily said next time she’d reserve a site in Z Lot, a 10-minute flat walk from Music Meadow. But up on Chimney Ridge, the vibe at our campsite was tranquil, ideal for unwinding and getting some rest.
Non-Stop Music on Music Meadow
Plus Festival Food, Merch & More
Red Wing Roots is about more than music. Bicycle fans often bring their bikes and join in a Saturday Morning Glory Ride, which ranges from 10 to 40 miles with varying degrees of difficulty. Runners can lace up their shoes and join a Saturday morning run. Yoga practitioners bring their mats and meet for morning sessions in the Music Meadow. Hiking trails are abundant.
The festival is also a big hit with families. It’s a safe environment and offers lots of children’s activities, including a rock-climbing wall, outdoor games, tie-dye workshops, and a toddler zone. There’s also dance lessons for the whole family, so you can try square dancing, two-step, and Cajun-style dancing.
Then there’s the food, everything from Southern BBQ to spicy Tex-Mex. I get hungry just thinking about it. Merch is always popular at festivals, so plan on doing some shopping. You’ll find tie-dye t-shirts—natch, jewelry, cowboy hats, musical instruments, even kilts for the self-confident guys in your life!
With dozens of bands appearing on five different stages throughout the three-day festival, it pays to be organized and plan out which acts you want to see where. The handy festival guide ensures you don’t miss your favorites. Most of the bands we heard weren’t very familiar to me, but my friends steered me in the right direction, and the non-stop roots music kept us happy.
Two stages are at opposite ends of Music Meadow with a stand of tall pines in the center. This coveted area offered shade most of the day, an important factor to consider in the middle of summer. When one band stopped playing, like clockwork, we all picked up our chairs and turned them around to face the opposite stage, where the next band was warming up. Perfect timing!
2021 John Prine Tribute
Transcendent Music & Happy Vibes
Every year the bands hold a jam session dedicated to a performer who passed away. At this festival, the musicians paid tribute to John Prine, who died of Covid in April 2020. They played all my favorite John Prine songs: “Angel from Montgomery,” “A Hole in Daddy’s Arm,” “Paradise,” and others. Since so many of us have also lost loved ones in the pandemic, these songs were incredibly moving.
Music festivals remind us to be in the moment, to surround ourselves with people we love, to slow down and listen to beautiful melodies, to songs that invite us to feel, to care about each other and our planet. While the music can be varied, sometimes slow and balladic, other times, joyous and high energy, overall each song offers each listener the opportunity to transcend, reaching deep into your soul, a place we can all be in better contact with.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the TV series “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.” Spanish chef Elena Arzak said, “You have to think like a child and be astonished by everything.” I can’t imagine a better sentiment to keep in mind at a music festival. Here out in the lush mountain forest surrounded by smiling people and happy vibes, I understood why people are so passionate about festivals like Red Wing Roots.
As day turned to night on my last evening, I looked over at the glowing natural chimneys and felt a kinship to this place, as if I’d been here before.
I know for sure I will come back again.
If You Go
Red Wing Roots IX will be held June 24-26, 2022. Tickets are available for the festival as well as camping packages at www.redwingroots.com.
This year promises more acts than ever, and you’re sure to discover new favorites.
For the current festival’s line-up, go to www.redwingroots.com/2022-line-up
Climbing on the chimneys is not allowed. For more helpful tips and festival rules, visit www.redwingroots.com/festival-guidelines.
Want to be a Red Wing Roots Festival volunteer? Lots of great perks and it’s a ton of fun! Check out www.redwingroots.com/volunteer for more information.