Now in its fifth year, the Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival has become an established part of the city's summer music calendar. This year one of the highlights is an appearance by multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger, who, much like his famous half-brother Pete Seeger, has used his banjo, fiddle, autoharp and voice to advance the cause of old-time music in this country for over half a century. Evan Murdock of the Four Lakes Traditional Music Collective, which organizes the festival each year, says Seeger exemplifies the kind of performer Sugar Maple wants to book. So do Charlie Parr, a master of unvarnished folk and blues, and veteran members of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, who'll be celebrating a special reunion at this year's fest.
"We like the idea that we're bringing in people who wouldn't come to Madison otherwise," says Murdock, explaining the curatorial aspect of the festival. "The infrastructure doesn't exist to bring in Mike Seeger or Charlie Parr. Hazel Dickens was supposed to play, too. It would have been the first time she'd been to Madison. Unfortunately, she had to cancel due to health issues."
Workshops that encourage local players to perform with one another and with main stage artists are another major part of the festival. It's not the sort of thing you find at many big-time musical confabs, says Murdock, and he thinks it's a great reason to bring kids to the family-friendly event. "There's a lot of give and take that goes on with the traditional music audience," he says. "There's this idea that there's a connection that goes in both directions that the culture of this music encourages."
Other than a new slate of performers, Sugar Maple itself hasn't changed much from last year. It occupies the same bucolic setting on the margin of Madison that's always been its home; kids under 12 still get in free, and attendance each day is capped at 1,000 customers.
The one thing that has changed is new competition from the Madison Roots Festival, which is bringing commercial acts like G. Love & Special Sauce and the John Butler Trio to the Alliant Center's Willow Island on Aug. 2. Murdock doesn't expect a lot of crossover between the crowds attending each event. He notes that "When they're talking about 'roots,' they mean something very different from what we mean when we say 'roots.'"
Nevertheless, he admits that it would have been nice to get a heads-up from the promoters of the other fest. "The bands that they have are some of the bands that I've gone to see in the past," he laughs, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice. "And it would be better if it wasn't competing. But you're always competing with something in Madison. There's just so much going on in the summer."
Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival
Aug. 1 & 2, Lake Farm County Park