Bluegrass grows around the square

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Edwin Scherzer | September 6, 2015

EAST TROY — The sound of music fills the air and the ears of festivalgoers every September at the East Troy Bluegrass Festival. The 22nd annual festival kicks off Saturday, Sept. 12, and continues through the weekend, with more fiddles, banjos and guitars than you can strum, pick or slide a bow across.

East Troy is the perfect setting for such an event, said Vanessa Lenz, executive director of the East Troy Area Chamber of Commerce.

“East Troy, home to Alpine Valley Music Theatre, has an energy that celebrates music, which makes it the perfect place for the festival,” Lenz said.

The festival was founded in 1994 by Melissa Sherman, who launched the festival from scratch based on her love for bluegrass music and the East Troy Village Square. When she started, Sherman raised money for prizes and asked friends who were involved in bands to play for free. Twenty some years later, the chamber-sponsored event has become a recognized music festival on the regional and even national bluegrass festival scene.

When the event started, less than 200 people attended. This year, organizers expect close to 2,000 over the two-day affair.

Headliners this year include the Little Roy and Lizzy show and Donna Ulisse and the Poor Mountain Boys. Little Roy and Lizzy are from Lincolnton, Georgia, and are nationally known in bluegrass and gospel music circles. Elizabeth Long, “Lizzy,” and Little Roy of the Lewis family of entertainers engage audiences with their musical talents and comedy. Donna Ulisse has been recognized as one of the most talented singer-songwriters in the industry with seven albums to date.

Returning to the festival this year is the Georgia Rae Family Band from Richmond, Illinois. As the name implies, the band is built around 16-year-young, four-state fiddle champion Georgia Rae Mussared; mom, Roni, who plays guitar and provides vocals; sisters Quintessa or “Quin,” 15, who plays anything and everything; and Kelly Jo, 19, on lead vocals.

The band spends a lot of time attending national fiddle championships based on Georgia Rae's talent. They also play smaller venues that they like for the atmosphere and energy. Whether the crowd is large or small, Georgia Rae has a great attitude.

“When we play in front of the biggest crowds I relax more, because I just think there has to be at least one person out there that likes us,” she said.

The family quartet has attended the bluegrass festival since 2008 and is pleased to be onstage. Each of the girls has a favorite about the festival. Kelly Jo claims East Troy has the best kettle corn anywhere, Georgia Rae loves the jamming sessions and Quin says the scramble is the best event.

“They have a band scramble where they throw a band together from different bands and give you 15 minutes to prepare and perform two songs,” Quin said.

The family really is a coming-together story. Roni and Georgia Rae started playing at nursing homes around the area, then Quin and Kelly Jo joined in during 2011. While they still play for seniors, veterans and others, they perform more than 50 shows a year around the Midwest and have traveled to contests in Idaho and Tennessee.  

The band's namesake gives credit for their success to her family.

“It wouldn't be the same if it was just still me and my mom; we wouldn't be as successful,” Georgia Rae said.

In addition to the music, other festival highlights include a food court with local fare and a marketplace featuring local crafters, artisans and farmers market vendors.

Lenz said the festival is a hit with families and regular attendees.

“Our incredible lineup, headlined by national acts along with our popular food court and Bluegrass Marketplace, will give attendees an unforgettable experience,” she said.

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