Jefferson Memorial’s program manager Rebecca Minnick spoke with Insider Louisville about the forest, the festival and her own predilection for “picking” — i.e. playing bluegrass. A Louisville native, Minnick lived in Maine for several years before returning home to work at the park.
“When I applied for the job, I didn’t actually know part of the job was putting on a bluegrass festival, so it was kind of a little icing on the cake for me,” says Minnick.
Forest Fest first started 11 years ago, a brain child of Tonya Swan, Minnick’s predecessor.
“It was kind of a response to Louisville losing the IDMA (International Bluegrass Music Association awards) — we didn’t really have a big bluegrass festival anymore,” says Minnick. “It was also kinda to draw more people to the forest.”
She admits Jefferson Memorial is still less well know than other Louisville parks and forests.
“We kind of still run into people who are, like, ‘Oh, we have a forest in Fairdale?’ or ‘Hey I’ve never been there,’” she says, noting at one point Jefferson Memorial even went so far as to brand itself the county’s “best kept secret.”
Forest Fest started with pure bluegrass, but in recent years it has branched out to include a broader slice of string music and Americana, as evidenced by this year’s appearance by Ben Sollee.
“We have expanded to included other types of music that might be considered offshoots of bluegrass — Americana, string music — but traditional bluegrass people wouldn’t necessarily call it bluegrass,” says Minnick.
Hopefully the purists won’t mind too much, but she is aware she’s attempting a difficult balancing act. “I try to have a balance of traditional bluegrass and more progressive acts, things that might draw a younger crowd or a not strictly bluegrass crowd.” But as a fan and a musician herself, the selection process starts with a simpler criterion. “I kinda start with bands I like,” she says.
This year, Minnick likes headliner Sollee; returning act Maiden Radio, whom she calls “fantastic”; Blue River Band; the newly reformed 23 String Band; Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper; and the Kentucky Blue Belles from northern Kentucky.
She is particularly excited about the Blue Belles, and that excitement comes from first-hand experience. “I’ve picked with (their fiddle player), and she’s great, so I think they are gonna be great. I think they are gonna be a big crowd pleaser.”
The Blue Belles and Maiden Radio also help the festival have a more balanced representation of women. As a lady who loves to pick, Minnick is all too aware that bluegrass has not always historically been a genre that embraces female artists. “Women have not traditionally had a lot of recognition in the bluegrass world, so that’s something that’s important to me,” she adds.
Minnick says bluegrass is a perfect complement to the forest itself. “There’s a lot of history in the forest — and the South End in general. That ties to traditional Kentucky music, it works with that.”
Though she’s quick to point out some bands use Jefferson Memorial’s sound system, she notes most of the bands perform unplugged, which resonates with the scenery. “I just think it works to have acoustic music in the forest.”
In addition to a day’s worth of musical performances, Forest Fest is following in the footsteps of other bluegrass festivals and offering workshops with the artists. “A lot of bluegrass festivals that are bigger multi-day festivals have workshops where a full band or somebody from the band will sit down with their instrument, play a few songs,” explains Minnick. Then the artist will talk about a variety of topics with the audience, generally along a workshop theme such as songwriting or focusing on a specific instrument like mandolin. “Then they’ll talk about their process and open it up for Q&A,” she says. All the bands will offer workshops this year, including Sollee.
There will be plenty to keep kids busy as well. Jefferson Memorial has the first certified “Nature Explore Classroom” in the state, which will be open during the event.
“Nature Play is a pretty big movement right now,” says Minnick. “So we bring over to the festival area a whole bunch of sticks that kids can build forts and shelters with, natural building blocks (like) parts of trees, stumps for kids to climb on, paint rocks they can paint their face with, natural instruments, and giant bubbles.”
A silent auction featuring local goods will help raise funds for the forest, and this year they will also have beer and food trucks to help draw a crowd. While admission is free, parking is $10. Forest Fest runs from 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, in the forest’s Horine Section, 12304 Holsclaw Hill Road.