Keeneland
The inaugural Railbird Festival will take over the grounds at Keeneland. | Courtesy of Railbird Festival

Although racing doesn’t commence until Oct. 4 at Lexington’s historic and serene Keeneland racetrack, this weekend the grounds will be abuzz as thousands of music fans flock to the inaugural Railbird Festival on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 10-11.

With a stellar lineup including The Raconteurs, Brandi Carlile, Hozier, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams, Tyler Childers and dozens more, Railbird is off to a great start nabbing musicians and bands of such high caliber for a first-year festival.

And no Kentucky event would be complete without bourbon, so expect a flow of activity in The Rickhouse, where attendees can sample hand-selected barrels by Railbird staff and bourbon-industry insiders (including this writer) from the likes of Four Roses, Blanton’s, Buffalo Trace, Weller Antique, Old Forester, and Pinhook. There also will be culinary experiences throughout the festival and wagering in the Lucky Day Plaza.

Insider reached out to Railbird’s co-producer, David Helmers, to check in on the event’s progress as it approaches the finish line.

David Helmers
David Helmers thiefs a barrel at Buffalo Trace Distillery. | Courtesy

Insider Louisville: With less than a week out from the inaugural Railbird, how is it all coming together so far, and how many hours do you plan on working this week leading up to the big day?

David Helmers: Everything is coming together really well. It’s been a long time coming — with lots of planning and discussing and choosing for many months.

Now, it is a bit surreal to have all the pieces coming together over the “homestretch,” but it is really exciting and we think it’s going to be great. Very fortunate to have partners in AC Entertainment and Keeneland. The personnel at both companies are top-notch and that helped make the whole process run smoothly.

I don’t know how many hours I’ll work this week. I guess as many as it takes. Between promotional appearances, meeting with partners and the build-out schedule, I can say the week looks very, very busy. Busy but exciting.

Insider: Have ticket sales exceeded your expectations? 

Helmers: Ticket sales are strong — especially for a first-year event. What I’m most surprised about is the wide geographic range of our ticket purchasers. We have fans coming from 49 states and many foreign countries.

While we definitely set out to create a “destination event” that would attract guests from outside Kentucky, I didn’t expect our reach would be so wide in year one. It’s a credit to the booking team for putting together a lineup that is amazing and, I think, in part to the exciting combination of that lineup with our site and the unique experiences (single-barrel bourbons, culinary experiences, horse farm tours, on-site wagering, etc.) we’ve put together.

Insider: Is there one day that has sold considerably more tickets than the other, or do you feel like most people are planning on coming for both days?

Helmers: Most people are definitely coming for both days. That’s overwhelmingly true. If you looked at the single-day sales — it’s very close, but at the moment you might see a slightly higher number of Sunday ticket sales. I’d attribute that to Tyler Childers being a Sunday headliner. He’s an amazing artist who also is a local guy.

On top of that, his much-anticipated sophomore album (“Country Squire”) was just released (btw: it’s fantastic). With that release, there is incredible buzz. He’ll play “The Tonight Show” just days before the festival. That probably plays a role. I’ll just say, we’re thrilled for Tyler and are thrilled to have him headlining at the inaugural Railbird as a sort of homecoming!

single barrel bourbon
Railbird staff and bourbon industry folks selected six single barrels of bourbon for the festival. | Photo by Sara Havens

Insider: Who are you looking forward to seeing?

Helmers: So many acts. Fortunately, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing most of the acts on the lineup before. Some that I haven’t — which makes me very excited to see them — are Brandi Carlile, Yola, The Raconteurs and Billy Strings. Artists I’ve seen recently and cannot wait for others to see include Mavis Staples, Low Cut Connie, Gary Clark Jr. — honestly, the lineup is strong, I could go on and on.

You could wander around from stage to stage and not find a bad performance.

Insider: What makes Keeneland the perfect backdrop for a music/bourbon/culinary festival?

Helmers: Keeneland has a culture and tradition of great hospitality on a beautiful campus. It’s surrounded by horse farms and distilleries and people are accustomed to going to Keeneland and having a great time. We want Railbird fans to come to Keeneland and have a great time — but in an entirely new way.

Music will take center stage — with equine, bourbon, great food, craft beer, local crafts and more providing the support. The beautiful property at Keeneland is the perfect backdrop, and their team has been a joy to work with.

Tickets are still available for the Railbird Festival. Gates open at noon each day. 

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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."