From the Vault: Meet the minds behind Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival

This weekend marks the 69th semi-annual Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. For the uninitiated, the longstanding and widely-acclaimed musical roots event brings some of the bluegrass world’s top acts to Adams County’s Granite Hill Camping Resort in May and again in August. This year’s featured acts include The Del McCoury Band, The Seldom Scene, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage and Steep Canyon Rangers. This profile of the festival’s organizers originally ran in our May 2011 issue.


Let the Festival Commence


Organizing an annual summer music festival can take a small army of dedicated staff members months of sifting through logistics and dollar figures and weeks of on-site setup.

GettsyburgBluegrass0511_010For Rich and Cyndie Winkelmann, assembling the pieces of the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival is a process that involves years of advance planning – it’s an all-consuming endeavor. But beyond the work, the festival represents a family tradition they’ve continued since taking over in 2002.

The couple, who also own and operate Granite Hill Campground just west of the Gettysburg battlefield, host the festival’s 62nd edition this month from May 12-15. The festival features more than two dozen performers, bluegrass jam sessions, workshops and camping. This month’s installment features Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, The Grascals, the Steep Canyon Rangers and more; a second festival takes place in August.

The Winkelmann’s serve year-round as the planners, ticket sellers, booking agents, problem solvers and even the gate keepers of the campground – and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We just roll from one festival to the next,” Cyndie says.


Genesis of the festival

In the early days of bluegrass festivals, most were “rough and tumble affairs,” Rich says, with motorcycle gangs, drugs, and fights. Rich’s father-in-law, Joe Cornett, had the idea to start a festival where families felt safe attending; he did just that in 1979 at his campground.

From the start, Cornett made the rules of no motorcycles and no dogs allowed. Many gangs would bring dogs to festivals to guard their drugs and money. Those rules still stand today (although little dogs are now allowed).

Word spread like wildfire that the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival was different from other festivals, and people seemed to embrace the concept of the family friendly event. Since the first festival, nearly every major bluegrass artist has performed at the campground, from Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury to Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs. Bill Monroe played there on his 75th birthday in 1986, and Alison Krauss performed every year from her senior year of high school until 1998 (Cyndie’s first daughter was born a few days before Krauss performed in ’98).

Shows originally took place in the campground’s rec hall building, but later moved to an old box trailer that folded out into a stage. Last year, the new “King Post Truss” timber frame stage premiered; it’s designed to look like an original part of
the farm.


A reunion on all levels

Even though there are a few changes and additions to the festival each year, the Winkelmann’s say the one thing that doesn’t change is the sense of
camaraderie and community among festival-goers.

Many groups use the festival as a meet-up or reunion. Rich says there’s a group of former Gettysburg College students from the ‘80s that return every year.

Gettysburg isn’t just a reunion spot for friends and groups – it also serves as a Winkelmann family reunion, complete with great aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins who come to help.

“We really do count on our family coming to town and helping us to make it happen because it’s a big event and we couldn’t necessarily put it on with just our staff,” Cyndie says.

A family sentiment among attendees is common, too. Groups of campers are quick to feed festival staff, Rich says, pointing out a group of people from West Virginia who stays at the same campsite each year and cooks up fried chicken dinners.

People coming through the entrance are quick to hand over a box of donuts or even beer to the staff.

“I could probably have a hundred beers by the end of the day working at the gate,” Rich jokes.


The unforeseen challenges

When running a festival, some things have to be sacrificed – like sleep. Cyndie says she and her husband get “next to none” during the festival, going to bed after midnight and waking up by 5 a.m. every day.

“We exist on lots of coffee,” Cyndie says.

Rich says he deals with a lot of last-minute logistics and problem solving with the festival and even some unique requests. Last year one of the festival emcees got married onstage during the dinner break in the show. (Rhonda Vincent served as the wedding planner/master of ceremonies, and some of her band members came out to sing.) And in the early 2000s, Rich spent 96 hours pulling people out of the mud after several days of heavy rain.


Planning for next year … and the next

The work on the festival never really stops for the Winkelmanns. Rich says that come August’s show, he is already thinking about next May.

“The lineup is something you always think about, work on, talk to people about and keep your ear to the ground for,” Rich says.

The process of booking bands has changed a great deal since the festival started. It used to consist of a phone call by his father-in-law to the artist who would look at their schedule. Today, requests are funnelled through the artists’ managers.

Cyndie says Rich has the same knack her father had for finding the best acts.

“We have the ability to carry on my family’s tradition,” Cyndie says. “And I think it’s great that Rich has really built a lot on what my dad loved.”


The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival takes over the Granite Hill Campground (3340 Fairfield Rd., Gettysburg) August 14-17. Single-day and weekend passes available. Click here for tickets.


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Posted in Articles, From the Vault, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Music, Music – Harrisburg, Music – Lancaster, Music – York, Out & About, York

Michael Yoder has been writing stories at numerous publications for more than a decade. His interests include impersonating Santa Claus, performing stand-up comedy and drawing circular objects. His dream is to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Michael is a former features editor for Fly; he left in 2015.

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