Born of a love of the biannual Strawberry Festival at Camp Mather near Yosemite but rooted in the cozy communality of Coloma, the American River Music Festival takes the stage for the sixth time this weekend.
There's a reason American River is in the festival's title. The event is held on the river's banks. That means campers and daily attendees have plenty of acre-feet of refreshing, running water to cool off in. There's even a swimming hole near the main stage an A-grade amenity with temperatures predicted to be in the 90s.
"The river has always been the inspiration," said Matt Semonsen, a former river guide who directs the nonprofit that mounts the festival each year. "We've worked to integrate moving water and music."
More intimate than Strawberry 1,000 attendees compared with more than 6,000 the festival offers the same diversity of musicians. There are fewer, but they all can be wedged under the wide umbrella of Americana in all of its different permutations.
Besides the inspired mix of main-stage performers, who include the Joe Craven Trio, Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings, Tom Russell, and Dangermuffin, it's worth noting that seeing all 10 acts featured during the weekend separately would be somewhere north of three times the $65 two-day ticket price and perhaps as much as double a $119 ticket that includes camping at the three privately operated sites near the venue.
Main-stage performances start Saturday, but tonight is a showcase of up-and- coming musicians at the American River Resort, one of the festival campgrounds. The top two performers, as determined by a panel of judges, advance to the main stage to sing a couple of tunes each Saturday and Sunday.
There are also concerts in the other campgrounds over the weekend as well as musicians performing at the four or five nearby restaurants affiliated with the event.
And several of what Semonsen calls "participation workshops" also are scheduled in which attendees can interact with artists.
Craven, equally adept at fiddle, mandolin and inspired percussion, leads an afternoon hike today capped by helping hikers harness their inner rhythm devils.
Still, the main action is on the main stage.
Saturday's headliner is Dangermuffin, a South Carolina trio described by one wag as "the best jam band you've never heard of."
Dangermuffin lies squarely in the main branches of the family tree that grows back over the long decades to the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and their progeny.
Some folks have obviously heard of Dangermuffin, since their "Olly Oxen Free" has been at the top of the Homegrown Music Network chart for 10 weeks. Leading off with the choogling bass, stentorian drums and lilting guitar of "Slumber," the CD includes the reggae-flavored "Battle" and concludes with the Stanley Brothers-stacked vocals of the gospel-esque "In the Rising Souls."
While rooted deep in the heart of Texas, Austin's Wheeler Brothers also on Saturday bring the same jangly punch of the Jayhawks or Golden Smog coupled with Uncle Tupelo's lyricism. Hopefully on the playlist will be "Long Hard Road," the elegiac "Home for the Holidays" and the evocative "Save the Nightly."
Banjo and slide-guitar wizard Tony Furtado follows the Wheeler Brothers. A flavor of Furtado's talent is the baroque and beguiling banjo-led "Bawds of Euphony." Or his recasting of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" and Elton John's "Take Me to the Pilot."
Craven and his trio, with their Latinized Django Reinhardt and souped-up folk tunes such as "Turkey in the Straw," play Sunday, followed by the redoubtable folk troubadour Tom Russell.
Russell has been crafting image-rich songs for more than a quarter-century. His tunes run from the pathos-heavy epic "Gallo del Cielo," in which a Mexican kid steals a battered fighting cock in the hope the bird's spurs will win enough to "buy back the land that Villa stole from father long ago," to the tragic story of Disney child star Bobby Driscoll in "Farewell Never-Ever Land," to a scathing denunciation of Nashville in "The Death of Jimmy Martin."
There's a Tex-Mex vibe with accordions and mariachi guitar solos in Russell's music since he moved to El Paso, Texas, but regardless of the sound, his lyrics inevitably astound.
Other accomplished pickers Sunday include Poor Man's Whiskey, whose two-disc opus, "Dark Side of the Moonshine," isn't quite the "White Album" but showcases the band's twangy dexterity and unbridled sense of humor.
Consider the song "Whiskey," which begins with a backbeat of barnyard noises followed with the banjo-picked melody of Pink Floyd's "Money," a fiery fiddle solo, and then a breathless bluegrass double-time rave-up. Their original stuff is even more impressive.
Davis' Rita Hosking and Cousin Jack open the festival's Sunday main stage proceedings at 11 a.m.
AMERICAN RIVER MUSIC FESTIVAL
When: Main-stage performances are Saturday and Sunday. Activities for campers start Friday.
Where: Henningsen-Lotus Park, 950 Lotus Road, Lotus
Cost: Advance tickets for Saturday or Sunday are $35 adults, $15 ages 8-17. At the gate, it's $40 adults, $15 ages 8-17. Advance two-day tickets, for Saturday and Sunday, are $59 adults, $20 ages 8-17. At the gate, two-day tickets are $65 and $20. Advance tickets available online until 5 p.m. today. Camping tickets are $119 adults, $69 ages 8-17. Children 7 and under are free.