By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
It’s fair to say it’s been one of the worst-kept secrets in Master Musicians Festival history.
Now, however, it can be proclaimed: Willie Nelson is coming to town.
“Oh my gosh,” exclaimed Tiffany Bourne on Thursday. “We want to scream it from the rooftops.”
Nelson, the iconic country music star with a career spanning six decades, is the cherry on top of the 2013 Master Musicians Festival line-up — a special one, since it marks the 20th edition of the weekend-long outdoor music extravaganza being held here in town.
Given the landmark, festival organizers knew they had to get a big-name guest. Once the final “i” was dotted and “t” crossed on Thursday, they had their man.
“It’s taken this long to get Willie confirmed,” said Bourne, president of the Master Musicians Festival (MMF) board, who noted that it had been in the works for about six months. “We’re ready to tell the world. A lot of our fans who come from out of town have no idea.”
The ones closer to Somerset? They may have had it already figured it out. Last Thursday, the official MMF 2013 line-up announcement was made at the Harbor Restaurant.
One problem: Even though the board felt like it had Nelson mostly in-pocket, the details weren’t completely figured out yet. So organizers had to tease a big-name guest on the way ... without dropping that big name.
“I didn’t drop the hint; the audience dropped it for us,” said Bourne with a laugh. “I didn’t confirm or deny what a lot of people were shouting out.”
Nelson is unquestionably a huge get for a town like Somerset, being the type of artist who’s been playing cavernous venues in major cities for longer than Bourne has even been alive. At 79, Nelson — the man behind hits like “On the Road Again,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and a particularly memorable take on “Always on My Mind” — has racked up 10 Grammy Awards (out of 37 total music awards), turned out 67 studio albums (among others), appeared in movies, written books, engaged in political activism, and done just about everything a star of his stature could accomplish.
Most of all, his name is instantly recognizable to most Americans. Whether fans of his music or not, almost everyone seems to know who Willie Nelson is — even, apparently, the young folks of today.
“Willie crosses multiple generations of fans,” said Bourne. “It’s funny, because the older generation is excited, but I’ve heard that it’s the biggest gossip at Meece Middle School. Even kids know who Willie Nelson is.
“Looking at other major festivals, any one of those — Bonnaroo, Forecastle, whatever — if he were playing at any of them, he’d be on the top bill of that festival.”
Bourne herself is one of those who grew up listening to Nelson, as did others in her family. He’s held a place in her life for years — “One of those goodies you can always turn on and listen to,” she said.
“There’s nothing like this that’s ever been in Somerset,” she added. “He’d usually play Lexington or Louisville. What we (as a board) are most excited about is brining in this caliber of music. The MMF board jumped through hoops, held fundraisers, and spent many hours trying to make this happen. We all love our community and want to see it grow, and this will definitely put us on the map.”
Saving money has also been a big part of it. Since becoming president of the MMF board, Bourne has helped spearhead efforts to cut costs (such as the salary of a paid festival director) and build money from year to year, specifically with the goal in mind of a 20th birthday blowout.
Of course, the festival will change a bit, certainly from its humble beginnings in 1994. Bringing in an act like Nelson will likely require more security on-site; it may also mean enacting limited seating. With Nelson sure to bring droves of fans to Festival Field behind Somerset Community College this July, “we will probably have to cut it off at a certain point to control the number of people,” said Bourne, who’s already spoken with Nelson’s road manager about what to expect.
Elsewhere on the schedule, there appears to be a collection of local up-and-comers and festival favorites. (For a full line-up, see page A8.)
“We kind of set out to do three things this year,” said Bourne. “One, celebrate local musicians. We have such wonderful local musicians here, and it’s probably our favorite thing, to give them the opportunity to play on the same stage a someone like Willie Nelson.
“The second thing was to bring back the best of the best of the last 20 years. David Mayfield (of The David Mayfield Parade, one of this year’s returnees) killed it when he was here (for example). It’s what we’ve been hearing for the last for our five years of who are the favorites,” continued Bourne. “The third thing is to bring a headliner in here that would make a noticeable impact on tourism and the community.”
Bourne said that the board threw around a few options of “big name” types that MMF might be able to land and discussed the matter for a couple of months after last year’s festival. But it was decided that Nelson would ultimately have “the biggest impact” and appeal the most to local audiences.
Bourne praised the “great vibe” she’s gotten, and the excitement surrounding the announcement of the line-up. There’s more money to be raised, still (Nelson cost “substantially more” than what MMF usually pays for headliners, noted Bourne), but organizers feel the community is ready to get fully behind the festival.
“It warmed our hearts” to see those who came out for the reveal last week, said Bourne. “The last few years, we’ve been building that community spirit. They want to see us succeed.”
Other special recognitions of the festival’s history include Tommy Minton as the 20th birthday Master Musician (Bourne noted that festival lore has its origins in an attempt to raise money to buy Minton a new guitar), and honoring founder Gabrielle Gray, now the executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky.
The festival will be held this year on Friday, July 19, and Saturday, July 20, behind Somerset Community College.
There’s a lot to do, but Bourne credits the “strong working board” with being able to pull it off.
“The board has been working up to this, knowing the 20th anniversary is coming,” she said. “It’s all panning out the way we hoped it would.”