When friends Phil Chorney and Jordan August were pickin' banjos on their Hampden porches years ago, the idea of building a community around bluegrass seemed pretty pie in the sky.
But now, as the duo goes into their fifth year of putting on the Charm City Bluegrass Festival (CCBF) in Druid Hill Park, that mission is coming to pass.
"Music is a good gateway to get people interested in the greater world around them," Chorney says. "We are partnering with causes that are incredibly important to us and are hoping to build a community."
Even though the focal point of Charm City Bluegrass is the annual festival—this year on April 29—Chorney explains that they are engaging the music community year-round. From hosting up-and-coming bluegrass acts at the Creative Alliance throughout the year to supporting charities like Believe in Music, Craig Willinger Fund, local veterans charity the VA Way, and the Rawlings Conservatory adjacent to the festival grounds, the duo sees their mission as much bigger than music.
"There is a philanthropic aspect to everything we do and these causes—like veterans and the conservatory—are really important to us," Chorney says. "Not everyone gets to experience nature every single day and places like the conservatory make that possible."
Another crucial part of CCBF's mission is to educate the public about Baltimore's rich bluegrass history. Not only was the banjo invented here, but Appalachian migrants brought bluegrass and old-time Americana to Baltimore and key figures of the genre—like Del McCoury, Earl Taylor, and Walt Hensley—came out of the city.
"I think there's a lot of opportunity to expose bluegrass to a new generation so it can have this renaissance," Chorney says. "Once people discover and experience it for themselves, they tend to embrace it and want to add on to that great history."
And then, of course, there's the festival itself, which this year features headlining act The Lone Bellow, a Brooklyn-based indie band that played a BSO Pulse show last year. The other headliner is a "supergroup" that came together just for this festival and includes members of jam-band favorites Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band.
"This is the first time they're debuting and it was their idea to put together the band just for this," Chorney says. "That's one of those moments when you realize how cool and unique this has become."
New this year is the addition of a third stage, which will feature traditional bluegrass and a more relaxed vibe with bands like Franky Short and the Northern Connection and the official U.S. Navy band, the Country Current.
"We have two kind of groups that come out to the festival—folks who are into the more traditional styles and others that like to dance to more progressive stuff," Chorney says. "This stage will be for the traditionalists who like to hear every last note."
There will, of course, be local and regional acts like Cris Jacobs, Seldom Scene, Cabinet, and Joe Zauner (who Chorney calls "a banjo wizard"). Also taking the stage will be the winner of the local Battle of the Bands contest, which will be determined at the 8x10 on March 3.
Also on site will be Union Craft Brewing providing a specialty beer for the festival, Cardinal Tavern with some southern cooking, and The Local Oyster shucking seafood. For dessert, Center Cut is providing a special "bluegrass" donut. Fittingly, CCBF is donating proceeds to the Rawlings Conservatory and also hosting a pop-up outside of the space on April 12 to raise additional funds.
Chorney says it has been quite the evolution for the annual festival, which started in Union Craft's parking lot.
"We partied pretty hard at that first one and now those same people are bringing their babies and kids out to the festival," he says. "It's been really fun to watch it all grow."