Since 1994, the Master Musicians Festival has been a bedrock of summer, not only for the citizens of Somerset, Kentucky and southeast Kentucky, but for the Commonwealth as a whole and anyone who travels to listen to the variety of music the festival has to offer. Not only has the event–taking place in July at Festival Field on the campus of Somerset Community College–touted such acts as Steve Earle, the Counting Crows, and Willie Nelson in the past, but what makes MMF so special is that it throws the spotlight on phenomenally talented Kentucky musicians for attendees to enjoy, such as Bee Taylor and Mojothunder. Whether an act is nationally- or locally-known, what matters is that everyone comes together in fellowship to appreciate the music and one another’s company.
Still, the past few years have not been incredibly kind to the Master Musicians Festival, due wholly to unpreventable natural disasters. In 2019, the festival was cut short due to a thunderstorm, right as Jason Isbell–that year’s headliner–was set to take the stage. Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 ground so much of normalcy to a halt, including MMF, which was canceled for the first time in the festival’s history.
However, 2021 is a time for renewal, with the nation and the world slowly beginning to reopen and more and more people vaccinating themselves against COVID-19. With that reopening, the Master Musicians Festival has decided to move forward this year with its 28th festival, starting this Friday, July 16th and lasting through Saturday, July 17th. With rock sensation Blues Traveler headlining on Saturday and a whole host of talented musicians ready to take the stage, festival goers are eager to revisit an event that consistently proves a bright spot in Kentucky’s summer events.
Ahead of MMF, I spoke with Tiffany Finley, executive director of the event, who talked about the history and mission of the Master Musicians Festival, how the festival has rebounded after past obstacles, the headliners for this year’s MMF, and what the event means to Kentucky.
FreakSugar: For folks who are unfamiliar with the event, what can you tell us about the Master Musicians Festival?
Tiffany Finely: The Master Musicians Festival is an outdoor two-day music festival held annually in July in Somerset, Kentucky. Established in 1994, the event is organized by a full-time executive director and all-volunteer board of directors on the campus of Somerset Community College. The festival is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission of bringing musical excellence to rural Kentucky, and is funded through grants, donations, sponsorships and ticket sales.
The Master Musicians Festival showcases a wide variety of genres, from blues to bluegrass, rock to jazz, world to country, and everything in between. In 2018, to celebrate its milestone 25th anniversary, the festival welcomed a beloved singer-songwriter with Kentucky roots as its headliner — two-time Grammy winner John Prine.
Past headliners have included Counting Crows, Willie Nelson, Nickel Creek, St. Paul and The Broken Bones, Richie Havens, Dawes, Dwight Yoakam and many more. Festival organizers make an effort to feature local, Kentucky artists along with nationally known musicians.
FS: MMF has had a wide range of acts over the years. What is the planning in how potential musicians are approached to headline the festival?
TF: Our board has a band selection committee that takes suggestions year-round from fellow board members and fans. We take the time to watch and consider all bands that are suggested. Our committee members all have to agree on an artist before we move them on to the next round of elimination. From there it comes down what makes sense for the lineup that year, cost and availability. We strive to provide a well-rounded, diverse lineup that accomplishes our mission of bringing music to the people of southeastern Kentucky at an affordable price.
FS: What can you tell us about the acts we can expect to see this year in terms of acts, vendors, and so on?
TF: This year may be our biggest year yet with a lineup of 30 local, regional and national artists. We pride ourselves on introducing our audience to the next big (and their new favorite) band and have a long history of doing so with Tyler Childers, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Jason Isbell, The Dead South and many more. This year, the artist to watch for is Morgan Wade.
FS: The festival had to be canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did that cancellation impact how you approached this year’s MMF?
TF: While we were certainly disappointed to have to cancel in 2020, it was in the best interest of our fans and musicians, and safety is our No. 1 priority. But it was unfortunately a double-whammy for us because we had to cancel right before our headliner took the stage in 2019 due to a thunderstorm. Having this extra time has been valuable, though, because it allowed us to breathe, regroup, look at ways we can improve and come back stronger than ever.
FS: This is the 28th year of the festival. What does MMF mean to Somerset and the greater surrounding area?
TF: While the festival was created to expose our rural area to arts and culture and has undoubtedly done so, during the last 28 years it has also become a major economic engine for our area. Kentucky Tourism estimates MMF has a $3 million economic impact in our community each year — from people buying gas, staying in hotels and eating at restaurants. That is mind-blowing to think about but it is what drives our volunteer board to have a better MMF year after year. We take our mission of promoting and sharing the arts seriously, but we also take great pride in being a community partner and helping Somerset and Pulaski County thrive.
The Master Musicians Festival begins this Friday, July 16th, and runs through Saturday, July 17th. For more information, please check out the festival’s official website.