August Interview: Claire Armbruster – Earl Scruggs Music Festival

Alison Brown at ESMF

If you are keeping up with our festival season, we are going to be headed down to Western North Carolina next weekend for the Earl Scruggs Music Festival (ESMF) at the Tryon International Equestrian Center. On Wednesday, LTFL had the amazing opportunity to speak with Claire Armbruster, the talent buyer and producer for Earl Scruggs Music Festival. It is a special time of year to talk with Claire as festival season is in full swing, and this festival is just around the corner. To get tickets and more info visit ESMF’s website and keep reading to get a behind the scenes view of what’s to come.

Tell us a little bit about the day to day of your job and what your job looks like during the actual festival itself?

Claire explained that she is currently working, not just on the festival, but on bookings for a tv show – so it is an incredibly busy time of year. As for ESMF – she explained “I’m handling all artist booking and logistics . . .” describing for us all the various people she is working with, especially Mary Beth Martin, director of the Earl Scruggs Center. Claire also works closely with a variety of other team members such as graphic designers, a marketing team who advises them on “what to do with social media and marketing,” and the team at the Equestrian Center – who also help with ticketing and talent. Here, she mentioned that she was currently working on a Banjo Kickoff for Friday – so lookout for more information on that and make sure to catch it.

Speaking of the Equestrian Center, this is a good time to highlight how awesome of a location it is for the festival. “The beautiful thing about the Equestrian Center is that it is already a resort – it has cabins (3 and 5 bedroom), a small motel, a number of houses . . .tent camping, and RV hookups.” A big part of Claire’s job will be working to get everyone, including artists, situated on site. This includes overseeing the handling of hospitality backstage. Claire explained that for ESMF they aren’t “necessarily going by specific riders” but instead have artists placed in RVs backstage as dressing rooms, the venue is providing catering, and her team will have their RVs stocked with snacks.

We also asked Claire whether she gets to enjoy much of the music during the festival.

Claire explained that during the festival she is overseeing everything, so she doesn’t get to see much of the performances and spends a significant amount of time checking on how the workshops are proceeding, getting a feel for attendance, and how logistics are working. One of the spots she’s definitely going to be stopping by is Earl’s Pickin’ Pavilion – more on that below.

Becky Buller Band at ESMF

Obviously, budget is a huge piece of it – but beyond that how do you construct a lineup – can tell us a little about the process?

“Our mission is to honor and teach the history of Earl Scruggs and uphold his legacy, so that is first and foremost in our minds . . . we build from there.” Claire went on to discuss the workshops that play a huge role in that mission – there are two workshops daily, and they are based on significant involvement of guest artists. For example, one of the workshops will be run by an Earl Scruggs biographer, while others will be hosted by family and those who were close to him. Two workshop themes Claire described for us were “How Bluegrass has changed then and now, and how song writing has changed.”

The other big piece of how ESMF comes together is community involvement. Claire explained that the festival is “very encouraging to young musicians”, specifically explaining how ESMF has started a relationship with Junior Appalachian Musician. There will be about 74 students attending, so Claire is also involved in setting up various events and classes for them – covering topics like “what it takes to be a professional musician” and a Wernick Method jam class taught by Pete Wernick himself, for students interested in the method and anyone who is teaching in the arena of jam.

This was a meaty portion of the interview as we learned about the involvement of lots of regional and educational partners. Highlights include: a major project from Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (an entity focused on a variety of missions and the history of the region) called Fine Tuned which paired “seasoned musicians with a select group of emerging artists in Western North Carolina” encouraging “unexpected collaborations.” The project features six groups with songs on the record who will be performing live at next weekend’s festival. One of the most interesting pairings Claire described for us was the connection formed between a sacred steel band and a country singer. She saw them perform together in the spring and found it fascinating – we can’t wait to check it out.

She also mentioned that fans should lookout for the ETSU bluegrass band, which will not only be playing at the festival, but will also be doing a class for kids.

What are you most excited for fans to see or experience at Earl Scruggs this year?

One of the most exciting additions to this year’s festival that Claire described for us is Earl’s Pickin’ Pavilion sponsored by IBMA. This area of the festival is an open jam area designed to allow anyone who wants to bring an instrument to join in and play along. Special guest artists will be stopping by to make an appearance and help get the music started. So, BYO instrument and get ready to jam.

Claire also emphasized how “different this festival is because of the site (used to handling large groups and events), I have two words for you . . . real bathrooms.” Seriously though, it is not that often that we see real bathrooms at festivals, so count us in. Claire is also excited for fans to enjoy two “really nice VIP areas with grandstand seating and balconies.” She also mentioned that the site has nice restaurants and “if it rains, and hopefully it won’t, we won’t have to deal with mud.” There will also be a carousel on site running during the festival.

Another spot of note is ESMF’s kids’ area called the Land of Rhythm Kids Zone. It will be filled to the brim with fun activities, music, a petting zoo and more. Here at LTFL, we are thinking about checking it out with our own little one, who may be headed for his first festival.

What songs or artists are you playing on repeat this summer personally?

“Well…not far from the festival topic – I just bought several Joni Mitchell boxed sets so I have been listening to those”. Claire went on to explain how most of her listening is done for research purposes – at least right now.

Note: Here, Claire and I got sidetracked by a discussion of how best to store and save festival wristbands and other music “paraphernalia” – despite the fact I am the prosecutor, paraphernalia was her word, not mine. My go-to method is in a glass fronted shadowbox style ticket saver. Claire mentioned something that sounded pretty awesome to me and that was underneath the glass on a coffee table, so that you can change things out. Note to self on this one.

Molly Tuttle at ESMF

This is the second, or so, year we have had festivals again. I don’t really want to say post-Covid because it is still here, but since things started going back to normal, how have things changed in the industry (for good) or with your job specifically?

ESMF got off to a delayed start, with the festival’s inaugural season postponed twice due to Covid, that was the first thing Claire noted. Even during this time, she feels like the Equestrian Center and team were very careful acting as good “gatekeepers”, checking temperatures and symptoms for everyone onsite. Now that we are where we are, Claire explained we aren’t seeing Covid related items in contracts anymore, but we are seeing a lasting impact. “Covid increased touring costs for artists, which increased costs for us, and then at the front gate for ticket buyers.” But in other ways things are back to the way they were – “people are traveling, things are very much the same.”

Claire went on to explain that what has changed, in the industry since she got her start more than two decades ago, is technology. We talked a little bit here about the phone call vs. e-mail of it all, and how different things are with communication. She noted that “relationships with people in the industry are what is most important, and we have really moved away from phones to e-mail.” She went on to explain that there are good things and bad things about that change, but that she also greatly appreciates the agents that make an effort to reach out personally.

Final notes from Claire for ESMF attendees:

  • New water bottle filling stations have been installed.
  • There is a clear plastic bag policy – check the website for more details.
    • Even Claire is following this policy, after telling us she got lots of stares last year carrying her “lucky festival backpack”, which she has been using for nearly twenty years.

For more information about Earl Scruggs Music Festival – visit the site linked above or check them out on social media, Facebook Earl Scruggs Music Festival Instagram @earlscruggsfest Twitter @earlscruggsfest, and be sure to check out all the activities and experiences (including bourbon & brunch – two of my personal favorite things) that the festival has to offer this year.

ESMF is taking place on our home turf, or what used to be, so we will be on the ground with family to check it out. Hope to see you all out there!

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Written by Georgia

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