High Sierra Music Festival – 17 Years of Epic Weekends

The High Sierra Music Festival is marking its seventeenth year of existence by once again bringing a wide range of musical talent to multiple stages from July 5th through the 8th in beautiful Quincy, California. As always, High Sierra looks to be an epic weekend of world class music, incredible artistic displays, and jubilant merrymaking for musicians and fan alike.

Led by Page McConnell, Drive By Truckers, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon reunion, Disco Biscuits, Les Claypool, Galactic, ALO, Del McCoury, Soulive, Xavier Rudd and Tea Leaf Green, this year’s festival guarantees to be another memorable festival.

Yet with all this fun in store, one may wonder about the process behind putting together such a nationally renowned event. Luckily for us, Dave Margulies and Roy Carter (part of the brain trust behind the festival) offered up their unique insight on how the magic behind High Sierra Music Festival is conjured.

 What makes HSMF a unique musical experience?

Roy Carter.: It comes down to community and intimacy. There is access to musicians that is hard to come by at other festivals. There is also a spirit that the fans bring, that needs to be experienced to be understood. People that have never been to the festival should expect great music and high times. It also comes down to the little details, like we make sure to put shade up in places, simply for the fan’s comfort. We also take a lot of time in picking our food and vendors, because we want every aspect of the festival to be top notch. We put a lot of love into the details. Everything we do is to make the customers and the musicians comfortable. We like to think of it as we put the blank canvas up, and the fans and musicians fill it in.

Dave Margulies: The fact that there are multiple sets from every artist on site is one factor. Also the artists have opportunities to sit in and play with other musicians. So much of this festival is all about cross pollination, and artists get to introduce themselves to other artists. I can think of an instance when Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was playing, and I was chatting with Karl Denson. I asked him to come check them out and grab his horn, so we went over to the stage. Karl watched for about ten minutes, and then jumped onstage and jammed with them, never having heard them before. This kind of thing happens all the time. Also the play shops are unique. They allow fans to see musicians in a completely different or more intimate setting. A lot of magic happens during the day at the play shops

What are the key considerations when putting together a festival line up?

D.M. We look to create balance. We go after the bands we really want first. You never get everyone you want, but you make your “A” list, go after those bands, see who is in after the dust settles, and then reevaluate afterwards. When we reevaluate, we look for holes in the lineup and we address them, which is part of the beauty of H.S.M.F. The three folks involved, Roy, Rebecca and myself have different tastes in music, so the end results should be balanced if we all walk away happy. For us balance represents a broad range of music and styles. And it is not just styles that matter, but we want balance of old staples and brand new acts to the festival as well. We believe an important part of HSMF is introducing new acts to the community.

R.C.: Once one festival ends, the planning for the next one starts. Usually we try to find a variety of bands that each brings something different to the table. We usually look for our headliners first, and then go from there. We try to present as much of a mix as possible, and often our lineup relates to when bands are able to give us conformation.
J.G. What is your philosophy in choosing late night acts?

R.C.: Draw power comes into play. We also like to use the opening slots in the late night to introduce fans to bands we like. Many bands that once opened for other headliners are now headlining their own late night slots, such as ALO and Tea Leaf Green. We also have to think of the band’s schedule both in the festival, and afterwards. We don’t want to schedule a band for a late night slot, and then an early afternoon slot the next day.

D.M We want to find a combination of someone who is popular enough to bring in a good size crowd, and that is energetic and danceable. We also want the opening band to create balance on the bill with the headliner. We have three rooms, so we try to vary styles accordingly. As an example we might have bluegrass in one room, funk in another, and some experimental music in the third. The goal is to give folks enough options.

How does an up and coming band catch your attention to crack the lineup?

D.M. Usually one of us has seen them live, unless the buzz is that strong. The first band we booked site unseen is ThaMuseMeant. But with the music on the internet, it has become much easier to scout for acts. We also will listen to CDs passed on to us from people we trust. I also have the luxury of booking shows at a venue in Ashland, Oregon called The Mobius, so I can check a lot of bands out first hand there. 

R.C. There are a variety of ways that we come across new acts. Usually they are recommended by partners of ours who are scouting live acts. When they find a band that sounds interesting, they call our attention that way and the ball gets rolling. We are also paying attention all the time, even when we go to our hometown shows. If there is a band that grabs our attention, we will inquire further. It is important to pay attention to bands that are creating a buzz. We also take submissions over a six week window of time. For this festival we have an up and coming band out of the northwest (Reeble Jar) that was recommended to us by a fellow musician Matt Butler (Everyone Orchestra). He brought them to our attention, and once we checked them out, we liked what we heard.

What band have you always wanted to play the fest, but have been unable to secure?

R.C.: Neil Young and Tom Waits come to mind. We have had some preliminary attempts, but those guys are hard to get to.

D.M.. I think Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Ornette Coleman would be my choices.

What do you think is the musical highpoint in the history of High Sierra?

R.C.: It is up to the perception of the person. For me one of the first tent shows that had Sam Bush, Leftover Salmon, Tony Furtado and Anders Osborne was up there. Also the String Cheese Incident 1996 pool party show is another one that sticks out. Hugh Masekela’s set blew me away. It was really powerful African tribal music. I can also think of amazing shows by the Radiators, Leftover Salmon, the Slip and Bill Frisell. Obviously there have been many special musical moments.

Can you think of a play shop that stands out as a special moment for you?

D.M. In New Orleans, George Porter Jr. and Johnny Vidacovich host a weekly trio at the Maple Leaf club, where a different third member would rotate in each week. We condensed that concept, so that in our workshop a new third member rotated in each song. Skerik, Papa Mali and Anders Osborne acted as the third member for a song. An amazing ukulele player from Hawaii named Jake Shimabukuro was at the festival, and I thought it would be fun pairing him with George and Johnny. So I brought him up to Johnny’s wife Deborah during the set, and asked if he could sit in. She gave me a look and I said “trust me” and so she went with it. Jake took the stage with ukulele in hand. George just looked at Deborah with this confused look in his eye, as if to say “who is this guy?” But they went with it, and after about one minute of feeling each other out in they launched into this ukulele funk jam that was out of this world. It is that kind of spontaneity that makes HSMF so special.

 With other national festivals such as Bonnaroo incorporating more indie acts, how do you stay roots oriented without jumping onto the musical bandwagon of the moment?

 We never try to stay in any particular musical pattern. We try to bring as eclectic a festival to the people as possible. We have strong folk and bluegrass vibe, but we also bring out a strong rock and roll, electronica and world vibe too. The biggest thing for High Sierra Music Festival is to create an intimate experience. Big festivals are fun, but because of the size they are missing the small touches. We like to think of H.S.M.F. as the festival that provides the ultimate intimate experience.

 Is this a fulltime off season job, or does it kick into gear in the late winter early spring?

It is pretty much full time, but there are different levels of intensity. Not only do we work on H.S.M.F., but we are starting up a new festival called Del Fest, named for Del McCoury, for Memorial Day 2008 in Maryland. He is setting this up to be a legacy for his son, and it will be an annual event that holds nearly 10,000 people. We plan on crossing some musical lines, but it will be roots oriented, for sure.

How long do you think you can keep it going?

R.C. In theory I’d like to see it go as far into the future as possible. There are some fairgrounds in the U.S. that have been having fairs since the 1700’s, so maybe we can shoot for that kind of longevity.

D.M. High Sierra can outlive all of us, and I hope it does.

Photo of Drew Emmitt taken by Susan J Weiand

Tickets are still available to this year’s High Sierra Music Festival. For more information, visit the festival’s

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