Hot August Music Festival prepares to celebrate 25 years

Words & Photos: Tim Newby

Few festivals last 25 years, even fewer last that long with as a committed devotion to excellence and the independent streak that has been their defining principles since their first days.  As the Hot August Music Festival returns for its 25th year on August 19, 2017, once again to Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville, Maryland that devotion will be on full display with a lineup that runs the musical gamut.  The 25th version of the Hot August Music Festival has assembled a lineup this year that reflects that independent principle festival founder and promoter, Brad Selko, has adhered to over the previous quarter-century, “To provide a different variety of American roots music each year.  Blues, bluegrass, rock, funk, jam, whatever.  I like to cover the whole spectrum.”  This year’s line-up topped by string-band revivalists Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring a wide-roster of artists including the Infamous Stringdusters, Turkuaz, Lettuce, Cabinet, Baskery, ELM, John Mooney & Bluesiana, Dustbowl Revival, Squaring the Circle, Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials, and Memphis Gold does just that.

The Hot August Music Festival was born 25 years ago out of Selko’s desire to raise a little money for the Baltimore Blues Society by hiring two bands, Charlie Musselwhite and the Brett Wilson Band, to play a picnic on his farm for a few friends.  That small backyard picnic in 1993 quickly blossomed from that planned intimate gathering.  “Before I knew it August came and so did 400 people,” remembers Selko.  The overwhelming success of the first year emboldened Selko to start organizing another backyard event right away.  For the second year, he expanded the line-up by adding a third band and saw the attendance increase.  Over the next few years the Hot August Music Festival saw steady growth as it increased the size and scope of its lineup, which was reflected in the ever growing crowd size.  This growth necessitated a move in 2003 to its current location at Oregon Ridge.  Its lineup has reflected that growth as a diverse roster of all-star musicians have graced the stages through the years including the Tedecshi Trucks Band, Taj Mahal, Dickey Betts, Lyle Lovett, Leftover Salmon, Keb Mo, Counting Crows, Jason Isbell, Dr. Dog, Greensky Bluegrass, Govt. Mule, Joe Bonamassa, J. Roddy Walston, Justin Townes Earle, Trombone Shorty, and many, many others.

Over the years, the festival has stayed true to the inspiration that first sparked Selko to invite people to his farm and has witnessed positive-growth every year.  The only change over the years was a minor tweak to its name, changing from its original moniker Hot August Blues to Hot August Music Festival, to reflect the growing diversity of bands that fills the line-up each year.  The Hot August Music Festival eventually grew into an award winning festival (Baltimore Magazine Best Music Festival in 2013, Tri-State Indie Music Award for Festival of the Year in 2011) and annual event that is a must see each year.  Much of the credit for that growth goes directly to Selko and his tireless efforts year in and year out.  “I love doing it, I love producing, it,” declares Selko. “It gets to you. After all these years, I think I am going to take a bit of a break, but I find as soon as this year ends I am already writing down possible bands for next year.”

In celebration of the Hot August Music Festival’s 25th year, this year’s edition will feature the Back to the Farm Stage that will highlight the festival’s humble, blues-based roots found on Selko’s farm.  The stage will feature blues acts throughout the day and will be headlined by delta-blues legend John Mooney and Bluesiana.  Mooney is a longtime friend of Hot August Music Festival.  He first played the festival in 1995 and this year will mark his sixth time as part of the lineup.

Held at idyllic Oregon Ridge Park, just outside the Baltimore City limits, whose picturesque setting of helps to forge an extremely fan-friendly environment.  The main stage is set at the base of a large hill and is surrounded by an army of trees which creates a natural amphitheater and the gently sloping hill ensures that no matter where you are, you have a great, unobstructed view of the stage.  The two side stages are a short walk away, enabling one to bounce from stage to stage and catch as many acts as possible without missing much action during the walk.  The walk between stages is littered with a wide variety of vendors, food, and various activities for all ages.

Hot August Blues has separated itself from other festivals its size with its relaxed low-key atmosphere and consistently stellar line-ups.  The schedule each year has minimal over-lap between the two stages, and features set lengths that give every band from the opener to the headliner ample time to get up and stretch out their musical legs.  Founder Selko’s over-riding philosophy each year is his willingness to schedule bands with the idea of quality over quantity.  He prefers to give each band enough time on stage to really get warmed up and into the groove as opposed to the brief forty-five minute sets that seem to be the norm at too many festivals that instance on shoehorning as many bands into the lineup as possible.  Hot August Music Festival gives each band time to play and really connect with the audience.  This attention to detail and thoughtful approach to planning extends into every aspect of the festival for Selko who constantly tinkers and improves the festival each year to create the best possible experience for everyone.  He explains, “It is like a jigsaw puzzle, and all of these pieces, the bands, vendors, beer, and food all have to fit together over a ten-hour period of time, and if they don’t people in the audience know.”

From its start 25 years ago with 2 acts, to the multi-stage setup it sports now, Hot August Music Festival has established itself as one of the premiere one-day events of the busy festival season.  Since its beginning in the cozy confines of Selko’s backyard for a couple hundred fans, to its sold-out present day location at Oregon Ridge Park, the Hot August Music Festival has stayed true to Selko’s vision of a creating an, independent, high-quality, intimate fan-friendly festival.

For further details and ticket information visit: Hot August Music

Check out past coverage of Hot August Music Festival from Honest Tune.