Johnny Hiland may have been sitting on the stage with a group of award-winning guitar legends, but he got the same typical warm welcome he’d heard all weekend at the 2008 American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront.
Mainers, after all, celebrate their own — especially if their own is a 33-year-old Washington County native whose Nashville, Tenn.-based band opened the folk festival Friday night.
“I think half the town of Baileyville came up this weekend,” Hiland said with a laugh before he gathered with a group of musicians Sunday afternoon at the Heritage Stage for a master picker session.
Hiland also served as the closing act for the folk festival, which wrapped up Sunday evening with his performance at the Railroad Stage. The 1993 graduate of Woodland High School may have been the first headliner with strong Maine ties in the four years of the American Folk Festival and the preceding three years of the National Folk Festival in Bangor.
Hiland was “tickled” to perform in his native state, and played to the Maine crowds. But to have the privilege of opening and closing the folk festival?
“It means a lot, really. … It’s been really rewarding in the audience response,” he said. “I’ve been like, ‘Who has a boat? Who wants to take me fishing on Big Lake [in Princeton] when I’m done tonight?’ It’s been great, we’ve had a lot of fun with the crowds. I’m just so proud to be from the state of Maine and to see the turnout we’ve had this weekend.”
Just what those turnout numbers are, however, are not known yet.
Folk festival executive director Heather McCarthy said Sunday afternoon that a complete tally would not be available until today at the earliest, although every indication was that attendance was healthy this year.
Attendance in previous years has been estimated at more than 160,000 people per year.
“Certainly the crowds have been very, very strong [this year],” she said. “We wondered what the economy and the [high price of] gas were going to do to attendance, but from the number of people, we’re seeing either a lot of local people are enjoying it, or people are still traveling here for it.”
The weather certainly helped. Although it was hot and sunny at the height of Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a breeze off the Penobscot River provided comfort.
Hot days gave way to cool, comfortable evenings that drew crowds to the dance tent, outdoor beer and wine pavilions and the Railroad Stage for late-evening performances.
There was also no final tally yet for on-site contributions collected by festival volunteers known as the Bucket Brigade, but McCarthy said after Saturday night the festival appeared to be about two-thirds of the way towards its goal of $100,000 for the weekend.
Last year’s Bucket Brigade raised $94,786, which surpassed the targeted $75,000.
The public appeared to find its way around the festival’s new layout, which spread things out farther south on the waterfront. The change was necessitated by groundbreaking on the new Penobscot County Courthouse near the site of the dance stage, craft sales and some food vendors.
“People are finding it, and enjoying it very much,” McCarthy said.
The food court was busy again this year and proved to be a place where performers could interact with the crowd.
Before her 2 p.m. set at the dance stage, blues songstress Diunna Greenleaf picked up a lunch of sweet potato fries, Chinese food, a crab roll and cookies for her band Blue Mercy when she was lured in by strawberry shortcake for sale at the Hampden Congregational Church booth.
“Are these strawberries from the field, or strawberries from a can?” Greenleaf asked Eddie Webb, who was behind the counter.
Webb told Greenleaf the strawberries were real, but she wasn’t entirely convinced. “How do I know for sure?” she asked again.
“We would not lie. We’re the church,” server Diane Bergey responded, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
“OK,” a smiling Greenleaf said, adjusting her already loaded tray. “Hit me hard on the [whipped] cream.”
Earlier Sunday, Greenleaf watched from backstage as Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes performed during the popular Sunday gospel show at noon at the Railroad Stage. Old Town resident Julie Miller, who makes the gospel show part of her folk festival routine every year, watched, too.
“Any chance to see live gospel is just unbelievable,” said Miller, 49, who was accompanied by her son Cody, her husband, Greg, and family friend Caleb Ward. “I was making [Greg] run so we could get here in time.”
The Old Town group raised its hands, clapped and danced along with Ingram, who told stories from her youth and demonstrated how she was taught to wash clothes and make biscuits.
It’s the music, Cody Miller said, that keeps the family coming back.
“I love seeing all these different groups,” the 18-year-old said. “It’s a great thing to see music I’ve been listening to.”
Like Greenleaf, Hiland said he had a chance to watch other acts as well.
“It’s amazing, the respect people have for the different genres of music,” he said before the master pickers session. “There’s gospel, Latin music, and some people I’ve never heard of before. Now we’re fixin’ to go up onstage, all of us guitar players, and do a little something or other. It’s a wide range. This festival is just out there, and it’s really cool.”
Hiland’s visibility this weekend was no accident, accordning to one national-level official.
“It’s important to celebrate local and regional traditions and local and regional artists,” said Julia Olin, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts. “We had heard a lot about Johnny Hiland and how great he was, and then we realized he was from Maine as well.”
Hiland won’t have a chance to go back to Washington County on this trip, but he spent a lot of time with family, including brother Jerry Hiland, now a Bangor resident. Johnny and his band stayed one night with his aunt, Marilyn Curtis, who lives in Richmond.
But being home wasn’t the same without his mother, Grace Hiland, who died last December after a short illness. Johnny Hiland realized it during a set Saturday evening as his band was playing “That’s Alright, Mama” — the first time he’d performed it since his mother’s death.
“That’s the song I did at the [Grand Ole Opry in Nashville], and she was always there for that big stuff,” said Hiland, who admitted he got a bit choked up. “I was like, oh [shoot], this ain’t gonna happen to me right now. I can’t lose it. I tried to hold my composure, but it didn’t really work that well.”