2023 North Carolina music festivals


March 1, 2023

Best of the fests: Outdoor music experiences abound in N.C.

by David Menconi

Springtime in North Carolina means college basketball madness, azaleas blooming — and the earliest days of outdoor music. Our state has a staggering array of A-list music festivals spanning numerous genres from now until fall. Here are a few to consider.

Scroll down for a list of local Queen City music fests.

Ari Lennox performs at Dreamville Festival. Photograph by Bob Karp.

Dreamville Festival
April 1 – 2, Raleigh; dreamvillefest.com
Between apocalyptic weather and the pandemic, rapper J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival has had a rocky existence in its short history. But in spite of multiple postponements, Dreamville has been a huge success, starting with 2019’s sold-out debut at downtown Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park that immediately established it as one of the nation’s top hip-hop festivals. Dreamville’s second edition in 2022 expanded from one day to two, with an onstage lineup featuring the entire roster of Cole’s Dreamville Records label, and it also sold out. Round three returns to Dix Park the first weekend of April as another multiday affair, with Cole himself in a headline slot, along with Usher, Drake and Burna Boy.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at MerleFest. Photograph courtesy MerleFest.

April 27 – 30, Wilkesboro; merlefest.org
Centered on the multistyle “traditional plus” music played and loved by its late, great founder, Doc Watson, MerleFest has been a tradition at Wilkes Community College since 1988. The venerable roots-music festival is a signpost event on the Americana circuit. And after the same pandemic problems that every other live-music event faced in recent years, it’s back with an impressive lineup featuring the Avett Brothers, Maren Morris, Little Feat, Tanya Tucker and more.

Wild Rivers performs at Bear Shadow. Photograph courtesy Bear Shadow.

Bear Shadow
April 28 – 30, The Highlands Plateau; bearshadownc.com
The mountains of the far western corner of North Carolina are the setting for this springtime festival, which happens the same weekend as MerleFest. First conceived in 2021, this year’s model has a first-rate alternative-leaning lineup featuring Spoon, The Head and the Heart, Jason Isbell and Amythyst Kiah.

Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance
May 4 – 7, Pittsboro; shakorihillsgrassroots.org
Started in 2003 as a nonprofit music and dance festival, Shakori Hills takes place on a bucolic 9,000-acre spread in rural Chatham County. It’s probably the top camping festival in the greater Triangle region, with solid Americana lineups. Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Malian singer/guitarist Vieux Farka Toure, beach legends Chairmen of the Board and festival regulars Donna the Buffalo are this year’s headliners. There’s also a fall version of Shakori Hills, which happens every October.

Festival for the Eno
July 1 and 4, Durham; enofest.org
The granddaddy of music festivals in the Triangle, Festival for the Eno dates to 1980 and happens on the grounds of Durham’s West Point Park. Started as a fundraiser for the Eno River Association, the festival — which also offers a craft and food market — has hosted a who’s who of Americana-adjacent and roots artists including Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson and Loudon Wainwright III. Recent years have featured rising regional acts including Mipso, Rainbow Kitten Surprise and Indigo De Souza.

Carolina Beach Music Festival
June 3, Carolina Beach
Dance to beach music with your toes in the sand at the 37th annual Carolina Beach Music Festival on Saturday, June 3 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Billed as “the biggest and only beach music festival actually held on the beach on the North Carolina coast,” three bands will perform. For ticket information call (910) 458-8434.

Mountain Dance and Folk Festival
Aug. 3 – 5, Asheville; folkheritage.org
Reputedly the first event in America to be called a “folk festival,” Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was founded in 1928 by the folk-music legend Bascom Lamar Lunsford. It remains the longest continuously running folk festival in the country, and it’s as much about the folk dance traditions of western North Carolina as the music.

Earl Scruggs Music Festival
Sept. 1 – 3, Mill Spring; earlscruggsmusicfest.com
A newcomer to the North Carolina festival circuit, the Earl Scruggs Music Festival debuted in the Foothills last year at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring. As you’d expect for a festival named after the man who invented the three-finger style of bluegrass banjo, the lineup trends toward classic bluegrass and Americana. 

John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival
Sept. 2 – 3, High Point; coltranejazzfest.com
Though he made his mark as an artist elsewhere, John Coltrane was born and raised in Hamlet. He was one of the towering figures of 20th century jazz, a key collaborator with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and his fellow North Carolina native Thelonious Monk. The John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival has been paying tribute to his legacy every Labor Day weekend since 2011 with solid lineups — 2022 featured trumpeter Chris Botti, singer Patti LaBelle and saxophonist Kirk Whalum, among others.

Hopscotch Music Festival
Sept. 7 – 9, Raleigh; hopscotchmusicfest.com
Downtown Raleigh has a well-earned reputation for doing music festivals right, and one of the events that helped pave the way is the alternative-slanted Hopscotch, originally started in 2010. Past headliners have included Flaming Lips, The Roots, Solange Knowles and St. Vincent. Hopscotch director Nathan Price reports that this year’s model should feature “an expanded lineup closer to pre-Covid size.” Here’s hoping.

North Carolina Folk Festival
Sept. 8 – 10, Greensboro; ncfolkfestival.com
In 2015, the National Council for the Traditional Arts brought the long-running National Folk Festival (which has been around since 1934) to Greensboro for a three-year run. It was such a success that, after the national festival’s Greensboro run ended, the city opted to keep it going as the rebranded North Carolina Folk Festival. Last year’s lineup was typically eclectic, featuring everything from George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars to the Winston-Salem Symphony String Quartet. Expect more of the same in 2023.

World of Bluegrass. Photograph courtesy News & Observer

World of Bluegrass
Sept. 26 – 30, Raleigh; worldofbluegrass.org
The International Bluegrass Music Association moved its annual business convention and festival to Raleigh in 2013, where it has been a huge success. Between the convention, trade show, “Bluegrass Ramble” nightclub showcases, awards show and street festival, total attendance can top 200,000 when the weather’s good. Past headliners have included Steve Martin, Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck and just about every notable picker and singer in the genre. Year in and year out, it’s downtown Raleigh’s biggest music festival. 

Bluegrass Island Music Festival
October 19 – 21, Manteo; bluegrassisland.com
Music lovers will flock to the Outer Banks, beach chairs in hand, for the 12th annual Bluegrass Island Music Festival at Roanoke Island Festival Park overlooking the pristine waters of Roanoke Sound. Buy tickets and book lodging well ahead of time. Acts this year include The Goodwin Brothers, Seth Mulder & Midnight Run, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage and the incomparable Sam Bush.  SP

Featured photograph of Shakori Hills festival by Tim Sayer

Charlotte music festivals 

Add these Queen City music festivals to your calendar.

Moo, Brew & Que Music Fest, AvidXchange Music Factory
April 15 – 16, mooandbrewfest.com
Mt. Joy and Chris Lane headline this year’s festival, which includes 25+ local, regional and national breweries, plus a restaurant and food-truck competition for best burger and BBQ. 

Photograph courtesy Tuck Fest

Tuck Fest, U.S. National Whitewater Center
April 21 – 23, tuckfest.whitewater.org
This annual event offers a full slate of activities beyond the stage, including yoga; bouldering and deep-water solo competitions; and trail, kayak, SUP and raft races. Headliners include Amanda Shires, Moon Taxi and Bahamas. 

N.C. Brewers and Music Festival, Historic Rural Hill, Huntersville
May 12 – 13, ncbrewsmusic.com
This two-day event features nine bands and 40+ breweries. This year’s lineup includes Steep Canyon Rangers, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Lilly Hiatt and Time Sawyer. On-site camping is available. 

FabFest, Knight Theater, Central Piedmont Community College
July 21 – 22, fabfestcharlotte.org
This celebration of all things Beatles features two evening concerts by BritBeat and the Tosco Music Beatles Tribute, plus a full day of music, speakers and activities.  

This post was updated 3/24/22 to include additional headline acts for Dreamville.

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