On May 12, the North Carolina Brewers & Music Festival returns to Historic Rural Hill nature preserve in Huntersville. The two-day family-friendly event offers a curated lineup of over 40 breweries, allowing festivalgoers to camp out amid a landscape graced with hiking trails and Colonial-era farm buildings.
Tying into the outdoor, rain-or-shine activities is a carefully coordinated soundtrack for the beer fest; a lineup of nine artists and bands, many with North Carolina connections, are artfully chosen to complement and enhance the bucolic setting and the craft beers that festivalgoers will find on tap.
That means the bands chosen for the event fall into a loosely defined genre that Micah Davidson calls “grassroots-oriented indie-Americana.”
“I think we’ve stayed consistent with that genre,” says Davidson, founder and owner of Charlotte-based agency Midwood Entertainment, which curates and consults on venues, festivals and events. The 45-year-old former booking agent has been programming the North Carolina Brewers & Music Festival since it launched in 2010.
“Certainly, it’s a team effort,” Davidson says. “We all get together and discuss ideas.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s Davidson who makes the decisions and picks the bands.
“For the North Carolina Brewers & Music Festival, the marketing is about the overall experience,” Davidson says. “So, the lineup … must be something that falls in line with the overall brand. It’s on a farm. It’s camping. So, bluegrass and indie Americana is really where I’d like to stay.”
This year marks the 11th iteration of the festival — the event was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also a watershed for the festival — the year the NC Brewers & Music Festival decided to go bigger.
“This is the year we probably spent the most money,” Davidson says.
May 12 marks the largest Friday night headliner the festival has ever booked: North Carolina-based Grammy Award-winning progressive bluegrass group The Steep Canyon Rangers. Filling out the bill is a mix of local and regional favorites and Americana up-and-comers including Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, 49 Winchester, SUSTO, Lilly Hiatt, Kaitlin Butts, Time Sawyer, Kiely Connell and Paleface.
“For the people that aren’t super happy with the lineup, it’s my fault,” Davidson says. “For the people who absolutely love the lineup, it’s also my fault.”
The business of entertainment
Born in Roanoke, Virginia, Davidson went to the College of Charleston before “politely being asked to leave,” Davidson says. Instead of going to class, he was throwing large parties and concerts at frat houses.
“I guess I was born to do events,” he says, laughing.
After moving to Charlotte in 1999, Davidson started working as the general manager of The Double Door Inn, the storied but since demolished venue in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood. He also became a booking agent. In 2009, Davidson met Jeff Fissel, who was then the executive director for Historic Rural Hill. Fissel was considering launching a beer festival and had some interest in booking The New Familiars, a Charlotte band that Davidson was managing, to play it. But Davidson got more involved than just booking his band; he and Fissel launched the North Carolina Brewers & Music Festival together in 2010.
In September 2015, Davidson started Midwood Entertainment with nine artists and two festivals. As the business grew, Davidson moved away from being an agent and hired other agents. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, Midwood Entertainment shut down its talent agency division in 2021, now just focusing on event production and talent buying.
Davidson runs the company and organizes both events: the NC Brewers & Music Festival as well as Tennessee’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in September. Meanwhile, Monica Smith oversees the agency’s venue division, which programs for seven venues on the East Coast, as well as one in Colorado. One venue, The Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount, Virginia, is an exception. There Davidson is the director of operations.
In the meantime, Davidson partnered with John Crawford of Codex Sound in Hickory. Amid the pandemic, Codex Sound famously launched the No Contact Concert Series, an online streaming concert experience. Codex Sound currently handles production for all Midwood Entertainment’s events in the southeast.
Crawford has been handling the production component of the NC Brewers & Music Festival since its founding. Davidson also partnered with Charles Willett, controller of NoDa Brewing Company. Willett handles the beer component of the festival, including alcohol sales and coordinating with brewers for the festival’s beer tasting on Saturday.
In 2019, Davidson, Fissel, Crawford and Willett launched Five String Productions LLC, which bought 50% of the festival from Historic Rural Hill. Five String Productions produces the event, while the farm, which owns half, helps produce it. Profits from the festival are split 50/50, with Rural Hill’s cut benefiting the historic property.
Making a festival sing
Davidson remembers the very first NC Brewers & Music Festival only lasted one day on one single stage. It didn’t become a two-day event until three years later.
This year, the festival’s music performances are spread out over Friday and Saturday, and camping runs Thursday through Sunday. The beer tasting still takes place on Saturday afternoon, with this year boasting more than 40 brewers, including NoDa Brewing Company, Cavendish Brewing Company, Protagonist Beer, Legion Brewing, Royal Bliss Brewing and more.
When it comes to booking the festival, Davidson begins looking for likely performers a few weeks after the previous year’s fest has wrapped.
“Starting around June 1, I start working on headliners for the following year,” Davidson says.
Starting with a blank slate, Davidson looks at other festivals’ lineups, as well as other lineups Midwood Entertainment puts together for other events and venues. While it’s financially and logistically advantageous for both the company and artists to book shows across the spectrum of Midwood Entertainment ‘s events, Davidson maintains diversity between the different lineups. He also pays attention to what is going on in the industry and talks to his agent friends.
“There is always going to be an idea that somebody else has that I might not have thought about,” Davidson says.
He also turns to Spotify, checking out the Discover Weekly Playlist and Release Radar. One of his favorite things to do is go down the rabbit hole of the “fans also like” section of any particular artist.
“It becomes a sort of a science, where after you’ve dug in as long as I have, you just … know what you’re looking for,” Davidson says.
Despite his music business savvy and experience, Davidson insists he never books a festival according to his personal taste.
“Nobody is buying a ticket to come spend time with me,” he says. “I’m designing a lineup for the people who want to come out and have a good time, with the goal of selling tickets and creating experiences.”
That said, Davidson also trusts his gut about what fits the fest and who within the event’s chosen genre of indie-Americana is going to break big.
This year, Davidson knew the festival wanted to go bigger on Friday night. With Steep Canyon Rangers being from North Carolina and getting hotter in the genre, the band was Davidson’s number one headliner choice.
As for booking Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, Davidson says the decision was a no-brainer; Tuttle just won a Grammy and she’s red hot.
Tuttle herself is equally enthusiastic about playing the festival.
“North Carolina has always been such an important part of the roots music community,” Tuttle says. “From the great Doc Watson to the Avett Brothers, I’ve found so much inspiration all across the state. I love any chance to come play music in North Carolina.”
The great John Hyatt’s daughter Lilly has forged a robust career with her unflinchingly honest songs that are anchored in no-nonsense guitar-based country rock. Davidson was eager to showcase her at the NC Brewers & Music Fest.
“I like Lilly’s stuff quite a bit,” Davidson says. “I’ve been a fan of hers for a good five or six years.”
While Davidson has booked Charleston-based SUSTO at some of his venues before, this will be the first time he’s had the durable and popular act on one of his festivals.
“When we got the invite to play NC Brewers Fest, we were excited because we knew they would be curating a great lineup of artists we know and love,” says SUSTO’s Justin Osbourne. “It’s been a couple years since we performed in the Charlotte area, and we’re excited to be back.”
For other acts on the bill, Davidson turned to his personal connections in the business — ties that extend to local and regional favorite Time Sawyer.
“Not only have I known them for years and years, but they also were an artist that was part of the [our] agency division,” says Davidson.
He has also booked Time Sawyer for the upcoming Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.
The band’s frontman Sam Tayloe sees NC Brewers & Music Festival as an opportunity to continue connecting with audiences.
“We are trying get closer to understanding the world every time we play, so hopefully that comes through here at this festival,” Tayloe says. “It helps to have so many other groups that we appreciate playing that weekend too. It’s always a team game.”
A band that Davidson is particularly excited to add to the team is 49 Winchester. Like the lever action repeating rifle suggested by its name, the band can pack a mighty kick, but more often this tears-in-your-beer Americana/alt-country outfit trades in yearning melodies, heartfelt harmonies and gentle nostalgia. Davidson predicts that the band will be the festival’s breakout artist.
“They are absolutely exploding,” he says. “I’ve been a fan of those guys for a long time. During the pandemic when me and the guys from Codex Sound produced The No Contact Concert Series, 49 Winchester was one of the bands we had on it.”
He notes that the band recently announced that Luke Combs is taking them on tour with him to Europe this fall.
“I think [the festival is] a really cool showcase of roots music in an area that we love visiting and performing in,” says 49 Winchester’s Chase Chafin. “It’s shaping up to be an awesome event all around.”
Davidson cites two of the younger performers on the festival bill as a result of paying attention to what’s going on in local music scenes. Rebellious honky-tonk-imbued singer songwriter Kaitlin Butts recently played The Evening Muse, selling out the venue her very first time on stage. An agent friend told Davidson about Butts’ performance there.
“I said, ‘Great, if she’s got a buzz, then let’s throw her on an event. Let’s give her an opportunity to play in front of a bigger crowd,’” he recalls.
Similarly, Kiely Connell came to Davidson’s attention through another agent friend.
“I did my research on her, and she’s fantastic,” Davidson says. “I like having the opportunity to break an artist. Whenever possible, I like to be able to look back and [know] that I knew about that artist before anybody else.”
“I’m excited to play in one of my favorite states again, especially at a festival that features local breweries,” Connell says. “I’ve been a fan of craft beer since I was old enough to drink.”
However the festival’s performers play in front of Rural Hill’s crowd, Davidson seems content that he’s crafted a diverse and satisfying bill, which does much to help differentiate NC Brewers & Music Festival from other beer festivals.
“We’re going on 11 years,” Davidson says. “We are a true camping festival. We take all weekend, and to some extent we are more of a music festival that has a beer-tasting component.”
To that end, the festival showcases the music aspect most prominently in the event’s name and in its marketing, he adds.
On a broader level, Davidson sees the fest as an opportunity for music lovers to unplug, unwind, and perhaps reconnect a little.
“There are a lot of things these days that seem to be pulling people apart,” Davidson says. “So I love to see these events where it doesn’t really matter what anybody’s beliefs are. They’re all just coming to have a good time together.”
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