Following her mainstage set at FloydFest last weekend, in front of a raucous crowd of thousands, singer-songwriter Morgan Wade takes a seat on a couch backstage. Between sips of coffee, a slight grin emerges on her face when asked what the performance meant to her.
“I grew up about three miles from here,” the 27-year-old “Wilder Days” singer tells Rolling Stone, “so I was able to get my dad to drop me off today, which was really nice.”
For Wade, FloydFest is all but where she entered the big time. After performing on a tiny stage in 2018, she was approached by the guitar tech for Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, who were headlining that year. “He asked if I had a demo and said, ‘I think the guys would love to hear this,’” Wade says. When 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden listened, he was wowed and sent Wade a message about collaborating. A month later, they were in Nashville recording her acclaimed album Reckless. Now, Wade is opening shows for Chris Stapleton. Such is the power of FloydFest.
Situated atop a mountain plateau on a one-lane dirt road, just off the winding Blue Ridge Parkway in rural southwestern Virginia, FloydFest (named after the nearby small town of Floyd) presents a musical extravaganza and festival experience unmatched in Southern Appalachia — 100 bands, nine stages, five days, with over 15,000 in attendance.
This year’s lineup showcased national acts like Lake Street Dive, Melissa Etheridge, the Infamous Stringdusters, Ann Wilson, and Turnpike Troubadours, along with the best of what’s to come in Americana, rock, soul, bluegrass, and folk circles, from Marcus King and Sierra Ferrell to Durand Jones & the Indications and Amythyst Kiah.
Along with its typically stellar roster of talent, the 21st installment of FloydFest held special meaning: It’s the last year at its current site before relocating 10 miles north of Floyd on Route 221.
“Our slogan has always been, ‘Music, Magic, Mountains.’ And this year we’re adding another ‘M’ — ‘Memories,’” says Sam Calhoun, COO of Across the Way Productions, the company behind FloydFest. “With the new location, we really feel like we can capture what we want to do, to ensure the whole community we’ve created together here has more space and amenities for an even better experience moving forward.”
According to Calhoun, the current site is 80 acres, whereas the new property is over 200. Calhoun looks at the transition as an opportunity to hit the reset button on the festival following the shutdown of the live music industry during the pandemic. “We’re going to use all of the systems and knowledge we’ve gained over the last 20 years and apply it to this new property,” Calhoun says.
FloydFest’s beloved “On the Rise” competition will lead the way to the new digs. Consisting of a couple dozen of the hottest up-and-coming acts from the Southeast and beyond, the program gives young bands key time slots and asks fans to vote on who was the best act that weekend. The winner and runner-up return to perform again the following year. The 2022 “On the Rise” winners will be announced at the end of the week.
49 Winchester and Sexbruise?, the respective 2021 winner and runner-up, both returned to the mountain in 2022. For the alt-country group 49 Winchester, it was a homecoming of sorts: The band hails from southwestern Virginia.
“There’s no place like FloydFest — it feels like home,” Isaac Gibson, the group’s lead singer, says.
Gibson and 49 Winchester quietly signed their deal with New West Records backstage at FloydFest 2021. A year later, they’ve become a favorite of Luke Combs — who proudly wore their T-shirt at CMA Fest — and opened for Turnpike Troubadours at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium immediately following their FloydFest main stage set. “We’ve grown a lot since we played here for the first time last year,” Gibson says. “Our fan base has exploded, and we’re very humbled by that.”
Nashville’s Patrick Sweany, who performed a blistering set of blues-rock at FloydFest, calls the event “a taste-maker festival.” It’s a description that underscores the big question of every FloydFest: wondering who the next performer will be to break big. At the 2022 installment, there were a lot of contenders, including Sierra Ferrell, Dogs in a Pile, Amythyst Kiah, Durand Jones & the Indications, and Neal Francis.
Francis tore through a set of his frenetic-but-melodic piano rock, while Midwest soul band Jones and the Indications mesmerized with a radiant cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”
“Soul music relates to the part of yourself that we can’t describe. It’s nothing else but the soul, you know?” Jones said afterward. “It’s there when you’re happy, when you’re sad, when you’re ready to party, when you’re ready to protest — that’s why it means so much to me.”
In other words, it endures. Just like FloydFest, which more than two decades into its existence and on the cusp of relocating its various stages, maintains the sway to make careers.
“The last time I played I didn’t have an agent or a manager. I didn’t have a label. I didn’t have any of that,” says Wade. “And I said, ‘The next time I play FloydFest, it’s going to be the main stage, and I’m going to have my bus and have a team.’ I rolled up here [today] and I did it.”