Azaleas and dogwoods bursting into flowers are a spot-on indicator that spring has arrived in South Carolina. In the Pee Dee town of Hartsville, you can also count on the sounds of banjos blooming as a surefire sign the season is upon us.
Since 1998, the fourth weekend in March has been reserved for RenoFest, a three-day celebration that heralds springtime and the start of the nation’s bluegrass festival season. Set in the charming town of Hartsville, the festival draws master pickers and crooners from across the country, as well as legions of fans eager to shake off the winter doldrums and set loose their happy feet. The vintage Center Theater is the primary concert and competition setting, with a variety of jam sessions ongoing at cafes and other venues throughout downtown.
The award-winning festival – previously named “Event of the Year” by the South Carolina Festival and Event Association – began as a one-day tribute to bluegrass great Ronnie Reno. A South Carolina native, the songwriter, singer and instrumentalist was credited with launching the bluegrass festival movement after initiating a Grand Ole Opry backstage jam with Bill Monroe and a host of other greats. The musicians were invited to do an encore in Virginia, the crowd went crazy and bluegrass gatherings began sprouting up across the country, particularly in the South. In the ensuing years, Reno made his mark on the bluegrass landscape with such celebrated tunes as the foot-stomping, hand-clapping “Dueling Banjos,” featured in the film “Deliverance.” That kind of fancy finger-work has rightly earned him the title “King of the Flatpickers.”
Coming to Hartsville is like coming home for Reno, who played the Center Theater with Red Smiley in the duo’s heyday. With his current band, The Reno Tradition, he continues to headline the festival, which has also featured the likes of national talent such as The Grascals, Flatt Lonesome, Claire Lynch and others in recent years. At the heart of the celebration is the SC State Championship Contest for best bluegrass band, guitarist and banjo player. Bluegrass aficionados turn out annually to cheer musicians from across the country as they vie for the coveted state titles.
To secure a spot at the competitions and headline concerts at Center Theater, buy tickets early online as the venue fills up quickly. There is also plenty of free bluegrass entertainment featuring local and regional acts performing during the outdoor hoedown as well as other downtown venues. And if you play, don’t forget to show up with your bluegrass instrument – several area businesses keep late-night hours on festival weekend for impromptu jam sessions. Grab your pick and join in the fun!