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How Dahlonega’s Bear on the Square is getting back to its bluegrass roots in 2019
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Doug Estes plays his resonator guitar Saturday, April 21, 2018, during the Bear on the Square Mountain Festival in Dahlonega. - photo by David Barnes

Bear on the Square Mountain Festival is returning to its roots this year.

The 23rd annual, free festival in Dahlonega, planned for April 27 and 28, will feature bluegrass and old-time music, something its strayed away from over the last few years.

“We’re focusing on returning to old-time roots,” said Renee Conaway, executive committee member for the festival. “The festival the last few years has featured bands and musicians that are more in folk or other styles of music that are influenced by bluegrass, but they have not been true bluegrass and old-time bands.”

Bear on the Square

When: April 27-28; live and silent auctions at 5 p.m. April 26

Where: Dahlonega’s historic downtown square

How much: Free

Many of the organizers for the event attend other festivals throughout the year to draw inspiration for Bear on the Square and discover bands to feature. But as the festival branched out, it got away from its original intent.

“We’ve always tried to make sure (bands) have a bluegrass or old-time influence in their music, and showcasing those up-and-coming bands before they hit really big has been the focus over the last several years,” Conaway said. “This year, there are so many great bluegrass and old-time bands out there, it seems like maybe that genre is enjoying a revival.”

ands from the Southeast and beyond will be featured this year

Those making the drive to the historic Dahlonega square will be able to enjoy bands like Bill and the Belles, Skillet Lickers, Georgia Crackers, Crooked Mile, Underhill Rose, Circus No. 9, Jeff Mosier, Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin, Curtis Jones, Ugly Cousin and Georgia Pick & Bow students throughout the weekend on the main stage.

There will also be an artist market, which Conaway said is what makes Bear on the Square more unique than other markets.

“We have tried to stay so close to our mission, which is to preserve the culture of Southern Appalachia,” Conaway said. “Our artist market is juried. We have requirements that all the items our artists in the market sell, have to be made by them. So it’s original works by the artist or crafter there.”

Lara Lowman, publicity chair for the festival, said the artist market — and the festival as a whole — has an extra special meaning this year.

Grant Searcey, a local artist who always tried to be a part of the festival, died last year. The festival is dedicated to him and there will be a tent with prints of his work for sale.

“For two years, he created the art on the T-shirt, and he also always had a booth in the artist market,” Lowman said. “He was also just very involved in the festival, so it’s dedicated to his memory.”

Apart from the artist market, there will be food vendors and drinks for purchase from Montaluce Winery, Jekyll Brewing, Bold Rock Cider and Etowah Meadery.

The festival will also feature storytelling along with music and dancing workshops, including sessions on pennywhistle, guitar, ukulele and clogging.

On Friday, before the festival gets underway, the live and silent auctions, which typically draw about 500 people and almost solely fund the festival, will take place at 5 p.m.

If you can’t make it out for the scheduled events, or you simply want to sit around and listen to spontaneous music being played around the square, there will be plenty for you to enjoy.

“There are various artists from all over the region, if not farther, that come to jam on the square,” Lowman said. “So just walking around the square, you’ll come across three to 15 musicians playing together.”

For those musicians, Bear on the Square is a festival they look forward to every year.

“They’re not hired to play on the stage, they’re coming just to get together with other musicians and play,”  Conaway said. “Just for the fun of playing.”

And that’s the same reason Conaway encourages people to check out the festival, too.

“There’s nothing quite like Bear on the Square,” Conaway said.