DC’s favorite spring festival is back this Saturday, inviting music and nature lovers alike back to Kingman Island for the eighth year. The eco-friendly Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival along the Anacostia River draws crowds of up to 10,000 locals annually, plus food trucks, vendors, and a dog and family-friendly vibe. We caught up with Lee Cain, the director of Kingman Island at Living Classrooms (and a member of Blue Plains, performing at this year’s festival) to learn more about all of the moving parts behind this one-of-a-kind event, plus what to expect from this year’s lineup.
On Tap: How long have you been involved with the festival, and what led you to your current role?
Lee Cain: Before this, I ran the education and recreation programs at the Anacostia Watershed Society for 10 years. Living Classrooms was a super strong partner in that work and had just opened Kingman Island with the District, although no one knew it existed. Tommy Wells (Ward 6 Councilman) and one of his staff [members], Dan Conner, had this idea to host a bluegrass festival to drive people to Kingman Island. It started out with a couple of kegs, a band and a couple hundred people, and then it grew. I remember the year it went from around 1,000 people to 7,000 people, and the excitement. The cat was out of the bag and people figured out what Kingman Island was. A couple years ago, as part of the water trail project, I permitted and installed the floating dock on Heritage Island, a project funded by REI. The next year, I was working for Living Classrooms and running Kingman.
OT: What exactly does your role entail?
LC: I’m the caretaker of the island, fundraiser, maintenance worker, partner coordinator and government liaison. Sometimes I’ll use a chainsaw while wearing a suit. I’ll cut a fallen tree blocking a trail, and meet with a councilperson 30 minutes later about how to make camping happen on the island happen. Seriously, I get to wear many hats. It should be said that last year 1,600 volunteers did over 5,000 hours of work to enhance the park, maintain natural resources and prepare sites for education/restoration projects, so it’s not just me. I also coordinate the Living Classrooms education team and partners such as the Anacostia Watershed Society to do education programs on the island. Last year, we worked together to bring over 3,000 kids out to Kingman to learn about wetland ecology and help make a difference by restoring native ecosystems.
OT: How do the proceeds from the festival directly benefit Living Classrooms’ initiatives? Any tangible outcomes you can share with us?
LC: Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region takes out 2,000 District kids on the Anacostia River every year on our historic oyster boat called the Halfshell. We manage Kingman Island, conducting workforce development programs to help 16 to 25-year-olds [prepare] for the workforce, and we take one-third of the fifth graders in the District each year on overnight camping and stream study expeditions. The funds from the festival go toward making all of that happen.
OT: How has the festival changed and grown over the past eight years? What has surprised you about it, year to year?
LC: The idea worked and people discovered Kingman. That’s a pleasant surprise. While it’s a large festival now, there is an element that hasn’t changed at all. It’s so close you can get there by bike, streetcar [or] Metro, but it’s always been an escape [within] the city where it feels like a bunch of musicians just showed up with their stuff and decided to start playing.
OT: Who attends the festival? Do you have a niche audience?
LC: 80 percent of the attendees last year came from inside the Beltway, [and] 60 percent came from District proper. I think one of the elements that’s really cool about this festival is its focus on local talent and local people. There is a span of ages and families find this festival friendly.
OT: How many folks do you anticipate attending this year?
LC: I’m guessing 10,000 again. We have nearly 40 bands, five stages, 13 food trucks and a BBQ caterer.
OT: Any notable additions to this year’s music lineup? Who are you most excited to hear?
LC: The headliners are going to be great: Dom Flemons, Town Mountain [and] Frank Sullivan. But I’m not going to miss Lady Bird. Run Come See is blowing up right now. By and By of course. I should note that I am in one of the bands this year; Blue Plains will go on the Fraser stage at 3 p.m.
OT: What about festival mainstays?
LC: By and By is a great band that has played the festival since the beginning. They are the only one. Our talent people try to roll bands off after two years in a row and get some new acts. That gives us a chance to help [give] new acts a boost into the scene.
OT: Any new food vendors this year?
LC: Rocklands BBQ. They’ll be cooking all day, and I have a feeling I won’t be able to resist the smells.
OT: Tell me a little bit about the festival going green last year and becoming the first zero-waste music festival. How did that initiative come about? What will you do this year to maintain that eco-friendly status?
LC: Last year, we hit 80 percent compostable and recyclable. We’re shooting for 90 percent this year. Everyone gets a reusable cup when they enter, and we limit the kind of things people can bring onto the island to control all waste on the island. I’ve been to my share of music festivals and honestly, it just feels good to not be wallowing in trash toward the end of the show, especially for an event that is focused on social good.
OT: Why do you think Kingman Island is the right fit for the festival each year?
LC: I think that if it weren’t on Kingman, it would be a very different festival. Part of the magic is the walk over the river and through the woods. Please forgive me for that one. The music is spontaneous. You just arrive in a meadow and there’s a fantastic band playing.
OT: What makes the festival unique? Why should newbies check it out?
LC: There really isn’t any other place in the District quite like Kingman Island. There are parts of it that are some of the most remote in the city. There’s a sense of magic at this festival because of the energy that Kingman holds. It’s a special place and [there’s] good will involved in the festival – the local music focus, the stewardship of nature, the escape in the city. Beer makes you feel good, but when you drink a beer on Kingman Island, you feel that good twice over because of where the money you spend goes.
Don’t miss the eighth annual Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival on Saturday, May 13 from 12-8 p.m. Tickets are $30. Click here to learn more.
Kingman Island (on the Anacostia River): 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info