April 3, 1997
(CNN) -- In the southeastern United States, spring brings more than brilliant sunshine and an explosion of dogwood and magnolia blossoms. It's also harvest-time for bluegrass, zydeco, jazz, rock 'n' roll ... even opera.
The Southeast resonates with several notable music festivals in April and May, from the country and bluegrass grooves of MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina to the polished chamber music, opera and jazz of Spoleto USA in Charleston, South Carolina. A sure sign of spring, music-lovers emerge from their dim, stereo-stacked lairs and swarm to The Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, Tennessee, Music Midtown in Atlanta, Georgia and the massive New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
"I don't know that the South has more music festivals [than other parts of the country], but I suspect that it does, since blues and bluegrass are so popular," says Richard Pettit, a dedicated Jazz Fest fan and the host of a weekly blues show on WRFG-FM in Atlanta.
"Being born in the South, a lot of the performers still live down here," he says. "And a lot of them are older; They would rather play festivals -- they don't like to go to clubs that start music at 10 or 10:30 at night."
Alex Cooley, founder of Music Midtown, says the festivals fill a gap in the increasingly cosmopolitan South, as much as they draw on the region's traditions.
"When I started, the only thing that came to Atlanta were doo-wop groups and Lawrence Welk and Red Skelton," he says. "I used to talk to agents in New York, and they would say, 'You're crazy -- the only things that will do well down there are doo-wop groups.'"
Today, Silverchair and the San Francisco Ballet are as likely to appear at the spring celebrations as Doc Watson and Beau Jocque. From the torrent of musical styles pouring over the crowds to the eclectic art and food booths that dot the fair grounds, southeastern music festivals reflect a world well beyond the bayou, Appalachia and the Mighty Miss.